I hadn’t seen Jennifer in a while. She and Carl belong to a local Reform synagogue, where they sent their kids to Hebrew School. “How’s Kim?” I asked her.
“Kim’s out at Northwestern in Chicago,” she said, “having a ball. She has a boyfriend.” There was a short pause. I knew what was coming.
“He’s from Wisconsin,” Jennifer went on. “So he roots for the Packers. He’s not Jewish…. How’s your daughter in Israel?”
“She got married this past summer in Jerusalem,” I said.
“That’s wonderful!” Jennifer exclaimed.
“She married an Italian,” I added.
“Oh well,” said Jennifer with a shrug. “What can you do?”
“He’s Jewish,” I said.
Truth is, I was being mischievous. I knew that the category “Italian Jew” would probably not occur to Jennifer, as it wouldn’t to most American Jews. When I told another acquaintance about our family news, he threw up his hands and cried, “She had to go to Israel to marry an Italian!”
Yes, I know that Kim is just a college kid who’s dating. She’s not getting married anytime soon, so it’s hard to predict her final choice. What interests me is less the arc of her Jewish journey than the eloquence of her mother’s shrug. Here is some of what it says:
I am a modern parent. I raised my children to learn about the world and grow into adults who make their own choices. I brought them up to meet all kinds of people from different backgrounds. If they decide not to be just like me, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Even if I did tell them, why should they listen to me? Didn’t I teach them to make up their own minds?
In other words, “What can you do?” means more than, “I can’t.” It means, “I shouldn’t.” With that mindset, telling your child, “I want you to marry a Jew” is worse than useless: it’s hypocritical. Being Jewish is nice, but your deepest values are personal autonomy and openness to the world. Besides, many (most? all?) of your friends’ kids are marrying out anyway, so what do you expect?
If this is the way synagogue-affiliated parents in a heavily Jewish area think, how much more does it apply out on the periphery, where so many Jews, in the words of the Pew Report commenters, are already “looking for the exit door.”
Pew may be new, but disappointing the older generation by marrying out is an old story. When Sholem Aleichem wrote about Tevye a century ago, he portrayed a crumbling ideal of parental authority that even back then was already a sentimental memory.
I‘m glad not to be a community leader trying to figure out how to keep Jews Jewish. That would be way above my pay grade. The Haredi world deals with this challenge by living in tight enclaves, building high walls to keep out a modern world they claim to hold in aggressive contempt, and marrying their kids off young to partners vetted by the family. This probably works pretty well, though no one will talk about the times it doesn’t. In my own community, the so-called Modern Orthodox, we follow halacha to one extent or another but have mostly internalized modern notions of letting our grown children make up their own minds about things. As a result our kids are a lot like everyone else’s children—they marry later, or not at all, or not necessarily to the partners we had in mind. In marriage as in other things, we parent as well as we can and hope for the best. When it comes to grown children, there are best practices but no guarantees. That’s the modern deal. We just hope our kids don’t make choices that leave us to shrug, “What can you do?”
In the meantime, I’m a much bigger fan of pasta al dente than I ever used to be. Hey look, my kid made up her own mind to move to Israel—and she married an Italian!