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"In the Mix": The Intermarried Inbox

March 16, 2007

Reprinted from the New York Jewish Week with permission of the author.

This month marks my 10-year anniversary in the Jewish media, a niche in which many readers expect communal cheerleading rather than objective reporting, and over the past decade, my work has annoyed countless members of the tribe.

A group of suburban Detroit rabbis and religious school directors once refused to speak to me for months simply because I suggested that many people's Hebrew school memories were less than positive.

Given that intermarriage is just a little more controversial than Hebrew school, when I started "In The Mix" last spring, I expected some negative feedback. And I was not disappointed.

Shortly after my first column appeared, an anonymous e-mailer sent me an obscure midrashic text about a girl whose father forced her to marry a gentile. So distraught was she at the prospect of intermarrying, that she jumped off the roof. "Note that the rabbis don't criticize her even though suicide is a sin," the e-mailer wrote meaningfully.

Another woman wrote to our editor, Gary Rosenblatt, complaining, among other things, that "from the photo the author stares at me with a big smile."

So writing about intermarried life is OK only if you're miserable, verging on suicidal?

Many of my critics have been quite reasonable and thoughtful, with several arguing that since my family is accepted in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements I should not "bash" Conservative Judaism for its adherence to tradition. (I would argue that I do not "bash" Conservative Judaism or its institutions, but simply have pointed out why, although there are notable exceptions, the movement's approach is often alienating to unaffiliated Jews, whether intermarried or not.)

Does my column, as some have complained, promote intermarriage? That is not my intention. I have no regrets about my own choice of husband (other than wishing he worked fewer hours and was a little handier around the house), but I am hardly out to get new recruits for some interfaith families' lobby. All other things being equal, I have no doubt that it is easier to live a Jewish life and raise Jewish children if one has a Jewish partner. But I don't think that means intermarriage is a disaster or, as one sociologist recently claimed, "the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity."

In a recent advertorial in The Jewish Week, Marvin Schick--a polemical champion of day schools and Orthodoxy--argued that because my column is first person, rather than reported, it "inevitably becomes advocacy." I see his point about this being an inherently subjective format, but I think that would only be problematic if I were The Jewish Week's sole columnist. In fact, our panoply of regular first-person writers includes a Modern Orthodox mom, a Conservative/Reform woman married to a Jewish man and a 30-something single who is a yeshiva grad--not to mention our editor, a Modern Orthodox grandfather.

But frankly, what's surprised me is not the angry letters. Rather, it's that there have not been even more of them. And I think that's because, as my friend Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute has written, we've reached a "tipping point" in intermarriage. More than 15 years after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reported that almost half of Jews were marrying gentiles, interfaith marriage is no longer shocking.

Six years ago, an American Jewish Committee survey found that fewer than half of Jews agreed that "it would pain me if my child married a gentile," and a whopping 78 percent favored rabbinic officiation at Jewish-gentile marriages "in some form and under some circumstances."

Even the most traditional among us usually have some extended family member--if not a child or sibling--who is intermarried. And even the staunchest opponents of intermarriage now acknowledge that most Jews who marry out are not doing so to rebel against Judaism, but are instead simply choosing to share their lives with a loved one.

My hate mail has been tempered with many friendly letters.

A mother of three, who for years worked in the Jewish federation world, told me how her marriage to a non-practicing Catholic has "pushed [her] to learn more" about Judaism. A reader from Chile shared how after 14 years of marriage to a Jewish woman, his son's bar mitzvah inspired him to convert to Judaism. An Orthodox woman dating a practicing Catholic contacted me for advice (I wished her luck, but warned her that her situation will likely be infinitely more challenging than mine.) And a Conservative rabbi engaged me in a friendly debate about the role of gentile spouses in synagogues.

As "In The Mix" approaches its first birthday, I am hoping my e-mail inbox continues to be filled with passionate debate. If nothing else, I suspect some angry Detroit Hebrew school director will be contacting me soon.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. 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.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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