The Forward is launching The Seesaw, a new advice column which will focus on the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families.
While the Jewish establishment wrestles with the communal implications of interfaith relationships, a growing number of American Jews are simply living in one. For them, intermarriage isn’t a problem or a solution but a day-to-day, Hanukkah to Christmas, bubbe to grammy, brisket to pork chop reality. Like a seesaw, life in an interfaith relationship involves a lot of back and forth and up and down, with no expectation of ever reaching an equilibrium. This is what makes it challenging, and also what makes it interesting.
When the Forward started its legendary advice column “A Bintel Brief” in 1906, it was to help Jews navigate the foreign world that was America. In this tradition, we hope to continue to help American Jews and their partners, families and friends navigate the foreign terrain they live in now, even if it happens to be in their homes.
Starting in March, we will bring together a panel of people who have gone through it themselves: writers, experts and all-around well-meaning yentes to answer questions submitted by our readers about life in an interfaith world. Every week, we will post your questions — anonymously — along with answers from three or four of our columnists. It’s a diverse group, from James Ponet, who officiated at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Susan Katz Miller who wrote a book about “being both” to Jim Keen, a non-Jewish father in the midwest who is raising his kids Jewish and Laurel Snyder, author of “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher” — and many more.
We aim to offer a mix of insights and opinions on everything from whether you should get a Christmas tree to how best to explain circumcision to your wife’s Swedish family.
The Seesaw won’t be driven by one particular agenda or point-of-view about interfaith relationships. This isn’t about getting more people to convert, or convincing your Aunt Sharon that your kids are fine attending both Hebrew school and Sunday mass. Instead, we want to create a conversation that represents the diversity of feelings and ideas found in the Jewish community — ambivalence included.
We invite you to submit your questions about interfaith life to firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t hold back! Remember, answers will be posted anonymously, so hit us up with the strange, the silly, and the altogether embarrassing. We only want to help.
A still from the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall” represents a fading paradigm of intermarriage.
These days, more American Jewish women than men are marrying out, as the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis recently reported. The story’s headline, “Jewish Woman Is New Face of Intermarriage, Pew Study Data Reveals,” led me to wonder: If Jewish women have become the demographic “face” of the phenomenon, will we soon become its cultural face as well? Will “intermarriage” now imply a Jewish bride? Will we be hearing from Alexandra Portnoy?
As it stands, there’s no cultural stereotype about Jewish women intermarrying. We find individual representations, but no consistent script. We might think of the cringe-inducing plot line in “The Brothers McMullan,” involving an Irish-Catholic man’s broken engagement to a rich Jewish woman. And, if we go back further to “The Way We Were,” there’s Barbra Streisand falling for Robert Redford, as one does, and marrying him, as one does if presented with the opportunity. “The Nanny” comes to mind. Also “Rhoda.” But there are too few examples for a cliché to have formed.
Stereotypes of Jewish women — and there are plenty — have historically related to how (some) Jewish men see Jewish women, rather than how Jewish women are seen more broadly. The general culture doesn’t seem all that curious about what, if anything, goes on between Jewish women and non-Jewish men.
“Intermarriage,” unless otherwise specified, refers to men marrying out. A 2012 New York Times article about Jewish-Asian intermarriage mentioned seven such couples, all Jewish men married to Asian women, yet made no reference to gender. For those of us who grew up with Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and “Seinfeld,” this default can feel eternal.
Things weren’t always this way. In 19th-century France, depictions of Jewish intermarriage typically involved Jewish women. Jewish wives or fiancées appear in countless works, often with “juive” in the title: plays like Théophile Gautier and Noël Parfait’s 1846 La Juive de Constantine and Hippolyte Lucas’s 1849 Rachel ou la belle Juive, and fiction including Petrus Borel’s 1833 Dina, la belle juive.
(JTA) — For an article I wrote on a recent flare-up in the intermarriage debate, I did two interviews with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twice I asked him whether there was any value in articulating a communal preference for in-marriage over intermarriage, and the second time I followed up by asking,
“Is it something you encourage or prefer?” Neither time did he give a direct answer.
Clearly, Jacobs is walking a sort-of tightrope in a movement that, while more accepting of intermarriage than its more traditional counterparts, still has its divisions: A significant minority of Reform rabbis don’t officiate at intermarriages, and there has been some debate recently about whether Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s policy barring intermarried rabbis should be rescinded.
Nonetheless, it it is worth noting that we have reached a landmark moment in American Jewry’s lengthy and highly ambivalent obsession with intermarriage when the head of the country’s largest Jewish denomination will not say outright that marrying a Jew, a core tradition, is better than intermarrying.
It’s easy for liberal Jews to write off the hullabaloo regarding the dating habits of one of Israel’s better known sons as just that: Hullabaloo. Sound and fury signifying nothing, or maybe signifying a prurient interest in famous lives, or possibly signifying a helplessly stultified and hidebound worldview that has nothing to do with us. Or, you know, politics.
But the Sturm und Drang in certain Jewish circles about Yair Netanyahu’s (maybe?) girlfriend is bigger than that – as evidenced by the speed with which his father the Prime Minister has turned around to deny the romance. It goes to the heart of the Jewish experience and the soul of our people. Who are we, how do we define ourselves? Whether or not we realize it, that’s what we’re talking about, and ultimately, these questions go to the heart and soul of how the Jewish faith is conducted everywhere, not least in the Jewish State.
Liberals often forget that for many Jews, the question of one Jew’s dating habits is, genuinely, the business of all Jews. If the younger Netanyahu marries a Gentile, these Jews will (genuinely) feel it to be a catastrophe – a national catastrophe, not just for the State, but for the entire Jewish people. We see more than a little of this fear reflected any time an American Jewish leader starts talking in dire tones about intermarriage.
This is, of course, true as regards any Jew’s decision to marry out, but it’s more powerfully true when the Jew in question is well-known. Marit ayin (appearance) plays a powerful role in how Jewish law is interpreted; minhag k’din (“custom as law”) is no joke. A well-known Jew can lead others astray, new customs can arise, and these will, eventually, change the way that people understand the law.
Which, I tell myself, is fine – those folks can believe whatever they want. I don’t daven with them.
Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is in many ways symbolic of the American Jewish experience. While Jews are a tiny minority — just 2% of the population — America is home to the world’s largest and arguably its freest Jewish community.
Jewishness has ceased to be an obstacle to success as it was for much of Jewish history. Economic and social boundaries between American Jews and non-Jews are virtually nonexistent, Jews are welcome in nearly every school, business, or neighborhood, Jewish culture is admired and frequently imitated, and Jews are attractive as romantic and marital partners.
Many observers applaud the decreased intolerance that allows individuals from differing ethnic and religious heritages to befriend and marry each other. It seems likely that intermarriage is not only the result of this tolerance but also one of its major causes.
Even more extraordinary than the opportunities accorded American Jews is the fact that they currently enjoy these blessings without needing to submerge their ethnic and religious particularism. In multicultural America, Jews, like other ethnic and religious groups, are encouraged to celebrate their differences.
Jews today can feel both more Jewish and more American by exploring their distinctiveness. Significant numbers of American Jews are dynamically engaged by Jewish culture, history, and religious expression. Indeed, high levels of educational and occupational achievement are characteristic of many Americans with rich, multidimensional Jewish lives.
However, their are important issues that arise with increasing numbers of intermarriage. Intermarried Jews and their families are much less likely than inmarried families to be widely or deeply connected with Jews or Judaism.
American Jewish intermarried families are far from monolithic, including diverse backgrounds and attitudes. But they display a dramatic gender dimension, which is typical of other American minority groups: Intermarried Jewish women often aim to raise Jewish children. Intermarried Jewish men, in contrast, frequently articulate ambivalent feelings about religion in general and Judaism specifically — and about Jewish women. They are less likely to transmit Jewish religious culture to the next generation; their children are much less likely to receive Jewish education or identify as Jews when they reach adulthood.
The greater religious identification of American Jewish women and the lesser identification of Jewish men, which turns historical Jewish patriarchy on its head, is yet another aspect of American acculturation.
Jewish communal organizations and institutions are overwhelmingly committed to welcoming these intermarried families in all their diversity, and to facilitating their connections to Jewish life. The conversation about this important issue will continue this week as the UJA-Federation of New York hosts a Forum on Engaging Interfaith Families that will explore challenges and opportunities related to that goal.
Sylvia Barack Fishman is professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and author of “Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage.”
Let’s face it. Unless you send your child to a Jewish day school, Camp Ramah or Brandeis University, there is a high chance that he or she will become romantically involved with a non-Jew. While I appreciate Jane Eisner’s concerns in For 2013, A Marriage Agenda, she does not address some of the fundamental issues as to why non-Orthodox American Jews choose to marry non-Jews or do not get married at all.
Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.
How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.
One major reason that only 50% of non-Orthodox Jews are married by age 31 for women and by 34 for men is that it has become prohibitively expensive for the middle class to raise children in the United States. A recent government report found that on average, it costs $235,000 for a middle-income family to raise a child from birth to age 17, excluding college, which can cost another few hundred thousand dollars. This figure does not take into account sending one’s child to a Jewish day school, synagogue membership, Jewish summer camp, Hebrew school, bar/bat-mitzvah, and so on.
Shimon Peres apparently thought when he convened his Israeli Presidential Conference this week in Jerusalem that he could bring together several hundred cutting-edge thinkers and doers in the fields of technology, economics, international relations and Jewish thought to interact, share, clash and perhaps create something new, with a few thousand bright people sitting on the sidelines to listen and kibitz and add their own wisdom. From what I could gather, he was about half right.
Now, I couldn’t attend all of the dozens of sessions that were going on simultaneously, but the ones I did attend fell into two categories (and other people I’ve spoken with had the same impression). The ones on the global economy and the Middle East were interesting, sometimes dazzlingly so. I didn’t get to any technology panels, but I hear they were equally compelling. The ones on changing Jewish identity, less so. They tended to end up going around in circles, sometimes in the most embarrassing ways.
It’s partly the nature of the beast, and partly who you bring to the table. The interesting questions about Jewish identity today are to a large degree the ones that people don’t know how to ask. Either you bring together the old experts who have been having this discussion over and over for years and watch them go through their paces yet again, which happened in several panels during the conference, or you bring in new people who are struggling to find new meanings and try to have them talk about their struggles. The trouble is, they frequently don’t know how to articulate the things they’re struggling with. You can interview them to bring it out, but you have to have some idea of what to ask, and you have to let them talk. Unfortunately, the conference repeatedly handed the American seekers over to Israeli journalists who don’t have the first clue about the struggles and ambivalences of young American Jews. So they either ask insider questions that draw blank stares or they find ways to insult the interviewees.
This brings me back to Sarah Silverman. I blogged earlier about her appearance at an opening plenary session on “recipes for a better tomorrow” and the embarrassing efforts of Israeli TV anchor Yigal Ravid to be funny and pry into her personal life instead of letting her talk about better tomorrows. She appeared again on the closing day, at a panel discussion on “Jewish Identity: Younger Generation vs. Ancient Tradition,” and the result was just as painful. Actually, it was worse this time, because of the math. She shared the stage with three other seekers searching for words — Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, Boston biotech entrepreneur Safi Bahcall and Russian blogger extraordinaire Anton Nossik — and not one but two Israelis who didn’t know what to ask, but asked anyway. Silverman finally got to say something thoughtful about Jewish identity, but not because of her examiners.