I recently came back from a West Coast tour of sorts, which included participation in an L.A.-based conference for Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s. The Professional Leaders Project (PLP) called participants “talent,” in perhaps an intentional evocation of “the industry.” But our talents were celebrated and cultivated in a very un-Hollywood-like way: through intensive peer leadership, networking and professional mentoring. No casting couch required.
A nonprofit founded with the mission of turning Jewish leadership over to the next generation, PLP gave “talent” the chance to live up to the name, as “session artists” or “thought leaders.” One so-designated “thought leader” remarked that this sounded extremely Orwellian, although perhaps in a good way. Apparently not yet a thought leader, I had an opportunity that a writer-yet-without-a-book doesn’t often have: to read aloud something I’d written and observe the response. I had been designated as the artist for “Intermarriage and Interdating: Still the Third Rail?”
Burying the Kafkaesque implications of what being an “intermarriage artist” might entail, I read a piece from my book-in-perpetual-progress, a chapter considering whether it would matter if I intermarried: If my babies would always be Jewish, maybe it paid to expand the dating pool and be more open-minded. (To ruin the ending, I decided intermarriage wasn’t for me, and to this day I restrict my dating pool to Jews who are interested in living a traditionally Jewish life.)
In all modesty, I thought the piece was a sensitive, personal consideration of all of the issues involved and hoped it also brought some humor to the table. OK, maybe that wasn’t all that modest. Still, I was pretty sure it was balanced. But even with all the writing and reading I’ve done on the subject, I underestimated just how personally everyone in the room would react. While people were polite, challenging me respectfully and non-confrontationally, afterwards I became aware that some offense had been taken. Some people — themselves intermarried or children of intermarriages — had heard my personal exploration as a condemnation of their (or their parents’) choices.
Maybe it was that I said that I found it slightly sad when a Jewish man “marries out” — not for demographic reasons, like those of Jews who believe intermarriage dooms the Jewish people to extinction, but for utterly selfish ones. It means that there’s one less Jewish man in my dating pool.
I want to marry a Jew. Not because I hate non-Jewish people or think they have nothing to offer me in terms of love, personality, humor, advice or life experience. But because having a Jewish life is important to me — it’s a lifestyle and perspective that I find personally resonant and that I think makes a contribution to the world. Nearly all of my friends are engaged in Jewish work, or are — either formally or informally — affiliated with the Jewish community. Almost every paycheck I receive is from an organization or publication with the word “Jewish” in its name. I pepper my daily speech with Hebrew (which my 2-year-old nephew is also learning to speak) and I e-mail Israel constantly. How could I commit to a life with someone who didn’t find all of those things compelling and meaningful? And would that person ever feel like he was part of my intensely Jewish world?
As some of my single sisters approach fertility’s danger zone, they consider their own “talent”: Their children will be Jewish, and maybe that’s enough, if not ideal. Some religious authorities advise that these women just marry, even without love for the Jewish bachelor-in-question; they’ll be happier once they have Jewish children. A few, even some of the more affiliated ones, are beginning to drift toward other options.
You may not find intermarriage personally acceptable or nationally responsible. But that doesn’t erase the issue. We no longer live in Anatevka, where running off with non-Jewish Fyedka or (perhaps even worse!) secular liberal activist Perchik results in our parents cutting us off. We all deal with non-Jews, most of whom aren’t Cossacks. And so, intermarriage happens; we need to figure out how to deal with it, artfully and more artistically than I was apparently able to.
But in concentrating energies on re-engaging the intermarried, we also should keep in mind those who haven’t taken that road and are still hoping to find someone of the faith. In five or 10 or 15 years, the theoretically still single 30- or 40something may adopt a more inclusive dating policy. And who could blame them? While that question should be rhetorical, we all know that somewhere, someone will.
Esther D. Kustanowitz takes her status as an artist seriously, and now edits in red, green and purple pen. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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