The day before my mom died, a rabbi yelled at me. It was June 19th, 2012 and he was one of about half a dozen rabbis who have yelled at me. Not metaphorically but actual, literal yelling. Mom was on life support. She was brain dead as a result of combination of emphysema and diabetes. I was trying to think of a way to explain death to a nine year old and failing miserably. Mom left a will asking to be cremated. The rabbi, a friend of my brother’s, did not agree and was trying to persuade my father to agree to bury her.
So I called up the rabbi. He yelled at me. Why? Because I was challenging his argument and I wanted my mom’s wishes to be honored. But mostly because my husband of twenty years is not Jewish. This is true. Brendan Thomas Herlihy Jr. is many things. He is a great father, a terrific husband and a wonderful member of our community. He works hard, donates blood, creates board games in his spare time and helps our eldest daughter with her plans to become a vet.
He’s clever, thoughtful and witty and I love him very, very, very much. He is also respectful of my cultural heritage and chosen religion. He helps me light Hanakah candles, make chicken soup for Passover seder and listens lovingly as I teach our daughters the ancient zimrot and brochot I hope they will one day recite to their own children. But he isn’t Jewish. He will never be Jewish. He isn’t going to convert.
This is not a threat to all Jews everywhere. Intermarriage is not, as quite a number of rabbis have told me, a threat to Jewish survival. It is not a threat to Jewish identity or to our children. It is not a threat to the torah or the mishnah or the gemara or my local synagogue. My happy marriage is not the problem in modern day Jewish America or anywhere else Jews choose to live. We need to say so and welcome those who have loving and successful marriages into our communities.
Twenty years ago, when we decided to get married, we got married at City Hall for many reasons. One of them was the fact that three rabbis yelled at me when I broached the issue of them perform the ceremony. One proceeded to lecture me about how awful my decision was and how I would never find happiness with someone who wasn’t Jewish. To this day I can still hear his fury and I think of my shock at his anger at the man I loved that he did not know.
In the years since, many rabbis have expressed similar sentiments to me: that one of the great sources of happiness in my life is a threat to all Jews everywhere. What a preposterous sentiment! Judaism is who I am. It is the very foundation of my life and how I look at the world. It is one many things that I will give to my children. My non-Jewish husband has only helped me realize just how wonderful this foundation is, how much Judaism has to offer the world and how it can be just as lovely to someone who isn’t Jewish.
Refusing to recognize this fact and indeed attempting to push both of us away does no one any good. It is an insult to my husband and to people around the world who aren’t Jewish. If we are to make that better world we promise to our children we need to make that promise happen by welcoming all members of our community, Jew and non-Jew alike.