On ketchup and intermarriage – someone’s not gonna like this

How to begin my inaugural post? I will begin by dating myself.

Those of us old enough to remember the Reagan years may still chuckle over the “ketchup is a vegetable” brouhaha. (If you were not yet born when Reagan was President, just Google it).

Reduced federal aid for school lunches spawned regulations declaring ketchup to be a “vegetable” for purposes of fulfilling the school lunch vegetable requirement. Pour ketchup on your french fries and it’s as if your school lunch suddenly is overflowing with broccoli.

The outcry was instantaneous. People instinctively knew that when it comes to eating your veggies, Heinz doesn’t cut it. Even Senator John Heinz of ketchup fame declared from the Senate floor that ketchup is indeed a condiment “and I suppose I need not add that I do know something about ketchup.”

Yet, when it comes to discussing Jewish issues, “ketchup is a vegetable” is the prevailing mindset. Too often, we swallow whole the myriad Jewish “ketchup is a vegetable” statements touted as fact. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than interfaith marriage.

I’ve heard several Jewish public figures proclaim that the intermarried are our future. Interfaith marriage is the “new normal.” Interfaith marriage has virtually no impact on a child’s Jewish identity. Raising a child in two religions actually is better because it teaches tolerance.

Ketchup is a vegetable.

I’ve heard other Jewish public figures say that intermarriage is the next holocaust. Once intermarried, they’re lost to Judaism forever. And so we must write off the intermarried. As if you can pretend that 50% of the next generation doesn’t exist, and the rest of us will carry on just fine without them.

Ketchup is a vegetable.

No doubt, something I just said offended someone. Who am I to say what interfaith marriage is or isn’t? Who am I to talk about raising children in an interfaith marriage? Who am I to say whether interfaith marriage is a positive factor or an alarming development? And really, who am I to pass judgment on ketchup’s nutritional value?

Ok – I confess I’m no expert on ketchup. I believe that what’s good enough for Senator Heinz is good enough for me. But no, I cannot speak cogently to the nutritional differences between ketchup and vegetables (let’s put aside for the moment that the tomato is a fruit).

But when it comes to intermarriage, I have a unique perch from which to view Jewish life. Let me explain.

I grew up as a typical American Jew (if such a thing exists). Hebrew school through Bar Mitzvah and a bit beyond, synagogue attendance at High Holidays and an every-so-often Shabbat service, an appreciation for the subtleties of deli sandwiches as well as shrimp cocktail, and more hours logged watching Woody Allen than learning Torah.

My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a devout Christian home, attending church and Bible study every week. In college, she joined an evangelical church. When we met, she was the Minister of Music in a Texas mega-church with three services every Sunday for thousands of congregants.

Today, we are an observant Jewish family living in Israel. My last position in the U.S. was as the Executive Director of a Jewish Federation. My wife directed one Jewish woman’s chorus and founded another. Our children read the Torah in the original Hebrew with ease. Our family could not be more different from a typical intermarried family. Except that, of the four of us, I’m the only one who was born Jewish.

How we got from point A to point B could fill a book – literally. In the next few weeks, our dual memoir, “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope” will be released (www.doublelifejourney.com). At first, we resisted putting pen to paper, despite dozens of people telling us “you must write a book.” Why tell a story about ourselves? Isn’t that a bit vain?

Then we looked at what’s out there. On one side of the bookshelf, we found titles like “Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child” and “There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.” (No, I didn’t make that up.) On the other side, we found the “intermarriage-is-destroying-the-Jewish-community-and-the-sky-is-falling” books.

Ketchup, ketchup everywhere you look.

What we didn’t find were any books by a couple who began intermarried and made the journey to becoming an observant Jewish family. To be sure, we’ve found many families like ourselves in real life. But hardly ever in print. When I first posted news of “Doublelife,” a friend who married someone Jewish and later converted to Judaism wrote back, “Wow, it would have been great to have had this book” when they got married. “We didn’t have many role models at the time.”

So “Doublelife” will hopefully fill a gap for intermarried families seeking some direction. But what of the larger Jewish communal conversation? On one side, judgment in place of any real guidance. On the other, an “everything’s rosy” mindset backed up by anecdotes and self-selected, self-serving surveys that would be laughable in any other context.

It’s time for a different Jewish conversation – one that is grounded in reality, but that replaces the hand wringing over Jewish continuity with the beauty of Judaism and offers a powerful vision of what Jewish life can be. Not only for the intermarried. For all of us.

That’s what this blog is about. We recently did an interview with the local Jewish newspaper where I was Federation Director, talking about “Doublelife” and why we find Judaism to be so compelling. A community member wrote that it was “a remarkably sensitive, insightful discussion about an issue usually more clouded than clarified.”

That’s my hope – to write something each week that removes the clouds. That clarifies the issues. And that goes beyond to inform and inspire. In addition to my own musings, once a month or so, a guest will be featured – sometimes a convert or born Jew to share their journey, sometimes a noted commentator on modern Jewish life.

So stay tuned. And in the meantime, remember to eat your veggies.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.