Sarah R. Heilbronner is a student at Harvard University.
The Price of Intermarriage?
If you spend enough time with a group of Jewish young people, I’ve found that eventually someone will bring up the topic of Jewish marriage. After all, as Jews in the Diaspora, we are likely to interact regularly with non-Jews, and some of these interactions can potentially grow into relationships. I actually have a set response to this question, a comedy routine, if you will, to gloss over a complicated personal issue.
“It’s a numbers game,” I say. “After all, Jews make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population. If I say that I need to marry a Jew, I’m limiting myself to that. Plus, a portion of those would never marry me straight-away because my mother isn’t Jewish. So now I’m limiting myself to less than less than 1 percent of the population. It’s hopeless.”
Except that, of course, it’s not. Many Jews marry other Jews. The issue becomes whether I personally, as a Jew, am willing to automatically refuse to date or marry a non-Jew, and why.
I found an interesting response to this while at a fair in Tel Aviv. A booth labeled “Y Marry Jewish” drew my attention. It was based around a book of a similar title, which I then picked up and proceeded to skim through. It was a semi-sociological and psychological statement that attempted to present research supporting the notion that couples with very disparate backgrounds (i.e., a Jew and a non-Jew) will have unhappy marriages, high rates of divorce, and dysfunctional families. In addition, their children will suffer for their mistake and lead overall unhappier lives. These types of statements are by no means unique to this book. It is a standard argument to say that the children produced by intermarriage will suffer from a lack of faith, a lack of moral grounding, and a lack of familial stability. These poor souls will be lost forever to the world of secularity, and their psychological health will suffer for it.
My own story is not one of these. Indeed, in light of the much-bemoaned American crisis of the family, my experience is one of surprising joy. I had a beautiful childhood. My family was and still is tightly knit, and I retain strong, meaningful relationships with my parents and two siblings. I have all this, yet my mother is not Jewish. She was raised in a Christian household, but she now does not identify with any religion. For many people, including the authors of the book I saw in Tel Aviv, my parents’ marriage was doomed to a failure of familial cohesion. Objectively, this never occurred, and as I delve further into my own Jewish identity, I do not in the least feel more distant from my mother.
I, of course, want for my children to experience as rich and loving a family life as the one with which I was blessed. With my own family as a point of reference, I can confidently say that marrying a fellow Jew is not always a prerequisite for a Jew to form a stable family.
The line of thought cannot end there; indeed, most Jews would say that I have not yet addressed the main issue surrounding intermarriage. A pressing concern for most observant Jews is the continuation of Jewish life, the passing down of Jewish traditions. According to a common belief, an interfaith family is probably far more prone to slipping into nonobservance, although surely this is to a certain extent based upon the observance level of the one Jewish parent. If the Jewish partner is nonobservant and does not identify as Jewish, Judaism is already not present in his or her life. An interfaith marriage does not alter that state one way or the other. Alternately, a Jew who marries a non-Jew may be observant at the start of the relationship, may continue to be observant throughout the marriage, and may raise the children as Jewish. One cannot assume that an interfaith marriage necessarily stems from or leads to nonobservance. In my case, my Jewish father was almost nonobservant, and had been that way long before he married my mother. I had a Bat Mitzvah, but only later, while in college, did I begin to become more observant and start reflecting on my involvement in Judaism. Nonetheless, I value the notion that none of my Jewish observances came automatically. With each, I was forced to think through, study and evaluate what the tradition meant for the Jewish community as a whole and for me personally. Moreover, my mother respects the decisions I have made to become more invested in Judaism.
My point is not that there is no value to actively seeking Jewish relationships. For some, a loving relationship with a non-Jew would seem overwhelmingly impossible. I am, however, contending that the Jewish community must rethink its arguments against intermarriage. We must admit that loving, stable, healthy families can result from intermarriage. We must also admit that, with respect to whether the children of an interfaith couple will identify as Jewish, the specific parameters set up for their family by the parents in question may matter more than the surface interfaith nature of the marriage.
For me, marrying Jewish would certainly be easier, as I strongly desire for my children to identify as Jews. However, as I am not willing to admit that my parents erred in any way when they married and started a family despite being of different faiths, I admit to myself that, if I love and wish to marry a non-Jew, I will.