Can you be for inmarriage without being against intermarriage? My gut says yes. But explaining it is the tricky part.
When people of different religious backgrounds ask what I do, I tell them I work for a Jewish non-profit that provides resources for interfaith couples with a Jewish partner. “So you encourage Jews to marry Christians?” they inevitably ask. Well, no, I stammer, we don’t promote intermarriage, but if people do intermarry, we’re all for welcoming them and showing them the beauty, joys and community of Judaism. Their eyes are usually glazed over by that point.
But Andrew Silow-Carroll, the ever-thoughtful editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, has written an essay on the subject that is more eye-opening than eye-glazing. It’s all the more powerful because Silow-Carroll readily admits his instinctive reaction to intermarriage is not positive:
… on Sundays you become everyone’s Aunt Pesha, scanning the [The New York] Times wedding announcements for Jewish names.
You kvell over the Jewish-Jewish weddings, tut-tut over the mixed marriages, puzzle over the ambiguous pairings. “The last names are Jewish, but the wedding was conducted by a justice of the peace,” you parse. “Do I say ‘mazel tov’ or ‘congratulations’?”
I’ve even invented a word that describes the uncertain feeling that overcomes you when you don’t know whether to clap or cry: eqvellocal (ee-QVELL-uh-cul).
But, rationally, he knows better. He knows Jews don’t marry non-Jews because it’s taboo, or because they’re trying to rebel against their parents:
Jews don’t marry non-Jews today because they’re blonde or have tiny noses or Mayflower roots.
Jewish Americans marry non-Jewish Americans because Americans marry Americans. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews have all but disappeared in the past 50 years, while acceptance of Jews among non-Jews is nearly complete. Besides, Jews are a tiny minority comfortable among a vast majority. Odds alone favor non-Jews meeting Jews, and falling in love.
As a modern worldly person, he recognizes that criticizing intermarriage is both intolerant and fruitless. But does accepting that Jews marry non-Jews also mean not encouraging Jews to marry Jews? As he says, “How can any of us defend inmarriage without sounding like Archie Bunker?”
His answer, as always, is eloquent:
I care deeply about the chain of Jewish culture and feel the best way to keep it going is not only to marry a Jewish woman but to raise kids to appreciate Jewish culture in a positive, sustaining, organic, and holistic way.
At one point, my wife and I made a deal: If we were going to observe Shabbat, we were going to make it special, not a curfew. The kids should experience it as a series of “thou shalts,” instead of “thou shalt nots.” Thou shalt enjoy a Friday night meal served on our best china. Thou shalt look forward to a morning at synagogue with close friends and family. Thou shalt laugh with other kids who are similarly raised believing Shabbat is a day for community, for sticking close to home, for languid afternoons around a neighbor’s table.
Of course, when the kids grow up, they’ll make their own choices. But they will at least make an informed choice if they go down another path.
I kvell when Jews marry Jews, because I’m part of a counterculture, and I like the company. And because I know it’s hard enough to raise Jewish kids if both parents happen to be Jewish. That is not to say that intermarried families aren’t doing a heroic job of raising Jewish kids. Many are. But it’s harder.
If I have any quibble–and it’s a small one–with Silow-Carroll’s argument for promoting inmarriage without denigrating intermarriage, it’s the statement, “But it’s harder.” Rather than focus on how it’s “harder” for intermarried couples to raise Jewish children, focus on how it’s easier for inmarried families. Rather than focus on the challenge of intermarriage, focus on the opportunity of inmarriage.
Here’s how I would put it: you can have a rewarding Jewish life in an intermarried home–and many people do–but it’s a little easier to have that life in an inmarried one.
But the important point, as Silow-Carroll recognizes, is focusing on the pleasures of Judaism. Appeals to the pull of tradition, to demographics–these only mean something to people ensconced in a particular community. Young Jewish-Americans are citizens of the world. They live in multiple overlapping communities. They don’t want to be pushed to declare their residence in any particular one. They will do what they like, rather than what they’re told. The Jewish community may have a reputation for laying on the guilt, but guilt trips stopped working about 30 years ago.
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