When he returned to the U.S. after World War II, my grandpa, Vincent Pastore, sometimes sifted through the nightmarish memories that I could never fully understand by simply regarding his Purple Heart.
A Navy seaman, he was hospitalized after a kamikaze pilot bombed his ship in the southern Pacific in 1944. He sustained non-life-threatening injuries, but his hospital roommate, a fellow seaman, died. In his final moments, he asked that a priest read him his last rites.
But the seaman couldn’t remember the last time he had been to confession. My grandpa recalled hearing him weep when the priest told him he could not be absolved of his sins. This wasn’t the first time that my grandfather questioned his faith.
He was raised Roman Catholic by first-generation Italian immigrants who were forced into marriage by their parents. He and his family never had a stable relationship. His parents had found comfort in religion, and he had not. He found comfort in serving his country.
My grandpa ran away at 18, joined the Navy, and before the war ended, he saved the life of a Merchant Marine named Anders Mortensen. When Mortensen’s ship was bombed off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, in 1945, my grandpa was part of the rescue mission that pulled the seamen out of shark-infested waters and onto their ship.
Anders was a Protestant. He was also the father of the woman who became my grandmother, Elsa Mortensen. When Anders introduced my future grandparents after the war, my grandpa didn’t think twice about marrying Elsa, despite their having been raised in different religions.
In 1960, 19 percent of newlyweds married outside their faiths. By 2015, this number reached 39 percent, according to a Pew Research study.
Not all who marry outside their faiths, however, reject their upbringing, as my grandpa did. In April 2016, in an opinion piece for the online website of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Seymour Rosenbloom, a spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., discussed his decision to begin officiating interfaith marriages.
“In most cases of intermarriage,” Rosenbloom wrote, “Jewish partners are not abandoning Judaism or rejecting their heritage, family, congregation or people. They just want to marry the people they love.”
This was the case with my parents, Daniel and Cara Stieglitz, who were Jewish and Presbyterian, respectively. They sent me to temple on Friday and church on Sunday, stood by me at my bar mitzvah, and encouraged me to decide for myself whether I wanted be confirmed as a Christian. I studied two religions, and I learned about two different ways of thinking and believing. It was enlightening.
Not all stories are so rosy. Shortly after Rosenbloom wrote his column, he was unanimously expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of rabbis affiliated with Conservative Judaism.
Then there was my grandpa, who had rejected Catholicism as a child, and did so once more, in his family’s eyes, when he introduced Elsa Mortensen to them. His sister physically tackled her. Nobody tackled my protestant mother when she met my dad’s Jewish family, though it took years for her to develop a strong relationship with them.
I paid no attention to any of this as a child. My father told me what he was thinking when I came out to him as gay. I told him that I felt like an outsider in my own family, and that I doubted he knew what that felt like. But of course, he did. He sat me down and told me that he wholeheartedly accepted me, because he knew how painful it was to be told whom you could and couldn’t love.
In Judaism, we’re taught to wrestle with angels. This means, in short, that it’s OK to doubt and get lost and wonder and dispute what we believe and then come back to it. My grandpa died without ever returning to his Catholic roots.
Shortly after I came out to my parents, I told Marci Bellows, the former rabbi at Temple B’Nai Torah in Wantagh, that I was gay. She congratulated me and told me she had recently begun officiating same-sex and interfaith marriages — and that, regardless of whom we love, we can still foster a religious household for our children.
There are all manner of interfaith couples and families on Long Island today, and while it may seem odd to study two very different religions, there is a great deal of overlap between Judaism and Christianity. Through my Jewish and Protestant upbringing, I was taught about the importance of loving your neighbor, forgiving those who hurt you and reaching out to those in need.
Being exposed to two different religions also taught me that there is no single way to find meaning in life. The closest we can get to that is through love and human connection, and I am forever grateful for having learned that.
Brian Stieglitz is the editor of the East Meadow Herald. Comments about this column? BStieglitz@liherald.com.