Intermarriage is still worth talking about

Back in the fifties and sixties, if you were Jewish and you decided to marry a non-Jew, your family went bananas. They threw a tantrum. They sat shiva and wrote you out of existence. The threat was real – they meant it – it tore families apart. And it was an emotional hell.

But it didn’t do much to stop intermarriage.

Intermarriage was on the rise. By the seventies, Jews and non-Jews were marrying each other in greater and greater numbers.

It was more common in the eighties. It was still a big deal. People talked about it. But it didn’t pack the emotional wallop like it used to. No one sat shiva for intermarried children anymore.

I grew up in the eighties (my Bar Mitzvah was in 1981). My family wasn’t religious. But we were Jewish. Intermarriage was an issue. We talked about it. And my mother was insistent, “Just promise me that you will marry a Jewish girl.”

I wasn’t alone. My friends had the same conversations with their parents. It was a rite of passage. We joked about it in college.

Nowadays, intermarriage is a fact of life. According to last year’s Pew study, the intermarriage rate in America is at 58% for all Jews or 71% when you remove Orthodox Jews. Threats and guilt didn’t stop Jews from marrying non-Jews.

And why should they?

People don’t get married to make a statement. They don’t get married to upset their parents or to bad mouth their religion. People don’t think like that. People get married to build a life together with the person they love.

And that person is someone like them; someone with similar goals and interests. Someone who grew up the way they did.

Consider that in detail.

If you grew up in a Yiddish-speaking Hasidic sect, it is unlikely that you will marry someone who didn’t. You might. But you probably won’t. You might be worldly or savvy in business. You might be personable and open minded. But when it comes to core issues like where you will live or how you will raise your children, you need someone who assumes the same things about the world that you do.

And that is true however you grow up.

If you grew up in suburban America, the influences that shape your identity have more to do with malls and TV and Americana than with Judaism. That doesn’t mean that being Jewish is meaningless. It isn’t. You probably celebrated the holidays. You probably went to Hebrew school. You probably had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You probably ate Jewish foods.

But it wasn’t dominant.

It wasn’t dominant like it was for someone who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking Hasidic sect.

Your world – your teachers and friends, your favorite bands, your heroes, the movies you saw, the things that interested your parents – those things spoke louder. They were more influential. They taught you a lot more about your culture, being cool, your sense of humor, and your identity than your Jewish heritage did. They form your basic assumptions; the things you take for granted. They taught you to be an American.

And that makes sense. That’s normal. You’re an American first.

You’re Jewish, too. But being Jewish isn’t any different than being Irish or Italian or Polish. Jewish is your cultural identity.

And guess who you’re going to date?

You are going to date – and eventually marry – someone like you. Someone whose ethnic identity comes second.

Keep that in perspective. You don’t hate being Jewish. You’re not angry. You don’t have a chip on your shoulder. You have nothing to prove. You’re not making a statement.

You’re consistent.

You’re a balanced, normal, healthy, product of your society. You’re the embodiment of the American melting pot. You played by the rules. You did everything right.

And then someone tells you, “You have to marry a Jew.”

Huh? McFly?

Insisting that a Jew only marries another Jew – for no other reason than, er, well, “because” – isn’t racist per se. But it’s ethnocentric. It’s xenophobic. It could be. It has nothing to do with the person you’re talking to. It doesn’t take into account his background or upbringing.

It isn’t an intelligent thing to say.

And yet – in spite of that – intermarriage is still important to discuss. It is important to understand it. It is important because intermarriage indicates how much being Jewish matters to Jewish people.

It puts things into perspective.

The intermarriage rate, excluding Orthodox Jews, is at 71%. That means that for most American Jews, being Jewish is like being Italian. It’s their cultural heritage. It’s nice. But that’s it.

They might argue with that assessment. They might tell you something different. But based on who they marry; based on the most important decision they make in their life – the decision that most accurately reflects their values and priorities – they demonstrate that being Jewish isn’t their top priority.

And that says something.

What do you do about that? How do you stop an intermarriage?

You don’t.

A person’s life choices – who he decides to marry – is none of your business.

But if intermarriage bothers you – if you think being Jewish is more than an interesting ethnic identity – you need to start thinking.

If you want your children to marry Jewish, you need to get clear about your beliefs, you need to live them, you need to be consistent, and that needs to be your pleasure. You need to love being Jewish. And that love has to be palpable. Children don’t listen to what you say. They learn from how you live.

If you want to see a shift in Jewish demographics, if you want to see more Jews decide to in-marry, you need to get busy. You need to get creative. You need to articulate your message in a clear and real way. You need to give people the tools to decide for themselves whether or not being Jewish is relevant or not.

Being Jewish is incredible. Many Jews – when shown the beauty of being Jewish – opt to incorporate more Judaism into their lives.

Many don’t – and that isn’t your problem – though you don’t have to quit trying.

About the Author
Tzvi Gluckin is an author and musician. He currently serves as the director of Vechulai, an innovative Jewish think tank located in Boston.
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