I think Keren McGinity has a crystal ball. McGinity, a groundbreaking scholar, captures the telling details and the idiosyncratic trajectory of interfaith relationships and marriages in America. But as academic as McGinity’s work is, it is also highly personal. Her parents, both Jewish, divorced when she was ten years-old. Each of them went on to have enduring marriages with non-Jewish partners. McGinity herself was in an interfaith marriage for a decade and is raising a Jewish daughter.
In 2009 McGinity published a trailblazing study of women and intermarriage aptly titled “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America” In the book she contends that the American Jewish community has had the wrong impression about intermarriage for much of the twentieth century: it’s not actually bad for the Jews.
In a Huffington Post piece from late October, author Yona Zeldis McDonough positions her latest, highly readable novel, “Two of a Kind,” as a reflection of the growing intermarriage rate between Jews and non-Jews as reported in the by now notorious Pew study.
Certainly, we can take Zeldis McDonough’s story about Christina Connelly, a Christian interior decorator, and Andy Stern, a Jewish obstetrician, as a tale of intermarriage in general. However, for me, its value lies in its particular focus on intermarriage the second time round under the huppah — or at the altar. Handwringing about Jews marrying out of the faith is usually in reaction to young people and first marriages.
Less is said about Jews who choose to pursue long-term relationships or marriage with non-Jews after becoming widowed or divorced in middle age or later.
I gave my 10-year-old son, Zev, the Pew survey on American Jews. The entire thing. One Sunday afternoon at our kitchen table.
It all started the night before, when an undergraduate student at Hillel at Ohio University, where I am a rabbi, told my son during our Sabbath dinner that he recently found out he is Jewish. My son (pictured below) asked this student for clarification. He wanted to know more about this just-discovered identity; it was as if the student had found Judaism underneath the bed in his dorm room, or at the bookstore while buying books for class. The student replied: “My mom informed me that her parents were Jewish. So it turns out that I’m Jewish!”
Later that evening, back at the house, my son wanted to talk. Or rather, he wanted to monologue.
“Judaism,” he began, “is not just inside you like a dormant virus.” I turned to my husband with a look of desperation on my face. My son continued: “I don’t think it’s waiting there for you to realize it exists, or for you to coax it out, or for it to be teased out by some long-lost relative. In fact,” he asserted, “Judaism does not exist if you’re not practicing it.” He went on to claim, basically, that there is no such thing as an inherited Judaism. To the horror of grandparents everywhere, my son actually proclaimed that a person “isn’t just Jewish because their parents or grandparents are Jewish.” I took a gulp of my Shabbat wine and grabbed my computer. The Pew survey and my son had collided. My 10-year-old was talking about many of the same things we’d all been debating since the Pew survey had come out. I had the hysterical urge, on the Sabbath no less, to find out how he would respond to the Pew questions. I Googled around, and eventually found it: the 40-page survey of U.S. Jews.
“Ima, why are you asking me all these questions?” he wanted to know the following afternoon. I fed him ice cream to keep him seated. It was a long survey. By page 12, even I wanted out. I wondered how the hell anybody stayed on the phone for such an exhaustive list of questions, many of which, had I been asked, I would have said, “Well, if you asked me yesterday, I would have said one thing, but since you’re asking me today, I’m going to say something totally different.” Because even I, a rabbi, don’t feel Jewish in exactly the same way each day.
Until recently, I was a poster-child for the kind of attrition from Jewish life that the recent Pew Study, subject of so much angst in the media, describes. I eschewed nearly all organized Jewish activities in the decade after my first Hillel dinner at college, which I fled screaming.
Okay, I wasn’t quite screaming, but I certainly didn’t go back to more Hillel dinners.
An early stint at Jewish day school — supposedly a guarantee of future involvement in religion — hardly indoctrinated me. Instead, it put me in an odd position: It gave me affection for many of the customs and ideas that are associated with Judaism, but it also turned me off of hyper-organized religion forever.
There was a level of competition and sanctimoniousness involved in the religious part of the synagogue and day school experience that I never wanted to replicate. I loved being a Jew, but not listening to people brag about having the Rabbi over for shabbat, about being Jewisher than thou.
It’s true that, over time, I also became an atheist. But I would argue that my non-belief alone wouldn’t have kept me from practicing religion — I enjoy prayer and ritual and find them meaningful. Rather, what I disliked was the condescension that the allegedly more pious offered towards the less.
Mazel tov, Priscilla and Mark! You pulled it off: a surprise wedding. What was supposed to be a medical school graduation party for a newly minted M.D. turned out to be an event in which she collected a M.R.S. degree and also wedded a newly minted billionaire.
The wedding was strategically timed to happen the day after the huge news of Facebook’s IPO, which priced the company at more than $100 billion. The news was still being assimilated and the world was focused on the fluctuating stock of Zuckerberg’s compan — not his personal life.
Reactions to the wedding have been largely confined to the gossip columns, ranging from speculation over the existence of a prenup to the designer of Priscilla’s wedding dress to who sang at the reception.
In all of the coverage and commentary, however, there was no mention of intermarriage. The fact that a Zuckerberg was marrying a Chan never entered the conversation. Not only has criticism or condemnation been absent, but the fact that the bride was Chinese and the groom Jewish has barely been mentioned in any of the reports or reactions to the wedding.
What is most remarkable about this decision by America’s highest-profile Jew to intermarry is that there was nothing remarkable about it.
Part of it was that the Zuckerberg-Chan union came as no surprise. The couple has been together since college. He has been describing himself as an atheist for years and has no visible connection to Jewish life or religion. There was no reason why his longtime girlfriend’s faith or ethnic background would be any impediment to marriage.
The non-reaction to the marriage is evidence of a long journey in just a few generations. American Jews have long been light-years away from the mindset of turn-of-the-past-century Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” who banishes his daughter Chava from his sight after she eloped with a non-Jew. The Broadway audiences watching “Fiddler” in the 60s and 70s already viewed his reaction as extreme and outdated. Yet, they could still identify and understand Tevye’s disappointment and anger, which many of them would have had to face when they brought home their first non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend.
By the 1980s and 1990s, when I came of age in the U.S., anger over intermarriage was already considered déclassé. A certain measure of parental disappointment was acceptable, as long as they quickly got over it. My parents stayed quiet when I introduced them to my non-Jewish boyfriends, but made it clear to me they were hoping that eventually I’d be standing under the chuppah with somebody Jewish, and that if I didn’t, they would be disappointed — that disappointment would likely have been channeled into finding indirect ways to pressure me into creating a Christmas tree-less home and sending my half-Jewish kids to Hebrew school. It is likely that I would have intermarried Chelsea Clinton-style — with an attempt to assuage everyone’s discomfort with a shout-out to the religions of both the bride and the groom.
The Clinton interfaith nuptials two years ago, unlike Zuckerberg’s, did, in fact, kick-start a conversation about intermarriage in the Jewish community. But the parents of the bride and groom themselves had no comment. Today, expressing disappointment when your child marries a non-Jew is more unusual. Expressing that feeling is viewed as insensitive and politically incorrect — as is any attempt to encourage conversion or pressuring the couple to agree to raising their children Jewish.
Sarah Seltzer came away from watching “The Social Network,” the movie about the founding of Facebook, peeved about its (non)portrayal of women. In her post, “The (Male-Only) Social Network,” she quoted Maya Dusenbery about “the wall of giggle and boobs that composes the film’s background.” I, too, came away miffed about this, but also thinking about the fact that those giggles and boobs belonged to a large (excuse the pun) number of young Asian women.
In a scene in the film, in which the Mark Zuckerberg character pulls his friend Eduardo Saverin out of an AEΠ (a Jewish fraternity) party to talk to him, Zuckerberg glances over at a group of Asian female Harvard students and asks what they are doing there. Saverin answers with something about how Asian girls like “us,” meaning Jewish guys. A bit later, two such students come on to Zuckerberg and Saverin and one ends up going out with the latter.
As someone who has observed the growth in the number of couples made up of Jewish men and Asian women (especially so in Northern California, where I live and where there is a relatively high rate of interracial relationships in general), I took note of Saverin’s offhand line and wondered whether he was referencing a false stereotype or a legitimate trend.
When the Forward published my essay on being in an interfaith relationship last year, I could never have predicted that I would eventually decide to put together an entire anthology of essays by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. Before I wrote my essay, I had carried ideas for it in my head for a long time, and I imagine, many other women carry around such narratives, too. When my relationship began, more than a year ago, I was flooded with all kinds of emotions, typical of any new relationship. But there was also another layer of pure bewilderment. After all, I had never before been in an interfaith relationship; I had never planned to be in one; I was specifically trying not to be in one.
In recent months, I’ve drawn on the support of women who also happened to be writers and who were also in interfaith relationships or marriage; and I’ve drawn on the rich content on sites like interfaithfamily.com and on Julie Weiner’s excellent “In the Mix” blog, based on her column of the same name. Books like “Still Jewish” (NYU Press) by Keren McGinity, and “Double or Nothing” (Brandeis University Press) by Sylvia Barack Fishman provided a sociological and historical perspective.