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My new documentary feature film, Out of Faith, tackles the emotional subject of interfaith marriage. It follows three generations in a family headed by grandparents who are Holocaust survivors--all being pulled apart by interfaith marriage.
When Mark DeAngelis, the producer, and I began this film, we thought it would be a straight-forward documentary on Leah's remarkable experiences as a survivor (she's the grandmother). However, as we began filming, I learned that her family situation was causing her great pain--her first grandchild had married out of faith and Leah had not spoken to him in six years. And just months earlier, her second grandchild had "married out." The family was wrestling with a classic immigrant dilemma--how to honor, preserve, and pass on one's own ethnicity while integrating into today's multicultural society.
This resonated deeply for me. I am a product of an interfaith marriage. I grew up familiar with both traditions, while being steeped in neither. In December, we had a Hanukkah bush--usually a towering evergreen topped by a Star of David--and in the spring we celebrated both Easter and Passover. I identified as "half and half," partially belonging to both groups, fully belonging to neither.
At first, I didn't understand why interfaith marriage had caused such a deep rift in Leah's family. Then I began to hear some sobering (and hotly debated) statistics--that almost 50 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews marry out of faith, and less than a third of the offspring from those marriages grow up to identify as Jewish.
Some sociologists predict that if those statistics continue, the Jewish population could drop drastically, to less than a million by 2076. Leah's rigidity, which I had chalked up to close-mindedness, took on a new dimension--a deep grief and concern over the possible end of her people. I began to better understand her. And yet, I felt for her grandkids--they'd married for love. And who is to say that individuals must carry the weight of their heritage on their shoulders?
We could bandy about these statistics forever--it's hard to trust statistics; they can be "spun"; social trends change… etc. Concern and anguish over interfaith marriage is at the core of Leah's position in Out of Faith, and equally as compelling is her granddaughter Cheryl, who says that she always thought she'd marry "a blonde, blue-eyed yeshiva boy" (she says she "got everything but the yeshiva boy")… until she met someone she grew to like, then love, who wasn't Jewish. In other words, fate may throw you a curveball. I know that some would say that you can control who you fall in love with, but I don't think that's the case, or that life is so simple.
As we filmed, Leah's story became even more complicated. I learned that she was not an observant Jew--so just what was it that she objected to about her grandchildren's marriages? Slowly, I came to understand that Leah's refusal to accept her grandchildren's choices stemmed from a complex mix of reasons: she'd lost nearly her entire family in the Holocaust; she'd grown up in an extremely Orthodox family; when she was growing up in Slovakia, interfaith marriage was unheard of. Leah simply could not shake the feeling that if she condoned her grandchildren's interfaith marriages, she would be betraying her ancestors and contributing to the loss of her people.
When the wife of Leah's grandson Danny became pregnant during our filming, even more pressure was exerted on both Leah and Danny--would they reconcile before Leah's first great-grandchild was born? Although I don't want to reveal what happens, I will say that this film explores several themes--conflicting loyalties within families; family estrangement and how it can or cannot be resolved; conflicting loyalties between one's own tribe and the society in which one lives; issues of cultural continuity; and finally, the trajectory of assimilation in this country that seems to cause an inevitable loss of culture over generations.
I, and the film, make no judgments about interfaith marriage--indeed, if it weren't for interfaith marriage, I would not be here today! I think our producer and I come from opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue, and making this film has produced many hours of thoughtful and heated debate.
After working on this film for four years, I still feel that most of us cannot sacrifice our own lives or personal happiness for a sociological point, but at the same time, the film did make me realize that there are sobering ramifications to our "melting pot"/"salad bowl" beautiful diverse society. With pluralism and cultural mixing it up comes wonderful new things, but also a dilution and loss of culture. Making the film has made me re-examine what my own relationship to Judaism is, and what I want it to be, and what I want to leave for the future. I'm still working on it.
In addition to raising sobering questions about Jewish cultural continuity, this film also illustrates the wrenching consequences of family estrangements. When Leah's first grandson "married out," Leah chose to cut off contact. This resulted in her grandson's wife having no exposure to Leah, a Jewish grandmother, a survivor, and a living embodiment of Eastern European Jewish culture. Perhaps if Leah had chosen a different tactic, her grandson's wife and her great grandchild would have a better understanding and appreciation for Jewish life and culture.
I've been asked what the appropriate communal response to intermarriage should be--but I have no answers. I think each situation is unique and deeply personal, and each one of us must make our own decisions.
I can say that I wish my parents had given me a much deeper knowledge and understanding of both sides of my heritage. And that I would have rebelled against any "rules" about who I should date or marry. Ultimately, I think that more is accomplished through relationship than estrangement.
It's my hope that Out of Faith can be used as a springboard for discussion about interfaith marriage--certainly in Jewish communities, and in many other ethnic communities across the country. I hope the film stirs viewers to explore what their heritage means to them, how they want it to inform their lives, and what they want to pass on to future generations. I also hope the film can bring together people from opposite sides of the "intermarriage" divide. I hope that the film can help each "side" understand each other a little more and create a little more tolerance on each "side," so perhaps some families can avoid six-year (or lifelong) family estrangements.