It’s been a bad week for those of us who still believe that Jews should marry
I was thinking of this in synagogue on Shabbat Hanukka. In
the haftara, from Zechariah, the prophet condemns High Priest Joshua for failing
to chastise his sons who have intermarried. Two thousand five hundred years
More recently, the sophisticated online Jewish magazine The Tablet
ran a witty feature about the happy marriage of Daniel Craig and Rachel Hannah
Weisz. Pop culture columnist Rachel Shukert calls Craig “the hottest man on the
planet,” and who can disagree? He is, after all, the newest James Bond. With all
the choices open, Craig married Weisz, a gorgeous British Jewish actress and
single Jewish mom. He acts as stepfather to her son, Henry, whose father is
Weisz’s former fiancé Darren Aronofsky, of the Mosaic faith.
Shukart: “Craig makes Jewish men wonder if they can ever be good enough.” Not
that they don’t deserve a taste of their own medicine, she says. They have a
history of preferring non-Jews over their own tribeswomen.
A few days
later, The New York Times’s oped page’s “Room for Debate” featured Times
columnist and best-selling author Bruce Feiler (Walking the Bible and the
forthcoming The Secret of Happy Families) facing off against KJ Dell’Antonia,
editor and lead writer for the same paper’s Motherlode blog.
debate subject is whether or not celebrating Hanukka and Christmas requires
mention of God. Because Dell’Antonia is a Christian married to a Jew and
celebrates both holidays, intermarriage was bound to come to come up – and it
Feiler is married to the comely, accomplished Linda Rottenberg,
whose worthy lifework provides support for entrepreneurial initiatives in
developing countries. Their twin daughters have attended Jewish preschool and
synagogue Hebrew school.
Nonetheless, Feiler is enthralled by
Dell’Antonia’s model of parenting.
“We can barely get it together to
celebrate one holiday in our house, KJ. I’m impressed you can celebrate two!” he
writes. He and Rottenberg invite non-Jews to nightly candle- lighting because
“it keeps everybody on their toes; it’s more fun; and it encourages a fresh take
on the tradition.” And then, this celebrated Jewish author married to a Jewish
superwoman says, almost wistfully, “That’s one of the reasons I’m all for
interfaith marriages, as contradictory as that may seem.
laboratories of coexistence that model behavior the rest of us are still trying
to figure out. It’s no wonder 40 percent of Americans are in one.”
observant Jewish woman long married to an observant Jewish man living in
Jerusalem, for whom fulfilling the Godgiven mitzvot is a center of my life and
my family life, it’s easy to denounce intermarriage.
For me, practicing
Judaism provides meaning and joy that I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice –
certainly not for the selfdevelopment challenge of practicing coexistence in the
home, and not even for the thrill of James Bond. My husband and I are both
strong-minded and I can’t imagine us finding common ground if we were committed
to different religions. But who of us does not have intermarried relatives and
friends in our larger family circle who are making their marriages work? (Don’t
get holier-than-thou here; the Joshua of the haftara was the High Priest.) Over
one million couples in the United States are intermarried: one Jewish, one
Christian. (The tiny percentage of couples in which one partner converts to
Judaism aren’t considered “intermarried.”) Jewish men are still more likely to
intermarry than Jewish women are, but Jewish women have nearly caught up,
snagging their own Daniel Craigs.
No holiday church or synagogue service
for Dell’Antonia. She doesn’t want to “sully the fun” of the season with “any of
that nonsense.” She misses her Christmas Eve services but feels “wildly out of
place” in a synagogue. In one foray into the Jewish house of worship, she had to
sit through a diatribe from the pulpit about the evils of
I’m curious about which clergy are still out there
pontificating to potential intermarrieds.
The views of Orthodox rabbis on
intermarriage are obvious, although they would differ in the warmth with which
they would accept intermarried Jews in their congregations.
outreach congregations are welcoming to Jewish brethren no matter what their
marital status. For the other denominations, intermarried couples have become
integral. They make up a substantial percentage of congregations and their
The non-Jewish partner may even be more involved in the
community than the Jewish spouse. Ubiquitous programs aimed at keeping
intermarried couples within the Jewish world proliferate.
A colleague of
mine was nearly booed off the stage when sermonizing to teens – trying to give
them some of that old-time religion.
She ordered teens on
summer-in-Israel programs to restrict themselves to dating Jews when they went
back home. They rioted.
Many had grown up in interfaith
“We’re still choosing summer hiking through dry river beds and
demonstrating for missing IDF soldiers over other options,” they charged. “We’re
here.” Still other angry teens, like the 50 percent of Jews in a survey
published in the 2007 American Jewish Yearbook, accused her of
Back when I was a teenager in Connecticut, I used to travel
around the state as region president of Young Judaea. One of my favorite talk
topics was intermarriage. I would harangue my peers at club meetings to adopt a
personal policy of dating only Jews. My youthful argument wasn’t couched in
terms of Halacha or in terms of right and wrong. I was more pragmatic. I called
on them to prioritize Zionism over attraction when choosing a marriage
If, as a Zionist, you believed in the importance of the
continuation of the Jewish people, you would want to marry a fellow Jew –
preferably a fellow Zionist. Once you fell in love, it would be painful and
unfair to break up for the sake of idealism. It was better to avoid the problem
altogether by restricting yourself at the dating level.
In those days,
the American Jewish intermarriage rate was 13%, but predicted – accurately – to
be rising fast. I practiced what I preached on campus and moved to Israel the
week I graduated.
Looking back, I was largely preaching to the choir.
Young Judaeans, religiously observant or not, generally marry other Jews; and
not because of my lectures. Our idealistic commitment to continuing the Jewish
people dovetails with a desire to find a life partner who shares our ideological
passions. We want to be free to explore spirituality within Judaism without fear
of unsettling the delicate balance of coexistence. (We’ll skip both church and
synagogue.) Most young people come into a Zionist youth movement from a family
in which Judaism is valued. Talk about the future of the Jewish people
Still, there are surprises. A young, observant Israeli
scientist told me about rooming with a fellow Jewish scientist at a conference
in America. The observant scientist said morning prayers in the room; he put on
tefillin. “What’s that?” asked his surprised roommate. He had heard about
tefillin but had never seen them. “Want to try?” asked the Israeli. When the
young man wrapped the leather straps around his head and arm, he was surprised
by the high-voltage emotional surge he felt. He was shaking. “I had no idea,” he
Soon after, he changed his mind about marrying his non-Jewish
girlfriend and converting to her religion.
His parents, who had felt it
would be unfair to express their reservations about the match, told him how
relieved they felt.
The scientist hasn’t become a regular tefillin-
wearer but he got a sense that something of value was lurking behind his tag
He doesn’t want to cast it away or minimize it until he
investigates exactly what he is.
I’m not neutral on this. I hope he
establishes a Jewish home where he can develop his interest further with a
Jewish better half and bring up children in Judaism.
Once upon a time,
Jewish parents sat shiva when a child intermarried. I remember a scary
second-grade teacher, her gray hair wrapped in braids like a halo around her
head, who was “dead to her family.” Condemnation has yielded to resignation,
resignation to acceptance. But let’s not rush from acceptance to
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the
wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public
relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views
in her columns are her own.