Call her Mrs. Isabelle. A tall, strict teacher in my Connecticut elementary
school, Mrs. Isabelle wore her gray hair braided and wound around her head. She
always wore a smock. She taught the other second grade class, and I was glad I
was in Mrs. Cohen’s. Mrs. Isabelle scared me, but not because of her hair or
At home, I’d overheard the strangest story about her. Her parents
had sat shiva, undergone the seven-day mourning ceremony for her. At seven years
old I suspected she was at least partly a ghost. In my town, hardly anyone was
observant, but intermarriage was rare – six percent in the US. Mrs. Isabelle’s
parents drew their personal line. She could marry the man of her choice, but was
out of the family, their own and certainly the Jewish family.
When I was
in high school, I traveled around Connecticut as a Young Judaea leader and urged
my peers to draw a personal line and restrict ourselves to dating only Jews.
This, I argued, guaranteed our marrying only a Jew, since it’s unlikely we would
fall in love and marry anyone we hadn’t dated. Why take a chance? My teenaged
lectures were based more on Zionist ideology than religious observance per se.
Back then, intermarriage was a shocking 13 percent. I saw it as a looming threat
to the Jewish continuity.
Somehow, the percentages nudged up to 40, then
50, percent. More Jewish men marry out than Jewish women. Life is humbling and
full of surprises. No matter how religiously observant we are, even if we live
in Israel, there is no guarantee that our offspring will fall in love with and
I’m sure, like me, readers know of Jews from every nuance of
Jewish experience marrying out.
Of course, a loving, meaningful Jewish
upbringing and strong Jewish education does increase the likelihood of someone
preferring a Jewish mate as a life partner. My own youth movement, Young Judaea,
once conducted a survey that suggested that participation significantly raised
the probability of members marrying fellow Jews.
WHAT IF a Jew does
intermarry? I have long found compelling the argument that Rabbi (and Jerusalem
Post columnist) Shmuley Boteach put forth in his seminal two-volume work, Moses
of Oxford (published in 1994) in answer to a Jewish student: “You are a Jew and
you shall always be a Jew… As such you have an obligation to the Jewish God and
the Jewish people. Marrying outside of the faith is not a license to disengage
oneself from Jewish life. I therefore expect you to continue coming to
Friday-night dinner, studying and arguing Judaism with me, and to continue your
immense contribution to our activities.”
If said student would be a good
enough example of Jewishness to his wife, then “perhaps one day she would
seriously consider exploring Judaism with a view to embracing it and joining his
people.” A young Rabbi confronting real life outside Crown Heights and Bnei
Brak, he met a reality at Oxford University where students were more inclined to
intermarry than not. His controversial decision to embrace couples already
intermarried was ahead of its time.
That is not to say that Rabbi Boteach
didn’t boldly attempt to prevent intermarriage, or encourage non-Jewish partners
to explore Jewish faith with a view to conversion. He never endorsed
No endorsing. Herein lies the difference. Sitting shiva
isn’t going to stop intermarriage and my self-imposed ban on interdating didn’t
seem to win many followers (although it certainly worked for me). But we have to
stop short of jumping on the bandwagon of shoulder-shruggers who endorse
HENCE, I want to go on record as differing with several of
my fellow columnists here at The Jerusalem Post who expressed admiration for the
wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinksy. Rarely do we see such a public
diminution of sacred symbols of Judaism, reducing them to folklore. My heart
went out first to the women and men undergoing the arduous process of acquiring
Jewish knowledge and practice, undertaking what often seems like walking a maze
of Rabbinic requirements for the privilege of standing tall under a chuppah, the
symbol of a Jewish home. We’ve personally had the happy opportunity to help a
number of converts along this beautiful if challenging journey. The
much-heralded wedding sends a confusing message to them and to those who are
undecided about intermarriage.
I am most disappointed that two of my
contemporaries, Rabbi James Ponet and Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, would play a role in this wedding.
Rabbi Ponet was
once a founding member of an orthodox congregation in Jerusalem and is a
long-time Jewish spiritual leader at the elite Yale University. He knew exactly
which traditions of Judaism he was de-valuing, as he guided the young couple in
their choice of ceremony.
In such a public ceremony, can we see this as
anything but legitimizing intermarriage? Nor can I understand how Arnie Eisen
could have attended the reception. True, he had a personal relationship with the
bride and groom, and probably their families. But the moment he took on the
mantle of Chancellor of one of America’s most significant religious movements,
he was no longer the private Arnie Eisen – but the representative of Rabbis
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Saul Lieberman teachers like Judith
Hauptman and thousands of Conservative clergy in cities and enclaves all over
the United States who have drawn a line and refused to conduct or attend
weddings of intermarrying couples, with or without officiating non-Jewish clergy
(at the cost of insulting many of their congregants).
and Marc who were brought up in families where public gestures count, would have
understood his decision to decline.
He could have invited them for
Shabbat dinner at his home after the wedding, but an appearance at the wedding
was a public statement of approval. Leadership matters.
Clinton-Mezvinksy marriage, the most public intermarriage since Henry Kissinger
married Nancy Maginnes in 1974, needs to remind us to work harder to instill
love and pride in the Jewish heritage in our children and in our extended
families. We should be nurturing the many Jewish singles who would like to wed
but for whom finding a mate is increasingly difficult. We need to make
conversion, with its daunting commitment to be part of the Jewish people,
user-friendly. And, like it or not, we have to draw a line or two.
is the Jewish month of Elul, time to do accounting, not just in our personal
behavior, but about what we’ve done for the Jewish people in 5770. Bring on the
shofarot. It’s time to wake up.The author is a Jerusalem writer who
concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.