March 12, 2009
Admit it: You read The New York Times Style section religiously — and I do mean religiously.
Maybe you’re a sophisticated Jewish baby-boomer born on the post-modernist, multi-ethnic cusp of Generation X. But on Sundays you become everyone’s Aunt Pesha, scanning the Times wedding announcements for Jewish names.
You kvell over the Jewish-Jewish weddings, tut-tut over the mixed marriages, puzzle over the ambiguous pairings. “The last names are Jewish, but the wedding was conducted by a justice of the peace,” you parse. “Do I say ‘mazel tov’ or ‘congratulations’?”
I’ve even invented a word that describes the uncertain feeling that overcomes you when you don’t know whether to clap or cry: eqvellocal (ee-QVELL-uh-cul). Basically, you’re equivocal over kvelling. Take a recent announcement of the wedding of a popular Jewish singer-songwriter to a fellow Jewish musician, performed by a rabbi. So far so good. But further down you read that the couple courted over “shrimp quesadillas,” and the bride is a vegetarian who eats fish and “sometimes a bit of bacon.”
“Quick, Morris,” you cry. “Get me my nitro!”
Most of the time you think of yourself as the kind of worldly Jewish intellectual who can appreciate the historical context, sociological significance, and, hell, giddy Americaness, of a sentence like this, from last Sunday’s Times: “Cantor Dan Rous officiated in a service combining Jewish and Hindu traditions.”
So why does intermarriage send you straight back to the ghetto? Why do you watch Romeo and Juliet and root for the parents?
I found myself discussing this with an old friend recently. He’s a Jew happily married to a non-Jew. He was mildly offended by an article that appeared in a local Jewish weekly (not ours!). It essentially accused him of self-hatred. Jewish men intermarry, according to the article, because non-Jewish women are “taboo” and don’t remind them of their mothers.
My friend rejected this dime-store Freudianism. He said he married his wife because they fell in love — plain and simple. And why, he asked, was the author recycling cliches in defense of what is basically a code of religious intolerance?
He’s right — the article’s insights were stale. Jews don’t marry non-Jews today because they’re blonde or have tiny noses or Mayflower roots.
Jewish Americans marry non-Jewish Americans because Americans marry Americans. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews have all but disappeared in the past 50 years, while acceptance of Jews among non-Jews is nearly complete. Besides, Jews are a tiny minority comfortable among a vast majority. Odds alone favor non-Jews meeting Jews, and falling in love.
The better question is, why do Jews continue to marry Jews in this post-racial, diverse, multicultural 21st century? And how can any of us defend inmarriage without sounding like Archie Bunker?
But I gave it a shot. I told my friend I care deeply about the chain of Jewish culture and feel the best way to keep it going is not only to marry a Jewish woman but to raise kids to appreciate Jewish culture in a positive, sustaining, organic, and holistic way.
At one point, my wife and I made a deal: If we were going to observe Shabbat, we were going to make it special, not a curfew. The kids should experience it as a series of “thou shalts,” instead of “thou shalt nots.” Thou shalt enjoy a Friday night meal served on our best china. Thou shalt look forward to a morning at synagogue with close friends and family. Thou shalt laugh with other kids who are similarly raised believing Shabbat is a day for community, for sticking close to home, for languid afternoons around a neighbor’s table.
Of course, when the kids grow up, they’ll make their own choices. But they will at least make an informed choice if they go down another path.
I kvell when Jews marry Jews, because I’m part of a counterculture, and I like the company. And because I know it’s hard enough to raise Jewish kids if both parents happen to be Jewish. That is not to say that intermarried families aren’t doing a heroic job of raising Jewish kids. Many are. But it’s harder.
Thus I support efforts to encourage Jews to marry other Jews. But I would never support an approach based on guilt or ridicule. You don’t get people to appreciate a culture and work toward its preservation by laying on guilt, not in 2009. You do it by raising them in an atmosphere that cherishes the culture and makes it natural for them to want to maintain its traditions.
The late great David Foster Wallace once told this story in a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
I’m not a bigot — I hope. But I feel Jews thrive when Judaism is to their lives as water is to a fish.
Let’s stop haranguing those who make other choices. It’s not self-hatred, and it’s not rebellion. It’s America. All the rest of us can do is keep swimming against the tide.