If you told me a year ago that thinking about ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would make me teary, I would have laughed in your face. I’ve loved that film since it came out in 2002, and my family still asks me to do impressions of the aunt and father. My family liked the movie because it reminded us a bit of our own zany relatives. Sure, we’re Argentine Jews, and they were Greek Orthodox Christians, but we’re close-knit and loud, and we love a party as much as we love our traditions.
So when I got a message on a dating app from a guy who joked that his family was like the one in the movie, I got a little excited. We started dating in October. On our first date, we talked about all of the similarities between the Greek culture of his family and the Jewish culture of mine.
We were official by Thanksgiving. I was invited to his family’s Thanksgiving (which I referred to as “My Big Fat Greek Thanksgiving”), and I was introduced as “the new girlfriend” to his aunts, uncles and cousins. We also enjoyed a trip to my hometown in upstate New York, where he met my dad and my older brother’s family. Dating was going well. We had chemistry. And unlike most of the men I’ve dated, he was a good communicator and open to being vulnerable, which I find important in a partner. Even our pets seemed to approve of us being together.
I was excited to hear that his mom had invited me to their family’s Christmas, which would be celebrated Jan. 7. Though I grew up with interfaith parents and identify as Jewish, I wasn’t a stranger to Christianity. I’d been to different Mass services with friends and family at times, but I’d never attended a Greek Orthodox service before.
When I asked during one of our FaceTime calls if I’d be expected to attend Christmas Mass in addition to the family get-together, my boyfriend hesitated as he told me that no, I wouldn’t be going.
“I’m trying to find a good way to say this,” he stammered, looking away from the screen. “You wouldn’t be allowed because you’re Jewish.”
I quickly glanced at my phone to make sure it was 2022 and not 1938. I was at a loss for words ― a rarity for me. The conversation dwindled, and I said goodbye, still stunned by what I’d heard. What happened to my boyfriend, the good communicator? What had I missed?
Before he’d sent that thoughtful first message on a dating app, I’d hardly dated all year. After more than a decade of seeing people, I was tired. My friends and family members found it entertaining when I’d recount stories of terrible dates, and I was glad to make them laugh. But I was also exhausted after years of small talk, carrying conversations and making an effort that was rarely reciprocated. After a big heartbreak a few years ago (snotty crying, red face, no appetite ― you know the kind), I was reluctant to move forward with a lot of the men I met. They weren’t all horrible, but none seemed to have the lifetime partnership potential I was looking for.
If someone had told me that I’d soon be in a legitimately enjoyable and healthy relationship with a new boyfriend, I would’ve chuckled and thought, “Yeah, right.” But I never arrived home from a date with him wishing I’d stayed on my couch. Our conversations were stimulating, he was funny, and we had a great time together. After how dismal life bad been in 2020 thanks to COVID-19, I needed that. This was the first time I’d thought, “Huh, this guy would be fun to do life with.”
So what’s the opposite of fun? Dread? That’s what I felt before FaceTiming my boyfriend the next day. I knew I had to ask the hard question: “What happens if, far in the future, you were to marry a woman who is Jewish? Or one who is just not Greek Orthodox?”
He explained that if the person were Jewish, they’d have to convert to Greek Orthodox. If they were Christian but not Greek Orthodox, it could work as long as they were baptized.
My breath caught in my chest. I’m Jewish ― I even had my bat mitzvah ceremony in Israel. Though I’m technically Christian on my mom’s side, I was never baptized. I come from a family of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish people from Spain, Turkey, Russia and Germany (all of whom ended up in Argentina). I was raised to have respect and loyalty for my ancestors and Jewish culture, and I’m proud to be Jewish.
“I can’t. I can’t convert,” I finally told him. He had to have known I would say this ― I’d told him I felt Jewish in my soul. He didn’t want to ask me to convert.
We were at a standstill.
I went into problem-solving mode. Was there really no way to get around it? After all, I knew one of his relatives was getting married outside the church.
“I want the Greek Orthodox wedding experience,” my boyfriend sighed. He wanted his marriage to be blessed by the church and to have a ceremony within his parish. We stared at each other through iPhone cameras. My stomach dropped because I knew exactly what he meant. I had never been one of those little girls who imagines her wedding day, but one thing I do know is that if I marry someone, I want Jewish traditions involved. I want the whole tradition-filled party — a chuppah, the breaking the glass, and being lifted up in chairs while loved ones dance the hora around me. “My Big Fat Jewish Wedding,” if you will. But I was also open to blending my traditions with my partner’s ― just like we’d blend the rest of our lives.
I put my head in my hands and started to cry. We had never gotten too in depth about the religions of our families — and now I see we should have. Jewish people have a very wide spectrum of observance. While traditions and religion go hand in hand for conservative and orthodox communities, traditions are observed culturally for many secular or Reform Jews.
I hadn’t realized it may not work that way with the Greek Orthodox community. I brought up that there are Greek Orthodox and Jewish couples who make it work. My boyfriend explained that his family was “old calendar” Greek Orthodox — much more conservative than the “new calendar” Greek Orthodox that those other couples likely were.
I was looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve with my boyfriend and his friends and going his family’s Christmas party. I was excited to continue perfecting my baklava, which I’d successfully made once (with help, of course). I’d even thought of what it’d be like to have him next to me at the next Passover Seder. If things worked out, I’d thought, maybe years from now I could’ve had “My Big Fat Greek Jewish Wedding.”
But if my near-Ph.D. level of dating taught me anything, it’s when to bow out ― that you shouldn’t prolong the inevitable.
“If I can’t give you what you’d want and convert, I don’t want to break up,” I said, my hands flying in an exaggerated motion that any Jewish or Greek person would recognize. “But should we be dating?”
He agreed ― we shouldn’t be.
And that was that.
I’d never ended a relationship over religion. Disagreements about having children? Absolutely. Political beliefs? Yes. The guy being a jerk? Oh, sure. But if you’d asked me whether I’d break up with a man I was falling in love with over religion ― Greek Orthodox or any other ― I wouldn’t have even considered it a possibility.
There are always going to be things in life that you don’t expect. When I was dating, I thought the best way to guard against potential deal breakers was to be upfront and include them in my profile. That way, there’d be no guessing or mistaking what I want. Any guy that viewed my profile could see that I was politically left, sitting on the fence about having kids (though leaning toward not having any) and culturally Jewish. But that isn’t enough.
These are some details that call for in-depth discussions. If you’re on the apps and only looking for a hookup, then sure, these might not be important to you. But if you’re looking for a long-term, serious commitment, then for many people, talking about religion may be important before things get serious. If religion is a significant part of your life, that means it’ll be an important part of your future. And if you see a future with your partner, it’ll play into their life as well.
Defining “significant” is also important. A person doesn’t need to attend services daily to find religion meaningful or a priority when choosing a partner. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s a deal breaker and the type of sacrifices you would be willing to make on behalf of your partner’s comfort level and beliefs. Many people expect that religion won’t be a huge factor in dating, especially in this day and age. But for others, religion plays a large, defining role in their identity.
Being Jewish shapes the way I see and interact with the world. It influences how I choose to celebrate milestones, how I cherish history and storytelling, and even my sense of humor. I’m sure religion does the same for others. While I believe that two different religions and their traditions can be observed and honored in a relationship ― that there can be a way to find harmony between them ― not everyone feels this way (including other Jewish people).
It’s 2023, and people have the right and freedom to draw their boundaries where they choose. I learned the hard way that when it comes to dating, you have to discuss those boundaries sooner rather than later, or else your relationship can end up in trouble. I’m sad that my ex and I had to break up ― I really liked him, and I know it was going somewhere good ― but I’ve made peace with what happened. In fact, I’m proud that I stayed true to myself and my identity ― but I definitely don’t want to go through that in the future.
When I start dating again, I’ll certainly be thinking about all of the things ― including religion ― that might need to be discussed before I get too far into a relationship.
Breaking up with someone is hard, even if you do it out of respect for your family’s traditions and for your partner. But I’m open to meeting new people, having new experiences and whatever the future brings. How many things lie ahead that I can’t yet foresee? I can only imagine, but I hope they’re all pleasant surprises. Maybe someday I’ll even find ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding” funny again.
Allison Grinberg-Funes is a writer and user experience content strategist living in Boston. She has a BFA in creative writing and is working on her first novel. You can find her in local indie bookstores or email her at email@example.com.