November 2, 2009
According to the non-Jewish world, I am in an interfaith relationship. My wife is Jewish and I am of Japanese, Irish and Russian descent. My children are multiracial. As a convert to Judaism, I am in a Jewish marriage--not an intermarriage.
During my conversion and my almost seven years living as a Jew, I have been bombarded with messages within the Jewish community that intermarriage is wrong or forbidden. The more sensitive arbiters say it is not about your background, but about "Jewish survival" and halachah. As a Jew of color, the message I have experienced is that your ethnic background is a dilution of authentic Jewishness.
I have Jewish genetic ancestry if there is such a thing; my great-grandfather was a Jew. Converting to Judaism and cracking open my Jewish soul that was silenced by my great-grandfather's decision to hide his Judaism has given me the life I have always wanted. Being Jewish and a Jew is truly who I am. To allay any fears, I am here to stay.
In a recent issue of the New York Jewish Week, Rabbi David Lerner wrote about his change of approach to interfaith families in "Making a Right Turn on Intermarriage." In it, he said: "Even as we reach out to these families, we need to unabashedly say that marriage between two Jews is the ideal. The challenge becomes how to talk about that when some of our students have parents who are not Jewish?"
I commend Rabbi Lerner for his openness to "intermarriage" and his willingness to work with intermarried couples, but framing intermarriage as "not ideal" sets up an exclusiveness that is at the heart of feelings of isolation. If your parents are deemed not ideal in a community, then as a young person you will feel less than the ideal.
The language has to change, but also the approach. I wish when I was converting that the process was respected over the act of conversion. But the true mark of an inclusive Judaism will be when we are comfortable with whatever the outcome of that process is.
Even in Reform synagogues, intermarried families must choose Judaism exclusively if they are to be members of the community. Rabbi Lerner continues, "Ideally, over time, they become so immersed in Jewish culture and practice that they evolve organically into identifying as Jews." And what if people identify inclusively as Jews and something else? What if an intermarried couple wants to attend a church, mosque or Buddhist temple as well?
As a multiracial person and a Jew of color, this is not a new paradigm, but the same old, same old. I identify as a Jew, but also many other things that are not Jewish. Growing up and having to cover my non-white background made me feel different and less than the dominant white culture. I was continually put in positions where I had to split and choose one race over the other, depending on the situation, to protect myself. I am not suggesting that rabbis and Jewish professionals who describe themselves as open to the process of intermarriage are deliberately exclusionary, but they are making people of multiple backgrounds choose. At the least, this sets up a silencing in synagogue for intermarried couples and their children.
My great-grandfather chose to silence his Judaism because of anti-Semitism. I respect his decision to put his family first. His willingness to live, marry and identify in a non-Jewish world is the very seed of his Japanese Jewish great-grandson half a century later. Sometimes "Jewish survival" is about not being Jewish.
Respecting intermarriage as a process in itself with no expectations is about true openness and non-judgment. Only this kind of openness to non-Jews will foster organic integration. Couples who choose intermarriage are already open to integration; it is Judaism that has to become more comfortable with it.