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Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century Paperback – October 15, 2013
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What are the odds that a female rabbi would marry a divorced Catholic scholar trying to raise two teenagers? Probably better than many people might think. According to Rabbi Woll and her husband, Sweeney, interfaith marriages are on the rise. Though one well-known study prophesies doom for such unconventional unions, it seems that more couples are falling into this fold. Communication and shared beliefs regardless of faith tradition are essential for making such relationships work, the married coauthors assert. Early chapters read a bit like a comparison of two résumés—Sweeney at one time worked as a marketing director for Jewish Lights Publishing, which could have something to do with enabling the couple to operate on common ground. Other chapters read like essays, urging the blending of faith traditions as a unique growth experience. The personal stories begin with two-sided accounts of an unlikely friendship that slowly deepens to love. For those considering marrying outside of their faith tradition, Mixed-Up Love is an inspiring work. --Susan DeGrane
"For those considering marrying outside of their faith tradition, Mixed-Up Love is an inspiring work."―Booklist
"Reflects on the new frontiers of interfaith marriage, and publishing veteran Sweeney can be depended on to know what makes a good book."―Publishers Weekly
"We're way beyond Christmas and Hanukkah here. Sweeney and Woll offer a moving, personal reflection on their search for the divine in everyday life. Mixed-Up Love is an instructive, refreshing, and spiritually sophisticated guide for any couple seeking to navigate a complex religious path."―Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco and the author of Kabbalah: A Love Story
"What unites us is so much greater than what separates us. If we're sometimes mixed-up, this book can help sort it out."―Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, and founder of the Dzogchen Center in America
"One of the most moving and candid love stories I have ever read...mature, sure of itself, deft in its telling, rich in its sharing. Whether you are interested in the possibilities and intricacies of interfaith marriage or not, you are going to be grateful that Sweeney and Woll are and that they have been willing to tell the rest of us why."―Phyllis Tickle, compiler, The Divine Hours
"Jon and Michal take us into the most intimate space of all, an interfaith marriage, and provide millions of similar couples with light and warmth on the complicated path of committing to faith and one another when the faiths are different. This is a generous and important book."―Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground
"Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll have written an extremely important book for our era, and they have done so with depth, integrity, and humor. The book is beautifully written, and the back and forth dialogue between this husband and wife makes for exciting reading. Maybe their love is not so 'mixed-up' after all."―Rabbi David Zaslow, author of Jesus: First Century Rabbi
"All of us are figuring out how to be one big human family on one small planet-when members of our family follow many different religions. Jon and Michal are figuring out how that works in one household, and they share both their experience and the wisdom they've gained through it in this charming, enjoyable, and insightful book."―Brian D. McLaren, author/speaker/activist (brianmclaren.net)
"Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll represent a new kind of American family, one that celebrates and learns from difference. Readers, in turn, will celebrate and learn from this book about their experiences together, whether it's planning a wedding or dealing with 'the December dilemma.'"―Jana Riess, author of Flunking Sainthood and The Twible
"Woll and Sweeney raise important questions in an engagingly frank way for all interfaith couples...They also add to the growing and multi-faceted conversation about rabbis with non-Jewish partners. "―Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
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Sweeney and Woll are concerned with the latter. I'd call their book an "abstracted" memoir: a couple with strongly-felt but disparate spiritual backgrounds and practices decide that their developing relationship is important enough that they're willing to wrestle with the adaptations it requires each to make. From their experience, they draw conclusions and make suggestions that others in a similar situation may find useful.
If there's a single message, it's for couples to work past labels and rituals that may initially seem alien, in order to seek the commonality that underlies many traditions. And where such commonality may not exist, couples can still express the support and respect that make up every successful family. I found especially valuable their conversations about common crisis points that can confront mixed relationships: wedding or commitment ceremonies, handling the holidays, giving birth to, raising and educating children.
Initially, it seemed distracting that, in addition to their jointly-written sections, each author wrote separate parts that reflect more personal takes on the current topic, or their personal history in regard to it. But what at first seemed a stylistic affectation eventually meshed with the book's overall message: successful mixed relationships acknowledge that each partner brings something different to the table, and each continues to respect both those differences and how they integrate to create a whole.
They write for a specific audience: couples who function at a high intellectual level and communicate well, share a commitment to mutual support, and generally feel less concern about adherence to rigid rules than the positive ethical and spiritual beliefs that nourish them.
Others who don't fit that profile may find this book doesn't speak to them. That would include people certain that one particular cosmology and its secular implementations constitute the only correct approach to life; those for whom approval by external reference groups -- family or church, for example -- is of overriding importance; and those with no background or interest in spiritual belief or practice.
But for its intended audience, Sweeney and Woll offer a useful, intellectual approach to a successful religiously mixed relationship, and suggestions for ways to nurture its continued growth.
The importance of reaching across cultures to achieve not just understanding but also empathy plays out on all levels, from neighborhoods to economies to warfare. Those who stay isolated falter in times of trouble for their lack of robustness. Those who let people from other groups influence them are more nimble when they encounter Change.
It is a virtuous cycle: as cross-cultural or interfaith relationships become more acceptable, more folks who would have backed away from the strength a particular partner offered from a different set of experiences now embrace the challenges of figuring out life outside of old models. This, in turn, creates new roles for the next couples to look to for inspiration. The value of interfaith memoirs is to give families new ways to think about, dream about, and talk about how to practice multiple faiths in one household in a way that makes everyone involved better for it.
The strength of Mixed-Up Love is the personal nature of the story: the sweet details and the actual nuts and bolts of conflict and resolution. Too often, I'm disappointed by memoirs that gloss over specific logistics in the haze of success and viewed in hindsight. I was delighted to feel as if I'd been welcomed into the kind of intimacy of minutia one usually receives in real-time over tea with a friend. As with most things, this specificity is also its weakness. Jon and Michal met and married in their forties, after lives spent forging paths that required and allowed for lots of self-reflection and spiritual maturity. By the time they met, they had each somewhat firmly settled into religiously radical viewpoints within their own traditions. I think their story might be hard to access for young, more mainstream couples who haven't had as much time to sort out their own knowledge of self or who have and have decided that more traditional forms of religious practice were appealing.
But their story is fascinating and warmly told. I was entranced by their style of writing and tone: at once both deliberate and loose. These are clearly two highly intelligent people with a deep love for one another that has an additional element of strong companionship. We should all be so lucky to develop the kind of marriage they have and have generously shared with readers.
The only real objection I have is that Jon and Michal give primacy to prayer, ritual and liturgy as spiritual acts. They do not spend much time discussing home practices in Judaism and they give the sacred bread-breaking tradition of Christian potlucks no value in their lives. Although I love corporate religious services, I was sad to find the more mundane aspects of spirituality minimized. Jon does acknowledge that prayer is better when in the company of people who know his name and they cite numerous times that deep relationships are a foundational value for both of them.
Perhaps their peculiarities (which they comfortably discuss in the book) have not let them experience deep relationships within a religious organization and that is why ii is seen as a less-than option for engaging God. My own successful experiences encountering God through loving and being loved by other people at post-modern church or with a progressive rabbi or even in high school youth group growing up make spiritual community a higher priority for me as a spiritual discipline. Passover Seders, dinners for 8, small group study, chavura and keeping kosher are all forms of worship that they do not emphasize.
However, Jon and Michal's obvious desire to tell a story that is unique and useful to the larger interfaith community balance this small objection out. They do a particularly good job of describing a Christian faith that is not threatened by a spouse and child who are Jewish and sensibly describing the theology behind that comfort in a way that everyone can understand. Not all faith is based on insisting a set of beliefs is the absolute truth but those voices are often much quieter than fundamentalist voices. Jon and Michal speak loudly and clearly in this area to everyone's benefit.
The more our organizations make room for folks to bring their whole selves to the community, the stronger we all will be. Jon and Michal's book and life together definitely contribute positively to this transformation of the interfaith landscape.
I highly recommend Mixed-Up Love to couples navigating their own interfaith families, grandparents of interfaith grandchildren and clergy who want to better understand the couples who walk through their doors and the options available for their lives together.
(This review was originally published in a different form on InterfaithFamily.com)