Dispatch from the Institute: It’s a Small World, After All . . . Intercultural Interfaith Marriage

By Amy Perlin Posner


The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
NOTE: This month’s Dispatch is written by Amy Perlin Posner, director of the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN), a grant recipient of JOI’s Jewish Connection Partnership. JMN’s mission is to build a community of Jews of color and multiracial Jewish families for mutual support, learning, and empowerment. Through education and advocacy, the JMN seek to enrich Jewish communal life by incorporating our diverse heritages. For information about JMN events or a group near you, please visit
 the JMN website.

Rachel and Lee’s wedding was a beautiful ceremony, performed by a rabbi and held in a lovely botanical garden on a warm spring day. Friends held up the chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) and when Lee stomped on the glass, all the guests shouted “Mazel Tov!” Then everyone got in their cars and headed for the reception–at an elegant Chinese restaurant. Lee is Chinese, and Rachel is Caucasian and Jewish. The celebration was a resplendent seven course Chinese wedding feast. The groom’s father made a poignant speech in Chinese, then the band broke into a hora (circle dance) and everyone danced around the bride and groom. Rachel and Lee had found the perfect way to celebrate their wedding with the traditions that they and their families held dear.

That day, everything seemed perfect. But it had taken months of argument and compromise on the part of each family to arrive at that perfection. Rachel and Lee had known each other all through high school. They were first friends, and then began to date. While in college, they each dated other people, but kept coming back to each other. When they made the decision to marry, Rachel’s liberal Jewish parents were “a little” disappointed because Lee is not Jewish. But, since they had known him for a long time and considered him to be a mensch (good guy), they pushed their disappointment aside.

Meanwhile, Lee’s family was initially not as understanding. His parents had come to the United States from China and had struggled to make it in America. They were successful in business, had built a home for their family, and brought over extended family as well. They liked Rachel, but did not approve of her as a wife for their son. They felt that Lee was abandoning Chinese tradition and that his decision to marry a non-Chinese was disrespectful. Rachel and Lee, in love, were hurt by his parents’ disapproval. Then, to make matters worse, Rachel’s grandmother made a racist remark about Lee at Rachel’s wedding shower. Since then, tensions were high, and both sets of parents acted overly politely to one another.

Planning the wedding became truly uncomfortable for everyone involved. Rachel’s family had dreamed of Rachel under the chuppah, while Lee’s had always looked forward to a special ceremony asking blessings of their ancestors. Rachel’s mother dug her heels in when it came to a Jewish wedding ceremony. She prevailed upon the others, stating that since Rachel was Jewish, and so would be bearing Jewish children, a Jewish wedding made the most sense. Fortunately, Lee’s mother actually agreed. When the families hit upon the Jewish ceremony/Chinese reception idea, things went pretty smoothly after that. In planning the wedding, each family learned something of the other’s culture. Misunderstanding evolved into understanding and mutual respect. By the time the wedding day arrived, they were ready to celebrate together.

The fifth of the seven blessings that are recited at a Jewish wedding is: “Let the loving couple be very happy, just as you made your creation happy in the Garden of Eden, so long ago. You are blessed, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride happy.”

Judaism teaches us that we humans are responsible for completing God’s world. Intercultural spouses have a unique opportunity to cross barriers of race and ethnicity to help build a kinder world. It is each partner’s job to make sure that the other feels welcome in his or her culture. Shalom Bayit, meaning “harmony in the home,” is one of Judaism’s most cherished values. Happiness can be achieved with good communication, lots of love, and when a couple finds something to share that is meaningful to each partner

Creating a feeling of welcome is built on respect for each other, and respect for one’s self. Marriage builds on the strength of each individual partner joining together. Marriage is fortified by giving freely of oneself. To communicate openly about one’s feelings, and to respect the feelings of one’s partner–“what’s important to you is important to me”–is a creed for married couples to live by. When Judaism is an important part of who you are, you already have the best foundation for welcome. Give that important part of yourself. Don’t wait for your spouse to initiate, take the first step and bring him or her along. Make Judaism part of the daily loving environment of your home and your partner will feel more comfortable in any Jewish situation. Be sure to acknowledge your spouse’s feelings and show appreciation for the love demonstrated by his or her willingness to experience Jewish life with you. Organizations like the Jewish Outreach Institute, InterfaithFamily.com, and the Jewish Multiracial Network, as well as synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions, can help interfaith/intercultural couples meet others who share similar issues and provide practical assistance with incorporating Judaism in the home.

Jews have lived in every corner of the earth. In every place they adapted and incorporated local culture into Jewish life. Jewish traditions are rich with the diversity of the communities from which they come. A Jew from Tunis married to a Jew from Poland may each practice customs that are strange to the other. Marriage is by nature a practice in compromise. Each partner brings their special experiences and wisdom to the union. Intercultural/interfaith marriage can present some dilemmas over differences that are not always easy to overcome, but it is not necessary to choose between culture and Judaism. Judaism can find meaning through any culture. There is no Jewish law that states you must have chicken soup rather than egg drop soup on Shabbat (the Sabbath). It is only important that Shabbat is celebrated.

Every family has its own special traditions. Judaism allows for personal expression in our relationships with God and with other people. Intercultural/interfaith families who want to include Judaism in their lifestyle can invent some meaningful traditions that are born of their mixed cultures. Try eating fried rice and eggrolls on Hanukkah, for example!


About Amy Perlin Posner

Amy Perlin Posner is director of the Jewish Multiracial Network. For information about JMN events or a group near you, please visit www.jmnetwork.org.