Religion Was a Deal Breaker that Ended Our Relationship

If you told me a year ago that thinking about “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would bring tears to my eyes, I would have laughed in your face. I’ve loved the film since it was released in 2002, and my family still asks me to do a show about my aunt and dad. My family liked the movie because it reminded us a little of our cute relatives. Of course, we are Argentinian Jews, and they are Greek Orthodox Christians, but we are tight-knit and loud, and we love parties 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 ones in the movies, I got a little excited. We started dating in October. On our first date, we talked about all the similarities between his family’s Greek culture and mine.

We’re officially on Thanksgiving. I was invited to his family Thanksgiving (which I called “My Big Fat Greek Thanksgiving”), and I was introduced as his “new girlfriend” to his aunt, uncle, and cousin. We also enjoyed a trip to my hometown in upstate New York, where he met my father and my older brother’s family. The date went well. We have chemistry. And unlike most men I’ve dated, he’s a good communicator and open to vulnerability, which I think is important in a partner. Even our pets seem to approve of our company.

I was very happy to hear that his mother invited me to their family Christmas party, which would be celebrated on January 7th. Although I grew up with parents of different religions and identify as Jewish, I am not a stranger to Christianity. I had attended different Mass services with friends and family, but I had never attended a Greek Orthodox service before.

When I asked on one of our FaceTime calls if I was expected to attend Christmas Mass in addition to the family get-together, my boyfriend hesitated when he told me that no, I would not be attending.

“I’m trying to find a nice way to say this,” he stammered, looking away from the screen. “You won’t be allowed because you’re Jewish.”

I quickly glanced at my phone to make sure it was 2022 and not 1938. I was lost for words – something that rarely happens for me. The conversation dwindled, and I said goodbye, still stunned by what I’d heard. What happened to my girlfriend, the good communicator? What am I missing?

Before he sent me that thoughtful first message on a dating app, I had barely been on a date all year. After more than a decade of meeting people, I was tired. My friends and family members find it amusing when I tell them bad dating stories, and I enjoy making them laugh. But I was also exhausted after years of small talk, conversations, and efforts that were rarely reciprocated. After a major heartbreak a few years ago (snotty crying, red face, no appetite – you know the kind), I was reluctant to move forward with many of the men I met. Not all of them were bad, but none seemed to have the lifelong partnership potential I was looking for.

One of the author's dating profile photos. "I was on a solo hike when I took this," He wrote.

Courtesy of Allison Grinberg-Funes

One of the author’s dating profile photos. “I was on a solo hike when I took this,” he wrote.

If someone told me that I would soon be in a fun, healthy relationship with a new boyfriend, I would have chuckled and thought, “Yeah, right.” But I never made it home from my date with him and wished I had stayed on the couch. Our conversations were stimulating, he was funny, and we had a great time together. After how bad life has been in 2020 due to COVID-19, I needed just that. This was the first time I thought, “Hah, this person would be fun to live with.”

So what is the opposite of fun? Fear? That’s how I felt before FaceTiming my boyfriend the next day. I knew I had to ask the hard questions: “What happens if, far in the future, you marry a Jewish woman? Or someone who is not Greek Orthodox?”

He explained that if the person was Jewish, they would have to convert to Greek Orthodoxy. If they are Christian but not Greek Orthodox, this can work as long as they are baptized.

My breath caught in my chest. I’m Jewish – I even had a bat mitzvah ceremony in Israel. Although I am technically Christian on my mother’s side, I have never been baptized. I come from a family of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews from Spain, Turkey, Russia and Germany (all of whom ended up in Argentina). I was raised to have respect and loyalty to my ancestors and Jewish culture, and I am proud to be Jewish.

“I can’t. I can’t change religions,” I finally told him. He must have known I was going to say this – I’ve already told him that I feel the Jewish soul. He didn’t want to ask me to change religion.

I went into troubleshooting mode. Is there really no way to get around this? Besides, I know one of his relatives is getting married outside the church.

“I want the Greek Orthodox wedding experience,” my boyfriend sighed. He wants his marriage to be blessed by the church and held in his parish. We stared at each other through the iPhone camera. My stomach turned because I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve never been one of those little girls who envisions her wedding day, but one thing I know is that if I marry someone, I want Jewish traditions involved. I want a party full of tradition — chuppahs, breaking glass, and being hoisted onto chairs while loved ones dance the hora around me. “My Big Fat Jewish Wedding,” if you will. But I’m also open to blending my traditions with those of my partner – just as we blend the rest of our lives.

I put my head in my hands and started crying. We never really explored our family religion – and now I see that we should have. The Jewish people have a very wide spectrum of observance. Although tradition and religion go hand in hand in conservative and orthodox communities, tradition is observed culturally by many secular or Reform Jews.

I didn’t realize that something like that might not apply to the Greek Orthodox community. I suggested that there were successful Greek Orthodox and Jewish couples. My boyfriend explained that his family is “old calendar” Greek Orthodox – much more conservative than the “new calendar” Greek Orthodox that other couples are likely to be.

I was looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve with my boyfriend and his friends as well as attending his family’s Christmas party. I’m excited to continue perfecting my baklava, which I once successfully made (with help of course). I’ve even thought about what it would be like to have him next to me at the next Passover Seder. If everything worked out, I thought, maybe years from now I could have a “Big Fat Greek Jewish Wedding.”

But if I was close to earning a Ph.D. This level of dating taught me everything, it was time to bow out – that you should never prolong the inevitable.

The author stood at the foot of Mount Masada in Israel before climbing to the peak, where he had his bat mitzvah ceremony.

Courtesy of Allison Grinberg-Funes

The author stood at the foot of Mount Masada in Israel before climbing to the peak, where he had his bat mitzvah ceremony.

“If I can’t give you what you want and change your religion, I don’t want to part,” I said, my hands raised in an exaggerated gesture that any Jew or Greek would recognize. “But should we date?”

He agrees – we shouldn’t.

I have never ended a relationship because of religion. Differences in opinion about having children? Very. Political beliefs? Yes. Is that guy a jerk? Of course. But if you asked me if I would break up with the man I love because of religion – Greek Orthodox or otherwise – I wouldn’t even consider that possibility.

There will always be things in life that you don’t expect. When I was still dating, I thought the best way to prevent potential deal breakers was to be upfront and include them in my profile. That way, there will be no more guesswork or mistakes about what I want. Any man who looks at my profile can see that I am politically leftist, hesitant to have children (though tend not to be) and culturally Jewish. But that’s not enough.

These are some of the details that require in-depth discussion. If you’re using the app and just looking for a partner, of course, this may not be important to you. But if you’re looking for a serious, long-term commitment, for many people, talking about religion may be important before things get serious. If religion is an important part of your life, that means it will be an important part of your future. And if you see a future with your partner, it will also affect his or her life.

Defining “significant” is also important. One does not need to attend religious services every day to find religious meaning or priorities when choosing a partner. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s a deal breaker and what kind of sacrifice you’re willing to make for your partner’s comfort level and confidence. Many people wish that religion wasn’t such a big factor in dating, especially in this day and age. But for others, religion plays a big role and determines their identity.

Being Jewish shapes the way I see and interact with the world. This influences how I choose to celebrate accomplishments, how I value history and stories, and even my sense of humor. I’m sure religion does the same thing to other people. While I believe that two different religions and traditions can be adhered to and respected in a relationship – that there are ways to find harmony between them – not everyone feels the same way (including other Jews).

The year is 2023, and people have the right and freedom to define their boundaries as they choose. I learned the hard way that when dating, you have to discuss boundaries ASAP, or your relationship will end up in trouble. I’m sad that my ex and I had to break up ― I really liked him, and I knew our relationship would be fine ― 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 experience that in the future.

When I start dating again, I’ll definitely think about all the things – including religion – that might need to be discussed before I get too far into a relationship.

Breaking up with someone is difficult, even if you do it to respect family and partner traditions. But I’m open to meeting new people, having new experiences, and whatever the future brings. How many things lie ahead that I cannot yet foresee? I can only imagine, but I hope it’s all a pleasant surprise. Maybe someday I’ll find ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding” funny again.

Allison Grinberg-Funes is a writer and user experience content strategist based in Boston. She has a BFA in creative writing and is working on her first novel. You can find her at your local indie bookstore or email her at agracefulgrin@gmail.com.

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