Not Everything is Solved With a Treenorah

Shirley here.

While we’ve been blogging a lot about THE RELIGION THING, we’ve stayed sort of quiet about, well, the religion thing.

Be assured, the play’s look at interfaith families has not gone unnoticed–either by us or in the press. The review in the Washington Blade starts with the line “They say couples who share the same faith stay together longer.” Reviewer Patrick Folliard is likely referencing this potentially controversial op-ed. But more on that later.

Rebecca Ritzel of the Washington City Paper found herself reflecting on her own blended family after watching the play, “I’d argue that for theatergoers—like me—whose families have found a way to blend their faiths for the sake of sanity, THE RELIGION THING offers a communal evening of comic relief. And so I endorsed the show to a skeptical cousin. “I don’t need to see that play; I’m living it,” she said. Then I told her about the scene (recounted in one fantasy sequence, with Mo wearing a negligee) where an ignorant Catholic wife accidentally sets a Menorah on fire during Passover. “Now that,” said my cousin, coming around, “that sounds pretty funny.” (A side note–Mo, the Catholic in question, displays the menorah after observing a Passover display at Whole Foods stocked with piles of Channukah candles. Think something like that could never happen? Think again.)

But you can't light candy canes...

Last weekend we hosted a series of discussions addressing the topic of interfaith couples and blended families. One of our guests was Susan Katz Miller, a writer who blogs about interfaith identity at her own site, and for the Huffington Post. Susan is a great writer and a compelling panelist, and we’re pleased any time she can join us. She’s started an interesting dialogue about the relationship at the center of the play over on her blog.

Susan writes, “The interfaith relationship in this play is not just conflicted: it’s a train-wreck. After four years of marriage, this fictional couple had not even discussed how to raise children. They excluded religion from their wedding. They failed to educate themselves or each other about their respective traditions.” All of this is true. But isn’t it also true that these kind of couples still exist? That bright, with-it folks can still avoid the conversations that everyone knows (including themselves) that they should be having?

Abso-friggin-lutely.

Around the time that we first read Renee’s play I found myself watching an episode of the Bravo show “Pregnant in Heels” (don’t judge–we all have our vices) that addressed the addition of children to an interfaith marriage. The premise of the show is that Rosie, a maternity coach, intervenes with wealthy New York couples and helps prepare them for parenthood. The show’s lighter moments show done-up socialites in stilletos (hence the name) learning how to change dirty diapers and clean up drool. In this episode however, things got a bit dark. Rosie visited a Catholic wife and Jewish husband who were in great conflict about the faith of their future child, many months into the pregnancy. Both halves of the couple broke down in the session before eventually coming to some shaky agreement about sharing traditions. And I found myself thinking exactly what Susan expressed above–they waited until now to discuss the faith of their child?! Seriously? Talk of the show showed up on interfaith chat boards and websites around the internet.

I asked Renee if she’d seen the show. She hadn’t. (I know, I know–Renee probably doesn’t watch shows like this because she’s smart and authentic and wouldn’t waste her time on reality TV.) But the parallels between the teary conversation happening in this upper-East side living room and the melt down between Mo and Brian in this just-hatched play stuck with me. Because yeah, these conflicts really do happen.

This is called a "treenorah".

Susan’s strongest reservation is the using of air time (or in our case, stage time) to show worst case scenarios, without giving equal time to the healthier versions. Would it be great if we had a play we loved with a happy and communicative interfaith couple at the center of the story? Sure. And we’ll keep looking for that play. In the meantime, we’re glad to be sharing a complex and layered story with our audiences, that is inspiring much conversation.

And what about that Washington Post article we mentioned above? Susan breaks it down for us clearly on her blog, “…this play comes in the wake of a scandalously misleading Washington Post opinion piece that purported to show that interfaith marriages are prone to failure, using extreme anecdotes and outdated and twisted statistics.” (More here.) She calls for a journalist to declare his or her own biases in a piece like this. Now, this isn’t the way we go about things in the theater world–which is about fiction, and the artist’s right to creation, and hopefully not about an agenda. But I will say that many people directly or indirectly involved with this production come from quite successful interfaith unions, myself included. We do our best to approach the work without any bias, but if we did have one–you can be sure it wouldn’t be anti-interfaith.

As Ari rightly notes in the comments, “The play doesn’t aspire to be a textbook or manual on how to lead a more enlightened, sensitive life as an intermarried couple.” Rather–it aims to start people talking, be it in relation to their own lives or simply as observant theater-goers.

More to come–about our talk backs with Rabbi Noah Fabricant of Washington Hebrew Congregation, and Marian Usher, facilitator of the Love and Religion workshop at the DCJCC.