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Recently I attended a long-time friend’s Conservative Jewish wedding, and the event found me reflecting on my own interfaith wedding, now ten years in the past. The wedding took place in the Conservative synagogue she’d attended since her bat mitzvah, a large, well-appointed synagogue outside a major East-Coast city.
The ceremony started in the traditional Jewish way, with the ketubah signing and bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s head and face, in a reference to Jacob’s being tricked into marrying Leah instead of her sister Rachel. As two rabbis watched, friends and relatives signed the ketubah, and I felt tears spring to my eyes as I remembered my own friends bending over our ketubah to pen their names in Hebrew characters. Today’s bride was one of those friends. My maid of honor was also present at this friend’s wedding. She is not Jewish, and had carefully transcribed her name in Hebrew onto my ketubah before also signing in English. Sitting next to me at our mutual friend’s wedding, she turned to me and smiled.
Other moments, though, emphasized the difference between this wedding and my own. We chose not to do a bedecken, for example, and our rabbi was all right with this. At my own wedding, my spouse and I each circled the other seven times, and then we circled each other simultaneously once. Yes, I felt dizzy in the ninety-degree heat! At my friend’s ceremony, she circled her groom seven times, as is traditional, but he did not circle her. Despite these differences, tears again sprang to my eyes as I saw the bride and groom make faces alternately amused and loving at each other. I remembered my gathered friends and family laughing at the funnier facial exchanges during our own circling.
These small differences, though, hardly bothered me, and in fact, served as pleasant reminders of my ceremony. I find that I cry more at weddings with Jewish elements now than I do at Christian or non-religious ceremonies: the distinctive elements of a Jewish ceremony have such a strong association in my mind.
During that day’s wedding ceremony itself, however, my mood shifted as one of the rabbis addressed the couple under the chuppah. First he made the guests laugh: “It is easy to marry the person you love, but much more difficult to love the person you married.” A chuckle rose up through the audience, emerging from my own mouth as well.
The rabbi moved on, though, to a comment that gave more pain than amusement. “We have here what could be called a best-case scenario.” I expected another amusing quip, but instead, I ended up feeling awkward, and then even angry. “Both the bride and groom come from Jewish families; both of their parents are still married, and both of them also attend the same synagogue,” he explained. I felt a sudden stab of anger and even rejection.
By implication, my own marriage was not a best-case scenario, on two counts, no matter how I might feel about it! Not only has my husband married someone who is not Jewish, but he married someone whose parents are no longer themselves together! Did missing two out of three constitute a worst-case scenario, or something in-between?
When I got over my initial shock, I wondered who else in the wood-paneled sanctuary might have felt a sudden jolt of pain at the rabbi’s words. Who else there was divorced? Married to the son or daughter of divorced parents? Or (possibly worse!), dating or married to someone of a different faith? It seemed a reasonable guess that these descriptions applied to more than a few people in the room. Was it fair of the clergy to imply that we were all in something less than a best-case scenario?
I could give the rabbi’s words a more charitable spin: As the rabbi knew, my friend’s mother converted to Judaism prior to marrying her father, making her own inclusion in the “best-case scenario” in some ways a near miss. Perhaps the rabbi’s words were meant to sooth any fears the new in-laws’ may have had about the Jewishness of their new daughter-in-law? Perhaps he meant only to reinforce her status as a “member of the tribe”?
Whatever the rabbi’s reasoning, the fact remains that this was one of the first times when I, even if indirectly or without intention, felt the sting of wider Judaism’s fear of intermarriage. Despite that sting, I chose to take the moment as a reminder that we have the responsibility to our partners, of whatever gender or marital status, to create our own best-case scenarios. Those of us who have joined ourselves together with a ketubah have a valid and binding covenant that enjoins us to create our own best-case scenarios, whether those involve intermarriage, divorce in a part of the family or other elements of awkwardness.
As my friend’s new husband stomped on the glass (I remembered hoping my new husband would not step on my foot as we crushed the glass together), I resolved, again, to work to create my own best-case scenario for myself, for my husband, for our daughters and for our loved ones.
This past week, the JCC Maccabi Games were played in my city, Dallas. Dallas was one of three cities hosting regional games this summer.
The Maccabi Games are an Olympic-style sports competition held each summer in North America. It’s the second largest organized sports program for Jewish teenagers in the world and is part of the worldwide Maccabi Movement. Jewish kids, age 12-16, from all over the world compete. Thirty delegations competed in Dallas including ones from Australia, Mexico, Panama, Israel, and cities across the United States.
The games strive to instill a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jewish values in participants and strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. The other goal is to foster many of the same values as the Olympics–respect and sportsmanship, excellence on and off the field, and friendships that transcend gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, political and religious differences.
It’s the last of these values that I appreciate the most. Sure, there are kids from across the denominational spectrum competing but athletes from interfaith homes can participate too. The Maccabi Games’ definition of “Jewish” is having “at least one Jewish parent.” At the Maccabi Games, there are no half-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, not-really-Jewish athletes. There is no one checking whether kids are matrilineal or patrilineal Jews. There is simply one kind of competitor, Jewish.
Matrilineal and patrilineal Jews compete side by side, as teammates and competitors. Children from wholly Jewish and interfaith homes share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, nondenominational and unaffiliated; and those with high levels of Jewish engagement and little Jewish connection work and play together. All the labels that the Jewish community allows to divide us melt away at the games.
As an intermarried Jewish mom of one of the boys in the Los Angeles Westside delegation said, “We do the [Jewish] holidays, but my son never had a bar mitzvah. The generosity of spirit, of acceptance, was wonderful. No one treated him differently.”
At other times, differences were celebrated. A friend who hosted two basketball players from Australia told me with excitement about how they discovered at Shabbat dinner that the tune for the Hamotzi, or blessing over the challah, was not universal. She and her family were delighted to learn the Aussies’ melody.
To me, these things are what make the event magical. They remind us (or should remind us) that there is more that unites us than divides us. Yet, as a community, we still spend so much time focusing on what makes us different and quantifying and measuring who is really or more Jewish. If we understand the power of respect and acceptance to build Jewish identity and connection, why do we allow the differences to separate us?
I don’t know the answer. But I hope that these athletes, who are part of the Jewish future, will grow up to challenge the rhetoric. I hope they will see the rich diversity of the Jewish people as positive. I hope, that because of this experience they will work to create a more inclusive and united Jewish community.