Taboo of interfaith marriage fades as more Utah couples celebrate Easter and Passover

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephen Washburn, April Washburn, Zoe Dobiner, and Aiden Dobiner, next to religious symbols in their home. Stephen and April Washburn are an interfaith couple. He is Episcopalian; she's Jewish. Thursday, April 18, 2019.

To say it’s been a busy week for Stephen Washburn would be like calling the Cathedral of the Madeleine that pretty church on the corner.

Washburn arrived each day at 4 a.m. at Holladay’s Great Harvest Bread Co., which he owns, to help prepare the usual assortment of whole wheat loaves, baguettes, croissants and rolls (plus challah bread) on top of seasonal items, including hot cross buns, honey bunny centerpieces, and egg-shaped frosted sugar cookies for this weekend’s Easter celebrations.

At the same time, he was readying himself for his family’s Passover meal.

For Washburn, such baking is both professional and personal — he is an Episcopalian; his wife is Jewish.

The couple hosted a Passover seder for friends and family on Saturday night, and Washburn will go alone Sunday morning to Easter services at St. James Episcopal Church in Midvale.

“I am a literal believer in Jesus,” Washburn says, while recognizing that Christianity “got a lot of its practices from Judaism.”

Indeed, the two holidays, which represent the most sacred events in their faiths’ history, have much in common.

For the eight-day Passover tradition, Jews across the globe gather around their tables, eating four symbolic foods and asking four symbolic questions, to commemorate their ancient escape from the angel of death. Christians celebrate a holy week, culminating in Easter Sunday’s ritual remembering of their Savior’s triumph over the grave.

Passover and Easter don’t always align so closely on the calendar (and Eastern Orthodox Christians typically have a different date for their holiday; this year it is April 28), but they are inescapably connected.

After all, the original Christians were Jesus-believing Jews, who saw the Last Supper described in the New Testament as a Passover seder.

In subsequent centuries, the two faiths retained many similarities but split into sometimes bitter opponents with distinct priorities. “Passover and Easter diverge fundamentally,” writes Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “While both festivals are about delivery from a state of despair, be it slavery or sin, Passover heralds the birth of the Jewish people as a force for good in the comity of nations. In contrast, Easter assures the individual Christian life eternal.”

Schorsch adds: “Passover summons Jews collectively into the world to repair it; Easter proffers a way out of a world beyond repair.”

These days, though, couples like the Washburns coexist with both traditions.

“I would never proselytize,” Stephen says, “but I do talk about my Christian perspective and share how I feel.”

The Utah husband and wife are hardly alone in their multifaith marriage or in the way they adapt and accommodate each other’s rituals.

Acceptable intertwining

Unlike decades ago, fewer Americans today believe that marrying within one’s religion is important, according to Pew’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study.

“Almost 4 in 10 Americans (39 percent) who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group,” Pew reported. “By contrast, only 19 percent of those who wed before 1960 report being in a religious intermarriage.”

Many of these marriages (18 percent) are between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated spouse, the report said. “Interfaith relationships are even more common today (49 percent) among unmarried people living with a romantic partner.”

In addition, the number of Americans raised in interfaith homes “appears to be growing,” another Pew report found. “Fully one-quarter of young adults in the millennial generation (27 percent) say they were raised in a religiously mixed family.”

Despite these faith gaps, nearly three-quarters of those raised by parents from different religious backgrounds say their parents “disagreed little, if at all, about religion,” it said. “And most people who are in religiously mixed marriages today say it is uncommon for them to have religious disagreements with their spouse.”

Years ago, though, marrying outside one’s faith could cause deep hurt and even rejection from family and a religious community.

Just ask Maxine and Marvin Turner.

A bris, not a baptism

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marvin and Maxine Turner. Maxine was Greek Orthodox and her husband, Marv, was Jewish. Then she converted to Judaism, but retains deep ties to her Christian clan. Friday, April 19, 2019.

Maxine and Marvin met a year after she graduated from Salt Lake City’s Highland High School in the late 1960s, and he was a senior at East. Maxine had come to East as a university student studying education, and Marvin was in a class she attended. She mispronounced his name, he teased her, and thus began a romance that continues today.

Marvin is Jewish; Maxine was Greek Orthodox.

Marvin’s family members were open-minded and liberal, easily embracing their future daughter-in-law, but Maxine’s parents were less than pleased at the match.

“They had a Greek priest come to Maxine’s house to rid it of evil spirits [because of me],” he recalls. “I remember walking behind her family, following the priest going from room to room, swinging that smoking lamp on a chain, and giving the sign of the cross.”

Obviously, Marvin says with a chuckle, it didn’t work.

When the two married in 1970, they found a Utah Supreme Court justice to officiate, since no rabbi or priest would have been allowed to participate.

But families and friends from both sides were there to join in the couple’s joy.

Shortly into their 49-year marriage, Maxine decided to convert to Judaism. She took religious classes and went through the necessary steps. It was not because Marvin pressured her, but because her own former priest had said marrying a Jew meant she would not be able to have an Orthodox burial or other rites for her children.

She wanted her kids to have, Maxine says, “a sound religious upbringing.”

Because a child’s Jewish identity comes through the female line — “You always know who the mother is but not always the father,” she says — she wanted to do that for her kids.

So when the first child was born, a son, they had a bris for him (traditional circumcision) rather than a baptism as the Orthodox do.

“It was a trauma for my parents,” Maxine recalls.

Eventually, Maxine’s family softened, Marvin says. “Her parents opened up when they saw how much in love we were. I became the son they never had.”

And, though the children — two boys and a girl — were reared as Jews, including having bar and bat mitzvahs, the family also spent Easter and other holidays with Maxine’s Greek family.

The Turners would do Passover meals with their Jewish kin, and then enjoy Easter services as well as dine on lamb and red-roasted eggs with the Orthodox grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“We were a two-religion family,” Marvin says.

As their parents aged, first Maxine’s father died and then Marvin’s mother, the two remaining in-laws ended up across the hall from each other in the same Millcreek care center.

A rabbi would visit Marvin’s father, then converse and bless Maxine’s mother. Same process in reverse for the Greek Orthodox priest.

“Two very strong cultures came together,” she says, “to better understand each other.”

And their kids?

Their two sons married Protestants and their daughter married a Catholic — under a traditional Jewish canopy but with her grandparents’ Orthodox wedding crowns on the altar.

What Maxine and Marvin, who work together at Cuisine Unlimited Catering, see in today’s young people is “total acceptance of different religions and cultures.”

The blending of faiths “is so normal to them,” she says. “We were the pioneers.”

Crosses in the basement

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephen Washburn, April Washburn, Zoe Dobiner, and Aiden Dobiner, by a statue of St. Francis in their front garden. Stephen and April Washburn are an interfaith couple. He is Episcopalian, she's Jewish. Thursday, April 18, 2019.

After being a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and following the prescribed path — baptism, seminary, mission, temple marriage — Stephen Washburn felt unfulfilled. So he went looking for something else.

He and his then-wife and their child found it in the Episcopal Church.

Stephen threw himself in, studying the liturgy, teaching Sunday school and serving as a greeter, usher and reader for services. He liked the beauty and majesty, and the rituals moved him.

When his marriage ended in divorce in 2009, his Christian faith was a rock.

He then met April, a divorced New York-born Jew, with two children living in Utah.

While courting, religion was among the issues the two discussed, but it wasn’t a deal breaker, she says. “I was just looking for a like-minded man with a good heart — and he was certainly that.”

Stephen is “a believer in all ways, old and new,” she says. “He’s a kind of religious expert, who knows the Old Testament better than I do.”

For April, being Jewish is a fact of her life, part of her identity, but she is not super observant.

After they married, she kept her menorahs on the main floor, Stephen quips, while she made “the Christian” carry his crosses to the basement wine cellar.

Still, he is supportive of Jewish education for April’s two children, Aiden 13, and Zoe, 10. He was even able to participate as “a Gentile” in a part of stepson Aiden’s bar mitzvah.

Because of the cost of the party surrounding this Jewish rite of passage, Stephen joked that he was going to start taking Zoe to church before she had her own coming-of-age moment.

“Baptism is cheap,” he quipped, and “bat mitzvahs are expensive.”

Kidding aside, Stephen was spiritually moved when April’s parents took the whole family to Israel, where Aiden had a second, but shortened, ceremony, at Masada.

Once Stephen and Zoe were discussing sourdough starters, and he, being the baker, mentioned the need to let the yeast rise for some days but added that the Israelites were fleeing for their lives so they didn’t have time. Hence, their bread was flat, which is why they use matzo bread, which is “unleavened” in their Passover seder.

April, who does business development for Turning Point Centers, did go with Stephen to midnight Mass one Christmas Eve and found it inspiring and intriguing.

She had never been in a church before, April says, and wasn’t sure what to do. Still, she followed him with the reading, singing and participation. Despite having no idea how to do the Eucharist — “Just put the wafer on your tongue,” the patient priest told her — it was a positive experience.

In the end, though, April could never be a Christian.

“At a certain point, I stopped relating,” she says. “Jesus is not a god or savior to me. We see him as a rabbi.”

Anything else, April says, “runs counter to my beliefs.”

That’s OK with Stephen. They are not trying to change the other, she says. “It’s just live and let live.”

And enjoy both holidays.