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Dancing the Mezhinka: A Sister's Perspective

Last year I married a wonderful Jewish guy. I wore my mother's dress, and afterwards my parents threw a gala celebration, complete with flowers and dancing, in the synagogue where I grew up. As it is for most brides, it was a day of happiness and joy, but I found I did not need the smashing of the glass at the end of the ceremony to remind me of the taste of bittersweetness, or of my connection to the Jewish people. All through the planning, under the chuppah, or bridal canopy, as the rabbi spoke of our commitment to building a Jewish home together, as we circled my smiling parents dancing the mezhinka--a special dance for the parents when either the bride or the groom is the last child of the family to be married--I couldn't help but be conscious of how different my wedding was from those of my siblings.

My sister was married in city hall, without us there, and my brother was married in a scrub field in Oklahoma, with nary a hora, the Jewish circle dance. How much easier it all was for me, because I had chosen to marry another Jew, while they had not.

My religion is a source of comfort, joy, and pride for me, and I look forward to sharing that with my children. But I grapple with how to handle the topic of intermarriage, something I still associate not only with love and religion, but also with pain and betrayal.

First, a little background. I grew up in a household that embraced the full spectrum of Jewish life. My mother was a cantor in a Reform congregation, but my family belonged to the local Conservative synagogue, and I attended the mainly Orthodox community day school. My brother and sister, who are six and seven years older, respectively, than I, had been started at public school, so while they attended Hebrew school and I did not, we all were raised in a home where Shabbat, Sabbath, dinner was a mandatory, no-phone call meal together, where Jewish studies and cultural activities and trips to Israel were an expected and normal part of life.

So it would have been hard to predict, when my siblings went off to college, the years of turmoil and anguish that lay ahead. The battles between my parents and siblings as my sister and brother chose to interdate, and finally, intermarry, tore my family in two. The arguments, tears, and screaming almost overshadowed the religious and cultural principles involved.

As a child I idolized my siblings. They taught me to read, made beds for my dolls, drove me to ballet lessons and camp. I emulated them, in their sophistication, ease, and accomplishments. So it was difficult for me to comprehend how they could do something that was clearly bound to displease my parents, something that seemed to me, at my age, so much in their control. I felt that they had betrayed my admiration, and my faith in my idea of our family as a unit.

I could see that my parents, in their pain and anger, further alienated my siblings. The situation might have been made simpler if my parents had given up, resigned themselves to living with the way things were. But I could understand how they were not able to do it, just as I could understand how they felt that by allowing their children to intermarry, they would be allowing this precious gift of culture and religion to be lost through compromise and attenuation.

And I appreciated my siblings' desire to be entrusted to keep their own sense of identity and marry individuals whom they loved, whatever religion. Values and faith, pride and pain, anger and guilt, all became so confused and blurred that it was hard to tell where or why it all began, or how it could end.

I guess the truth is that it hasn't all ended, it's an ongoing process. Although they live on opposite coasts of the country, my parents and siblings have reached a new, if sometimes unsteady, level of understanding.

I am now faced with trying to figure out how I will address the topic of intermarriage with my own children. In the rest of my life I am generally liberal and accepting, and I wonder if it's not incongruous, or even hypocritical, to be uncomfortable with intermarriage. I tell myself that there is no greater guarantee of happiness or even of a full Jewish life when two Jews marry than when religious backgrounds are blended. Even in my own marriage, my husband and I have different views on what it means to live a Jewish life.

I want my children to treat all individuals as equals, and to value diversity and individuality. Still, I want them to experience the joy of living a rich Jewish life, and I know that ultimately, it is easier, if nothing else, when you marry another Jew.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) 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 "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew, derived from the Greek word for "dance," a variety of dances done in a circle, popular in Israel (and the Balkans).
Debbie Abrams

Debbie Abrams, a Columbia graduate, is a librarian and candidate for the Master's degree in Library and Information Science at Rutgers University. She lives in Central New Jersey with husband David and puppy Mojo, where they are members of Congregation Beth Israel.

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