The human spirit: Let's not extol intermarriage

"It’s been a bad week for those of us who still believe that Jews should marry other Jews."

Haredi Wedding (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi Wedding
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/The Jerusalem Post)
It’s been a bad week for those of us who still believe that Jews should marry other Jews.
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 ago.
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.
Writes 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.
The seasonal 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 did.
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.
They’re living 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.”
AS AN 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 intermarriage.
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.
Orthodox 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 leadership.
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 homes.
“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 racism.
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 partner.
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 resonates.
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 said.
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 “Jew.”
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 glorification.
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.