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A Good Role Model

August 12, 2009

It was only after I had devoted most of my adult professional life to teaching Hebrew language and Jewish studies that I discovered my career choice was deemed unusual for a person in my circumstances.

I had been a Judaic Studies educator for 15 years in a local day school. For 10 years I'd worked as a teacher, and for the last five years I also served as the Judaic Studies coordinator. I was, in fact, responsible for writing almost the entire Judaic Studies curriculum for the school, enabling it to acquire accreditation. It was an achievement of which I was immensely proud. But a few months after I left the school, one of pouring coffeethe parents in the community approached me as I sat in a local coffee shop. As the meeting was spontaneous and informal, she was much more open with me than she might have been had I still been working at the school. It was then, I discovered, that she and other parents evidently thought it "odd" that someone "like me," that is, someone who was intermarried, had chosen a profession dedicated to promoting Jewish culture and education.

"Why would you think it odd?" I asked. Call me naïve, but I was genuinely perplexed by her statement.

"Well," she said, "Since you made the decision to leave the community when you married, I would have thought you'd want a 'clean break.'" As she spoke, she seemed just a tad belligerent, as if she was put out by having to explain something that to her seemed patently obvious.

I wasn't spoiling for an argument, nor was I close enough to this woman to want to take the time either to defend the choice I'd made regarding my profession or enlighten her regarding Jews who chose partners of a different faith--that by doing so, they didn't feel they were "leaving the community." I simply finished my coffee, smiled and bid her goodbye.

But I couldn't forget her words. They prompted me to wonder whether this woman was an anomaly, or if she represented the view held by a majority of parents and perhaps even some of my professional associates.

I decided to conduct my own private investigation. I rang up a colleague with whom I had worked closely for many years and invited her to lunch. After the requisite small talk, I asked her directly if, during the years we had worked together at the school, she had gotten a feeling from the community that I was "out of my element" because I was intermarried.

My former colleague seemed a little uncomfortable until I reassured her that I wouldn't take offense at anything she might say--I just wanted to know.

"Since you ask, I would have to say yes," she said. "It was certainly not a majority, but some parents were not comfortable with you--or rather, with you being intermarried. No one ever doubted your mastery of the subject matter, or your creativity. And surely no one doubted your ability to teach, but I have to say that there were those who felt that by being intermarried, you were not an appropriate role model for the children, especially as head of the Judaic Department. Some parents felt it was a question of ma'arit ayin."

In Hebrew, the term "ma'arit ayin" literally means "the appearance of the eye," but what it really signifies is that even if something is technically kosher, it can be unacceptable if it doesn't appear kosher.

So I discovered that despite my academic credentials and professional achievements, by being intermarried I did not appear 100 percent kosher. To some, the fact that I not only taught well but had inspired a passion for Judaic studies in my students mattered less than the fact that I hadn't married within the faith and was hence a "bad example."

My friend looked disconcerted, as if she was afraid she had affronted me. But I wasn't hurt; I was just surprised and embarrassed that I had been so involved with my work that I never really picked up on what she was now telling me. I told her so.

The look of worry on my friend's face disappeared and was replaced by a smile.

"You should be glad you were unaware of the petty prejudices of a few people. It may have affected how you approached your work. At the very least, you might have felt hurt--worse yet, you could even have become bitter and resentful. Such feelings would have destroyed your relationship with the children, your peers and the school. And since you'd put your heart and soul into the school, in this case ignorance was really bliss."

She was right, of course. And when I thought about it, I realized that I wasn't totally oblivious to the attitudes of some parents, for there were those who had always remained standoffish for no particular reason. I had simply chosen not to pursue the issue, preferring the "blissful ignorance" that allowed me to do a job I adored.

My friend sipped her coffee and said, "But you haven't asked about how the interfaith families felt about you."

"Should I have?"

"Of course, since that's the other side of the story. You know that the school has a growing interfaith community. Several parents told me they were very pleased to have as the head of Judaic Studies an intermarried person dedicated to the advancement of Jewish culture and history. They thought you were an ideal role model for their children, especially the girls. Two or three have expressed the desire to become rabbis!"

We both laughed and agreed that it's not only impossible to please everyone, but it's an undesirable goal, as it usually means having to compromise one's principles.

Before we parted, my friend and I raised our coffee mugs and toasted the good health of those who had thought me a "bad" role model because I was part of an interfaith couple. We especially wished them clearer vision and broader minds.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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