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Love and Intermarriage: Why I Won't Sit Shiva If My Children Marry Gentiles

Reprinted from New Jersey Jewish News with permission of the author. Visit

Perhaps no communal topic is as central to the contemporary Jewish community as intermarriage. To launch a communal conversation on the topic, NJ Jewish News invited author and Jewish studies professor Vanessa Ochs to share a version of the remarks she gave earlier this year to the Bronfman Youth Fellows on her own thoughts as a mother and a Jew. Her conclusions are provocative and no doubt controversial, and we urge readers to contribute their reactions. Responses will appear in a forthcoming issue.

The thoughts I offer here on Jews and intermarriage will not be popular, and in advance, I apologize. I am not suggesting that my ideas about intermarriage should be adopted by anyone or should be used to bolster one's unpopular case in heated family arguments. No child should read this and say, "But if it's OK if her children date or marry non-Jews, how come you won't let me?" I am speaking in a personal way--in fact, I'm not sure that my own family shares my perspective.

As a parent, I'm not worried about my children intermarrying. Not because I am so confident that they will marry Jews, and not because their marriages to Jews have been arranged. I refuse to worry because my daughters' lives are quite saturated with Jewishness. They have much of what they need, in skills, feelings, and memories, in order to live rich, spiritual, moral lives as Jews, whether they live alone or choose to live with partners. Knowing Hebrew and prayers, being able to read sacred texts, having routines of Jewish sacred observance (and--thanks to bat mitzvah gifts, owning the necessary accoutrements: mezuzot, spice boxes, menoras), they do not need a Jewish spouse to shore up their own Jewish identities. Just as they have been raised to support themselves financially, they have been raised to support themselves spiritually.

The myth of extinction
But Jewish self-sufficiency is not the issue, you may say--it's cultural transmission. Nevertheless, whether or not my children marry and have families of their own, they will still have the capacity to communicate Jewish values--to their students if they should become teachers, to their audiences if they should become artists, or to their clients and coworkers if they should engage in business. Alone, they can do their part. They can qualify as transmitters of Judaism with or without a Jewish spouse.

I am not suggesting that Jews ought to intermarry or, in support of some theory of hybrid vigor, that intermarriage is preferable. Here I agree with the majority: Endogamy is the simpler route. Lots of assumptions can go unspoken, the rhythms of the holidays are shared, and life's big rites of passage can be marked with rituals that are familiar to both partners.

But here's why I refuse to get on the "If you intermarry, I'll kill myself" bandwagon. I worry about the way Jewish communities so vehemently fear intermarriage and, in doing so, create the myth that Judaism, as we know it, is on the verge of extinction. I worry about the way parents try to urge their children away from intermarriage by promising that marrying Jews will make their married lives happier, will make raising Jewish children effortless, and will perpetuate Judaism. I believe these consequences of endogamy are imaginary generalizations we pass on in the hope that our children will conform to them and make them come true.

My unwillingness to make a fuss over intermarriage stems, in part, from a passage in the Hertz Chumash , which I was made to notice each year in synagogue, my mother nudging me with her elbow and whispering, "Read this!" It was Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz's comment on Exodus 34, when God warns Moses, "Take heed . . . lest thou take of their daughters unto thy sons and their daughters go astray after their gods and make thy sons go astray after their gods."

According to Hertz, the dangers of intermarriage as a spiritual problem were already recognized in biblical times. But here was the line on which my mother's finger tapped: "The danger, though of a different character, is just as real today." At this point my mother would make a very unsubtle gesture over to Mrs. Nudelberg, whose daughter Miriam was seeing a handsome blond movie actor. (When his films appeared, my mother made us go see "Mrs. Nudelberg's goy." This was clearly a situation everyone in synagogue knew about and discussed excitedly. I started thinking of him as "our goy" and began looking forward to his movies.)

Hertz quotes Morris Joseph (1848-1930), identified as an "Anglo-Jewish minister." (A minister? This confused me for years. Was Morris Joseph Dr. Hertz's goy?) "Every Jew who contemplates marriage outside the pale," says Joseph, "must regard himself as paving the way to a disruption which would be the final, as it would be the culminating, disaster in the history of his people."

I, like many Jewish children in the 1950s and '60s, was shielded from funerals and deaths and did not even learn of the Holocaust until Tisha B'Av afternoons at Camp Ramah, when we were made to view horrid films of the concentration camps. Until then, I assumed that the culminating disaster of the Jewish people Hertz referred to had something to do with Miriam Nudelberg. Once I knew about the Holocaust and other, previous destructions, and I could see we were still here, it seemed absurd, even shameful, to compare Miriam Nudelberg's social life to the death camps.

Hoping for love
Other parts of my own story keep me from hopping on the "fear of intermarriage" bandwagon. My father's first wife, my mother, is Jewish, as is he. Their fathers were minyan regulars in their respective shuls; their mothers were both balabustas. Both families shared the same values: At the very top came a Jewish home, a Jewish family, and Jewish education. Their marriage failed.

My father remarried--again, a Jewish woman from a fine Jewish family. Again, Jewish home, family, and education were their shared values. My half-sister was sent to yeshiva. That marriage also failed.

During the few years he was single again, I once joked with my father, telling him that next he ought to marry the Christian nurse who worked with him and maybe he would have better luck. He did just that. They have two children, little girls who are younger than my own daughters. Neither went to yeshiva--as a matter of fact, they go with their mother to church. This marriage has stuck.

Like everyone else, I know many single Jewish women out there. Very lonely, very fed up with the dating scene, very much wanting to be part of a married couple. My mother asks me always, "Do you have a nice Jewish boy for Susan's friend Leora? Or Anne's daughter Mindy?" She asked me this when Leora and Mindy were in their 20s, then their 30s, and now that they're in their 40s, she's still asking. (Her strategy was flawed: She should have been looking for men, not boys.) Perhaps it's my father's experiences that lead me to think this, but it seems to me that it is incredibly difficult for people to meet partners they can stick with. Maybe we shouldn't be placing so much of the burden of Jewish continuity on their mating with Jews and just hope they find love.

My own child-rearing experiences color my thinking, too. After my children finished day school, they went to public high schools where they made friends with fine young people who, along with their families, were deeply rooted in religious traditions different from ours. There was the Jehovah's Witness, the Quaker, the Muslim girl, the boy from the Pentecostal church. These friends had a great many questions about the details of our family's religious observances, but they never questioned our commitments and their centrality to our lives. I admired the values of their devout friends. These were young people who understood what it means to live in God's image, how to bring God into their lives, and how to make this life holy. I will admit: Values they held and acted upon--such as having respect for one's elders, being modest about one's own good fortune, and giving time to serve the needy--were not as gracefully upheld by some of their Jewish friends.

So this is my conviction, and if it were put to the test, I hope I would hold to it: If my daughters were blessed with non-Jewish partners who loved them deeply and who honored and respected their Jewish commitments and practices, I would feel grateful. If their partners had strong commitments to their own religious traditions and well-developed spiritual instincts, I would see that not as a sign of potential strain, but of potential empathy and support.

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Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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." Plural form of "mezuzah" (Hebrew for "doorpost"), it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. 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.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. 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. Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.
Vanessa L. Ochs

Vanessa L. Ochs is the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and the author, with Elizabeth Ochs, of The Jewish Dream Book (Jewish Lights). She earned her PhD at Drew University in Madison. This essay is based on a presentation given to the alumni of the Bronfman Youth Fellowhips.

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