My dad wasn’t born Jewish.
My dad celebrated Christmas. He went to Church every Sunday.
Hell, he sang in the Episcopalian choir at his church — “If you can’t sing well, sing LOUD” his father told him, and loudly my father sang, his voice booming through the rafters clear to the high heavens until the choir master said “son, why don’t you try basketball instead.”
And then one Spring evening in March 1968, he met a woman with dark hair and darker eyes, a woman whose skin was still bronzed by the Israeli sun where she had spent the year picking sweet oranges in the fields, a woman who wore her Jewishness like a coat of many colors.
My mom’s people fled from Poland and Russia, although their name and the stories they tell trace all the way back to Baghdad, when by the waters of Babylon they lay down and wept for thee, Zion, their real homeland.
My mom was that kind of Jew who took her religion and peoplehood seriously, and when she finally — FINALLY — agreed to marry the earnest ex-choir boy who had only asked her to marry him every single night of their eight year courtship, she had one condition:
“When we get married, we will be a Jewish family.”
Think Ruth and “whither thou goest I will go” and get serious.
My father went to holiday workshop classes at our shul.
He studied Torah.
We went to shul.
We lit candles on Shabbat, and the only time we would drive on the sabbath would be to synagogue, because LA.
We kept Kosher-ish.
We celebrated Hanukkah, with nary a pine needle from an errant xmas tree to be found….
My dad’s family respected his choice. My mom’s family embraced it.
And while my father still isn’t Jewish, he still honors the memory of my mother and her identity.
(“Sarah, why on EARTH are you even THINKING about eating a hamburger with chili cheese fries? That is NOT Kosher!”)
He still insists we say the motzi before breaking bread, and when he visits me 3 times a year, he steps out of customs at Ben Gurion airport bellowing the Israeli national anthem.
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Yes, my father is an exceptional man. But don’t tell me we are the exception. Because we don’t have to be the exception. With a little less hand wringing and a little more hand holding we could be the rule.
Don’t tell me it “doesn’t count” because my mother is Jewish which makes me automatically Jewish. Because regardless of my birthright, I could have chosen a different path. Being Jewish isn’t a choice, but living Jewishly is — and here I am, not only living Jewishly, but in our ancestral Jewish homeland, raising kids who speak in Hebrew and have waaaaay more hutzpah than I’ll ever have, in a world that measures time by the Jewish holiday cycles….
Don’t tell me “intermarriage” is always a bad thing.
Instead, let’s recognize that our numbers are low, and that we could change that demographic if we switch our way of thinking, ease the conversion process when relevant, and realize that intermarriage doesn’t have to be “marrying out.”
It can be “marrying in.”