When I was 12 I told my best friend that I didn't understand why anyone would have sex before they got married. It was too complicated, too risky. Why would I open myself to such dangers? Similarly, when I was 14 I told a different best friend that I was only interested in dating other Jews. To do otherwise would be complicated and risky. Then at 15 I actually started kissing girls--Jewish ones, at Jewish camp--and by 18 I was wooing Charlotte, who was interesting and intelligent but not Jewish.
When, at 32, I announced my intentions to marry a non-Jew, I did not expect unanimous support. I anticipated the concern of my family, the criticism of my friends and the protests of my youth. The voices said the same thing in chorus: "Don't you think it would be easier if you married a nice Jewish girl? It's so confusing for kids when their parents practice different religions! Don't do it. It's too complicated, too risky. Why open yourself to such dangers?" How confusing to be on a path towards something that you know in your heart is right, while other people, and even parts of yourself, warn you that you might be going astray.
What can one do? The pressure to marry is real. The wisdom of marrying within your community is real as well. So when I fell in love it both bothered me that the person I loved wasn't Jewish and comforted me that my searching was over. Combined, it felt exhilarating--as if I were leaping from a plane. A tandem jump, if you will, of discussion and planning and dreaming.
These exhilarating premarital negotiations were frequently tempered, however, by challenges from our families and friends. Had we discussed how to raise children? Had we discussed what sort of home we would have? Was being Jewish important to us? No matter how delicately they phrased the questions, it felt like an inquisition. I became defensive. It seemed as if they were asking me, "Are you aware of the risk?" I wanted to respond, "How could we not be?"
Choosing a spouse essentially extends your family. If your family shows even small signs of doubt about your wedding, it stings. The objections from those who didn't know or want to know my fiancée were more insulting. There were those who saw her only as a non-Jew, nothing more. "What is the point of meeting her?" they whispered. Marrying a non-Jew meant I had strayed beyond recovery.
Hearing of these reactions--none were spoken to my face--saddened me, but for their sake, not for mine. What could these people know of love if they could so easily dismiss its risky pursuit? Considering their objections, however, only made me feel more solid in my choice. I did not choose to marry a non-Jew to be hurtful or out of disrespect for my upbringing. I chose to marry a non-Jew because the reasons and emotions in support of the choice outweighed the risk.
Now that the wedding lies behind me, I've discovered a different sort of challenge to my interfaith union, one that emanates from outside the Jewish community. Traveling around the world together I see how my wife is at greater risk because she married a Jew. Imagine standing beside your non-Jewish spouse in a foreign airport and noticing that the bookseller's rack contains copies of Mein Kampf. This is a world where people actively--and occasionally violently--dislike Jews. What have I gotten my wife into?
I suppose I am glad to have not considered anti-Semites when proposing marriage, but now I wonder: should they have affected me at least as much as the negative assaults of those that disapproved?
There are disadvantages to intermarriage--complications and risk--but accentuating them unduly serves little purpose. Life is complicated and, if you open yourself to experience, risky as well. I am thankful that those who loved me made sure my thinking remained clear, even if hearing their concerns was unpleasant. The barbs of those who loved me less, I survived. I believe that together my wife and I will navigate the hurdles of our complicated lives. That is what it means to be married.
To read about his wife's family's reaction to her impending intermarriage, see Overcoming Our Religious Differences.
What do you think?
From Tanzania to Sri Lanka to Borneo, freelance writer Zack Kushner and his wife have navigated the risks of dodgy local cuisines, unlicensed taxis and, to a lesser degree, intermarriage. After eight months on the road together they remain happily married. They are on their way to New Zealand to make a new home.