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Two days before my wedding, I criss-crossed Philadelphia, running last minute errands. Needing a quick bite, I zipped into a bookstore/café. There, on a display table, was Cokie Roberts' book, dealing largely with her intermarriage. The timing was appropriate. I, too, was intermarrying, although in my case I am Jewish and my now-husband is Christian. I stood for a long time flipping through the book. The more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. Roberts' view seemed to be (and I apologize if I misread in my haste) that those who opposed her marriage were by definition intolerant, even bigots. It was a deflating moment in what was otherwise a day of excited anticipation; I wondered if people would in the future assume that I held this same view.
Roberts (if I've characterized her correctly) is not alone in her feelings. A recent poll showed that many American Jews see opposing religious intermarriage as racist. Posts on the InterfaithFamily.com discussion boards often characterize opposition to intermarriage as a sign of intolerance.
With all due respect--and I look forward to hearing from the dissenters--I don't agree. Indeed, many who are intermarried feel as I do, and these are represented in the InterfaithFamily.com discussions as well. If I am crazy in embracing two realities--the fact that I am intermarried, and the fact that I understand some of those who disapprove--at least, like Roberts, I am not alone.
Without a doubt, some of the opposition to intermarriage stems from bigotry. Christians may harbor secret stereotypes of vulgar Jews, Jews of redneck Christians. Jews may react out of the prejudice that those who intermarry are not committed to their religion. Because my husband is African-American and I am white, I know that we have at times been victims of the racism that afflicts European-Americans in general, including members of the white Jewish community.
Yet in my view, much opposition to intermarriage in general or to a particular marriage should not be described as intolerance. We all have rituals, traditions, and beliefs that we hope will be passed down through the generations. Intermarriage is likely to mean that the religious heritage of one parent will be muted, or that the faiths of both will be watered down. When I think of discussing with some of my husband's family the commitment we have made to raising Jewish children, I feel sick at the pain I might cause. Yet, for me this is a deep need--one I cannot sacrifice. There is no nice neat answer that will give all of us what we want.
Furthermore, I know first hand that being of different faiths can bring a couple to frightening moments of misunderstanding and alienation. If my husband had been somebody other than who he is--in terms not only of his character but his religious needs--we might not have progressed past those moments. My marriage is a testament to my belief that in some cases different religious identities and needs can be sheltered within one home. In other cases, it has been my observation, they cannot--not necessarily because one or the other party is a poor communicator or insufficiently giving (although these might indeed be reasons), but because the needs are fundamentally incompatible.
Above and beyond these "universal" concerns, Jews have special sensitivities and fears about intermarriage. Given social realities, it is not unreasonable for observers to worry that a choice to marry "out" reflects internalized anti-Semitism. Even when those observers are wrong about a particular situation, that only makes them wrong, not necessarily bigots. While I don't believe that I am acting out an internalized anti-Semitism (or that my husband is acting out on internalized racism), I understand the suspicion and pain that we might occasion in others.
Furthermore, if an intermarriage means--or is feared to mean--the loss of Judaism in the next generation, it can feel like a betrayal of our long fight for survival--a betrayal with consequences both symbolic and real. The symbolic consequence is the message that we don't value what we have or the sacrifices of those who came before. The real consequence is the further diminution of a group that I once heard my father describe as "a remnant of a fragment." The symbolic sting of "giving up Judaism" is heightened by the fact that our diminished size is in large part due to 2,000 years of Christian oppression and suppression, and by the fact that many Christians have historically seen Judaism (and many still do) as an outmoded way of life meant to be supplanted by theirs.
I don't think that others are obligated to approve of my marital choice any more than I'm obligated to make a choice of which they would approve. Disapproval may sting (does sting), and I hope to prove the nay-sayers wrong: I plan to have a happy marriage and pass on the flame. But I understand the critics' passion for Judaism (I'd like to think I share it), and I'd rather that Judaism incite zeal than apathy, even if it means that a little of that zeal is aimed at me.