Intermarriage

I’m Jewish. My fiancée is not. Already you’re thinking, “Oy.”

I could list, at length, my past involvement in Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer camps, Hillel and so on, but it would be boring, so let’s just pretend that I did and that you’re impressed. After college I taught music, Hebrew school, and Sunday school at a local Reform congregation, and, oh by the way, fell in love with a woman who was raised as a Unitarian Universalist.

She tells me that I once told her that I could never marry a non-Jewish woman, so clearly my thinking on that front has evolved. But R— and I talked openly about our plans for our families (before and after our engagement) and she knew that it was important to me for my children to be raised as Jews. Once we were engaged, she was still on board, but insisted (and justifiably so) that her family’s traditions be represented as well.

Our co-habitation so far has proved pretty successful. When the winter holidays come around I help her decorate the Christmas tree, and she joins me in lighting the Chanukah candles. It’s all very ecumenical and heartwarming.

R— even suggested that we take an “introduction to Judaism” class at the local Reform congregation so she could get more educated (and so that I could relive the experience of being the smartest kid in the class). We did. The rabbis who taught the class loved us. We started attending Friday night services not every week, but once or twice a month. We celebrated Shabbat at home most weeks. We hosted a Passover seder. I think we were kicking ass, Jewishly speaking.

Clearly, this “intermarriage” was going to work out.

And… then it was time to find someone to perform our wedding. I decided I wanted to have as Jewish a wedding as we both were comfortable with, and that meant having a rabbi preside. R— was agreeable, so long as we were equally involved in defining the ceremony, and so the search was on.

Let me just say that I understood, intellectually, that especially in the Northeast it would be difficult to find a rabbi to perform a wedding in which one of the participants wasn’t Jewish. I was not, however, prepared for what the experience would be like emotionally.

One of the rabbis from my home congregation in St. Louis was moving out east to Massachusetts, and seemed a good first try. He knew our family well (and was particularly acquainted with my younger siblings). Our family had been active in the congregation. He officiated at my mother’s funeral. He seemed a good bet.

Well, Rabbi Jay said “no.” It wasn’t that he wouldn’t marry us, he insisted, it was that he couldn’t. I’m sure there was some kind of justification in there, but all I heard was “blah blah blah no.” Can you tell I was stunned? Can you tell I was pissed? I walked out of my temple – the place I grew up, the place that taught me the love of Judaism that made me want to find a rabbi to marry us in the first place – in a bewildered fog. He said no.

So, ok, I was angry. But at this point I was angry at Jay, nothing larger, and we resolved to mark him down as a bad egg and keep looking. Clearly a more open-minded rabbi would understand our desire to have a (mostly) Jewish ceremony and a (mostly) Jewish family and would want us to be a part of his or her congregation.

The young rabbi who taught half of our class at the synagogue took us out for a beer and made it clear that we shouldn’t ask him, because he’d say no.

The kindly older rabbi met with us for over an hour, and opened with, “Well, I think what you should do is find a nice judge to marry you.” When we insisted that we were looking for a rabbi, he spent the rest of the time putting the hard sell on R— to convert to Judaism. (Ew.) He told us that he could never perform an interfaith wedding – that he wouldn’t even for his own children. (Wow.)

With a little persistence, we finally found a rabbi who is willing to marry us. She’s been great about the process, making sure that all three of us are comfortable with the ceremony we’ve created, and we’re really grateful to her.

I’ve tried, really, to understand the rabbis’ point of view. I grew up in Reform Judaism. I’ve heard the doomsayers wail about “assimilation.” I read The Vanishing American Jew. I believe that these are good men and women who want to preserve the American Jewish community.

What makes it so infuriating is that they’re hurting their own cause. R— summed it up when she said, half-jokingly, “With an interfaith couple, you get a Jewish family and only ‘use up’ one pre-existing Jew.” It’s two for the price of one, baby! We came to them, asking for their help in starting a Jewish family, and they turned us away. I’m not sure what they hope to accomplish with the hard-line stance. Do they think I’m going to dump R— and find a nice Jewish girl? Or do they think we’ll try to find a more welcoming community? Which do you think is more likely?

Certainly, a rabbi would be completely justified in turning away an interfaith couple with no interest in being part of a Jewish community. I think a rabbi would be justified in turning away a Jewish couple that had no interest in being part of a Jewish community. I think Jewish couples like that are married by rabbis all the time, and that says something kind of ugly.

I came away from the Great Rabbi Search feeling ashamed of my religion. If we’d lied and said that R—’s mother’s last name was Moskowitz instead of McCoy we wouldn’t have had to ask four different rabbis. Because of an accident of her birth, we were told that our marriage was second-rate. (Could this be what it feels like to be in a mixed-race relationship? A same-sex relationship?) For a people whose identity is based, in some part at least, on a shared experience as “the other” we show remarkably little charity towards the others among us.

My family, with the exception of one bigoted uncle whose opinion doesn’t matter to me, has been incredibly supportive. I know we’re lucky in that. My rabbis, on the other hand, blew us off. Is it any wonder that, since that fateful meeting with Rabbi Gutterman, we haven’t been to Shabbat services once? That we’ve given up on lighting candles at home?

Maybe I’m giving up too easily. A friend reminds me that I can be a good Jew and still be mad at Judaism. (We are, after all, Yisrael, those who wrestle with God.) Probably I’m more angry at some Jews than at Judaism. And I’ll get over it. It would be ridiculous to give up my observances to spite the rabbis.

So we’ll be married by a rabbi. We’ll probably join a congregation when we have kids so that they can become bar/bat mitzvah. But for right now, I’ve lost my faith, I guess you can say. I’ve never been a particularly religious person; I was always attracted to the Jewish community. I always considered it to be safe, welcoming, and familiar.

Now? Not so much.

Shver ist a yid tsu sein. (“It’s hard to be a Jew.”) Apparently, it’s hard to marry one, too.

Intermarriage

0 thoughts on “Intermarriage

  1. Amy says:

    I have read your article and am emotionally connected to it. I am the daughter of a reform rabbi, dating a non jewish (irish catholic) man, and we want to be married. my father will not only not perform the ceremony, but refuses to acknowledge the existence of the marriage if we choose to get married. I am deeply troubled by this, as I am extremely close with my family. My boyfriend, also, has expressed that if being jewish is important, the children will be raised as jews and that he will learn enough to be able to participate and enjoy holidays and customs with me. however, he will not convert. my family has outwardly told him that they will not accept our marriage unless he converts, which has made him resentful and saddened by my family. My family believes that if he “loves” me enough and doesnt want to hurt my family, that he would convert for the purpose of making a united family. The whole situation is frustrating and there is no easy answer.

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  2. Amy,

    What a horrible situation; I’m so sorry.

    My aunt says, as a way of explaning her husband’s behavior: “There are some people who go on vacation and take lots of pictures of their family and friends, and some who just take pictures of landscapes.” Some people get stuck on big ideas and “principles” and can’t see the actual human people involved. It’s got to be even more heartbreaking when it’s your own father who has this limitation.

    Here’s hoping time can help thaw out your family’s rigid stance. I hope that your father will come to realize that his position gains him nothing and risks losing him a daughter and a son.

    Best of luck.

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  3. Hi guys… Wow. First things first. Matt, I stumbled on your website yesterday, and haven’t been able to stop reading it… I actually have it saved in my ‘favorites’ folder now. This whole ‘intermarraige’ thing here is sad. I face sort of the same problem. Not exactly the same, but kinda… My boyfriend is White and I am black. This has raised all sorts of eyebrows in ‘MY’ family… His family is perfectly fine with it, and have accepted me totally and completely. My mom has told me that if I go ahead and marry him (we’re thinking about it because we’ve been together for over two years now), then I should consider myself shut out of the family. I don’t (can’t) understand it, but I guess I’ve accepted it.

    Amy, I can only imagine what you’re going through… I agree with you when you say there’s no easy answer, but like Matt said, maybe time can help thaw out their stance?..

    Matt, I wouldn’t lose faith… I know you’re a little disillusioned or even hurt, but it’s God you put your faith in, and not the Rabbis’, you know? They wear the robes, they say the prayers, they know the book, but at the end of it all, they’re only ‘human’, you know? Apparently, there’s something about your religion that has kept some fire burning in you all these years… don’t let anyone keep you from having a relationship with God.

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  4. Scott says:

    My Wife is a Reform Rabbi and she would say no to doing your wedding ceremony as well. She is not being unkind at all by saying “NO”. Why should the Rabbi be expected to compromise their principles? Don’t be upset ..Just respect that persons on clergy’s right to do what is best for their soul. A Rabbi is not a servant and must uphold ther own integrity. I understand your anger but lookk in the mirror if I asked you to go against your priciples …would you? Also please understand that your Judaism should be tied to history, family and learning …NOT to a Synagogue. You have choices ,its sad to move on from the place you grew up but find a home where your principles and the Rabbis are in sync. There is nothing wrong with that at all. …..Anyway its the marriage and not the cermony that the Rabbi should really care about ….Im sure that smae Rabbi at your Synagogue will welcoem you and your wife and future children with open arms after your ceremony…My wife does and that is the most important principle. Your home is not the Huppa. Your home is the Synagogue.

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  5. Scott,

    Thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right that it’s the marriage, and not the cermony, that matters most. (And since we’ve now been married for almost a year and half, you can imagine the sting has lessened somewhat.)

    On the other hand, it’s precisely because finding a Jewish community to belong to was important to me that I was so infuriated by the rabbis’ failure to help us out. While I’m sure our local rabbi would welcome us after the wedding, and while I’m sure your wife would too, I hope you can understand how insulting that seems to me anyway. While a rabbi might welcome us as part of his or her congregation even though he or she wouldn’t do our wedding, his or her refusal to do our wedding would ensure that we’d never want to join his or her congregation.

    And I’d never ask a rabbi to compromise their principles… rather than compromise their principles, I’d rather they change them and value community, openness, and the long-term view of what it means to be a welcoming congregation over (in my opinion) counter-productive insistence on an arbitrary standard.

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  6. I so understand how you feel!

    Myself, for a long time, use to feel like my birth was second-rate – therefore I was second-rate – because my Mom was not Jewish…

    When my Dad tried to involve me in the Jewish community, they (the Rabbies) just told him that I would have to convert to be a Jewish.

    Ever seen a Cohanim convert? LOL

    On the other hand, at my Mom’s Church, and despite Baptism, they wouldn’t let me commune as I was born from a Jewish father… 😦

    Oh well… I am still “sitting between 2 chairs” but I have finally adjusted with the situation; I have turned my dual religious education into strengh rather than weakness, and I have made my own ways to believe and practice (an odd mix actually… LOL)

    Oh, and I married a Protestant! LOL

    Good luck! 🙂

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