Intermarriage Around the World

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As much as intermarried couples face a struggle for acceptance from some U.S. Jews, the American Jewish community is easily the most enlightened in the world when it comes to responding constructively to intermarriage. Depending on what country you’re comparing the U.S. to, we either have a low rate of intermarriage–Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries have intermarriage rates far north of 50%–or a high one–countries where the Jewish community is dominated by the Orthodox, like Canada, South Africa and Turkey, have very low rates of intermarriage.

An article in the San Jose Mercury News (free login required) talks about how Reform worship is beginning to appear in Poland. It begins with the story of a woman who “was discouraged from joining Warsaw’s Orthodox Jewish community by one member because her husband isn’t Jewish.” The story continues to talk about intermarried Jews and children of intermarriage who don’t feel welcomed by the country’s Orthodox Jewish community, which is the only one officially recognized by the state.

The fact that the Orthodox Jewish community is the only officially recognized community is a problem throughout Europe. With less division between church and state than in the U.S., some Jewish communities in Europe actually receive funding from the state, which makes it that much harder for more progressive options, like Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Judaism, to gain a foothold. And without progressive options, intermarried couples have no place to go.

The former Soviet Union is a particularly complicated case. The large Jewish population (345,000, good for fifth-largest in the world behind the U.S., Israel, France and Canada, respectively) has made it a prime target of Chabad as well as the Reform movement’s international outreach. All of these organizations face an uphill battle in a country where religion was rigorously suppressed under communism and where anti-Semitism is rife. In some areas, Jews are intermarried at a rate of 90%. Moreover, many of the “best and the brightest” Jews decamped for Israel and the U.S. after the fall of communism. As this article in the Jerusalem Post states, “the communities are now gathering together the pieces, putting them back together as well as they can, and moving ahead with the age-old tasks of building communal institutions and educating the young.”

Unlike in the States, where many intermarried families feel the relatively equal tug between one partner’s Jewish heritage and the other partner’s Christian heritage, in the former Soviet Union, there is no Jewish family tradition that Jewish partners can draw from. Quite the reverse, in fact. While Jews were as atheistic and irreligious as everyone else under communism, they were still identified as Jewish on their identity cards and are now subject to anti-Semitism because of their Jewish identity. Even though they know little of Jewish culture or religion, the greater society regularly reminds them of their difference as Jews. So far, this kind of negative identity formation has helped strengthen some Jewish communities–nothing breeds brotherhood like a shared enemy–but it has also sapped the country of many of its wealthiest and best-educated Jews. How it will all turn out is anyone’s guess.

A wonderful first-person piece in the San Diego Jewish Journal has a slightly different take on intermarriage outside the U.S. It’s written by a young Jewish-Chinese man from the U.S. and records his experience on his first trip to Israel as part of the free birthright israel program.

I’ve always felt I was mediocre at being Jewish, reform even by reform standards, so I was pleasantly surprised that the thirty-one others were mostly on Birthright for the same reason I was: at 26 years old, we were the cut-off age for the trip, and we would have felt like idiots missing out on ten free days in Israel. The fact we were Jewish was a footnote to our identities, kind of like your college major that had nothing to do with your career.

El Al had an open bar policy and within two hours of our flight, we crowded the aisles, chugged Israeli merlot, and high-fived over everything and nothing. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, though, my merlot buzz evaporated after I saw fifty-plus soldiers wielding machine guns. This was followed by security checks, metal detectors, and bombed-out homes. Maybe it was my laid-back SoCal upbringing, but this was not somewhere I wanted to live.

Like other children of intermarriage, his attitude towards Israel is ambivalent, even in some cases bordering on hostile. Since his Judaism is not a central part of his identity, he has a hard time understanding why young people would stay in a country surrounded by enemies and subject to a universal draft. But seeing the way the country is bonded by tragedy helps him understand a little better what makes Israelis so tied to their country. Like Russia, nothing breeds brotherhood like a shared enemy.

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