Are Jews marrying oblivion?
Many British Jews are choosing partners from outside their community, according to a major survey published yesterday
Thursday 15 February 1996
It is written in Jewish law that my children will be considered non-Jews now I have married a Scottish Protestant. After 2,000 years of a glorious and romantic pure-bred heritage, a culture and tradition of which I am very proud - pogroms and Fiddler on the Roof, Mel Brookes and the Yom Kippur War: wonderful and terrible things - the Ronson bloodline ends here. It is also written, of course, that Jews cannot eat pork or shellfish, cannot turn on the light or drive a car on the Sabbath. For a culture which prides itself on intelligent debate (or, at least, very loud arguments), our laws can be shockingly fundamentalist.
Responses to my marriage have been mixed. Some people are furious, others think it the most natural thing in the world: the logical conclusion to a half-century of vigorous assimilation. I am reminded of a Jewish joke which illustrates the growing chasm between the modern-day Western Jew, and the antediluvian laws we are supposed to respect. "God didn't actually say that we weren't supposed to eat pork," goes the joke. "He said that we weren't supposed to eat pork in certain restaurants." Well, I contend that God did not actually say we were not to marry out. He said that we were not to marry someone who does not like Woody Allen films.
So what do I do now? Have Jews any right to treat my children with suspicion, refuse them bar mitzvah and entry into synagogue, to consider them - and I gasp to write this - goyim? This is a question without an answer. In a way, I have let down my people. I have done my religion a disservice. A member of my family once warned me, with genuine concern: "If you marry a non-Jew, she will turn to you some time in the future, mark my words, and she will say: 'You're nothing but a dirty Jew'." This family member came from an older generation, a generation that remembered the Nazis. Nowadays, only 7 per cent of UK racial attacks are on Jews, and most of those consist of knocking down the odd gravestone. Terrible, but not as terrible. So our self-protection can no longer be identified as the battle against anti-Semitism.
Do I feel guilty? No, because it is a silly and arbitrary law (the religion passing through the woman rather than the man. Why?). In fact, I will tell you the only thing I feel guilty about. I once told a non-Jewish girlfriend the story of my relative's outburst, and she turned to me one day, when I was annoying her, and she said "You dirty Jew!" We both laughed.
It is a curious religion. We assimilate, yet we retain a resolute identity. This article will probably elicit an angry response: but perhaps those of you reading this, whose blood is boiling, should stop for a moment and ask yourselves a question. Why are so many of us marrying out? It is not because we are bad Jews. We are not ashamed of our religion, although we are put off by the austere ardour all around us. Most Jews now - well, certainly me anyway - consider our Jewishness to be defined as being very clever, very funny and very highly strung. Marrying out is simply no longer an issue of concern for us. Are you going to continue to turn your back on us, or will the force of the statistics coerce you into rational debate?
I recently attended a seminar on this very subject. I was not invited because I am learned and wise, I hasten to add, but because I was to be the laboratory rat of the panel, sitting alongside clever rabbis and elders with all the answers. Was there life after intermarriage? Just look at the snivelling wreck at the end of the table. Do you want to be like him? And of course, they hated me. They yelled and gasped, as I tried to explain my position. One woman looked as if I had just punched her on the nose. After two agonising hours it was time for coffee and biscuits. A man approached me and said: "I thought you were very brave. I married out 20 years ago and this lot still haven't forgiven me. They still make sarcastic remarks and nasty comments. It's awful."
So why - I thought - do you still hang around with them? Why don't you find new friends?
You can choose who to love
Sharon Maxwell Magnus
I can still remember every heady moment of my first date with a non-Jewish boy. The frisson as I lied that I was going round to a friend's house, the relief as I realised I had got away with it, the excitement as I surveyed Craig's un-Jewish features.
Most of all I remember the guilt that enveloped me after that first kiss. Slinking back, feeling I had deceived my parents, an uneasy awareness that a thunderbolt or at least an unsightly spot might devour me as a sign of divine displeasure.
It was too much. I phoned Craig and lied to him, saying my father had found out and had threatened to thrash me.
It was hardly surprising that I had non-Jewish boyfriends since I spent my adolescence in Swansea, a town with a Jewish community so tiny that there were only three Jewish boys of my age. My parents tried valiantly to keep up my contact with Jewish life. Every couple of weeks my father would drive an hour up the motorway to Cardiff and then sit in the car for two hours while I went to the "local" Jewish youth club. I also attended summer schools run by the same youth movement, where there were lectures about Jewish morality, religion and history.
I had attended a Jewish primary school in Liverpool, but believe that those summer schools and most of all my parents' emphasis on being Jewish laid the groundwork for my subsequent marriage to a fellow Jew. Indeed my gut feelings are backed by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research survey, which shows that it is the social and religious dynamic of a family, rather than the level of Jewish education, that determines the choice of whether to marry "in" or "out".
The terminology is revealing. Many of those who marry out would like to stay Jewish, but that's hard work when Judaism puts the emphasis on the family and your non-Jewish spouse and even children are excluded.
At university I went out with a man who was technically Jewish but who didn't like to admit it. He saw Judaism as something you were persecuted for - as his mother had to hide from the Nazis. I saw it as an integral part of me, like being five foot and female.
We split up. I didn't want to pretend to be something I wasn't, to celebrate Christmas rather than Chanukah.
When I thought about the future I envisaged a family life similar to the sort I had enjoyed as a child. But like so many young Jews, I was too steeped in secular values to want to become ultra-religious, which seemed to consist largely of things that Jewish law wouldn't allow you to do. One of my friends broke off a relationship with a non-Jewish woman because he said he didn't want two thousand years of Jewish history to end with him. My reasons for opting to marry in were more to do with my own emotional needs.
I met my husband at the university's Jewish society. He had the same sort of muddled identity as myself. He valued the emphasis on family, felt ethnically Jewish, embraced some rituals and discarded others. We had a lot in common and Judaism was part of that. I love my husband dearly, but I probably would not have married him had he not been Jewish. He feels the same way about me.
Maybe it is unromantic to believe that you can choose who to love. But it's hard to go into a marriage where the orchestra is already tuned for a series of conflicts - not just with parents, but over identity, the bringing up of children and what - if any - customs are to be observed. My friends who have married out have found the dilemma over whether to circumcise a male child particularly difficult. In my experience weddings where both partners are Jewish are loud, riotous affairs. Marriages where one partner is not Jewish are much more hole-in-the-wall, with at least one parent sniffing surreptitiously throughout.
My friends who have married out tell me it works because they share values or interests with their partner that are unrelated to - and more important to them - than Judaism. Some have said that when they weren't married they felt excluded from Jewish activities simply because they were single, so dropping the whole caboodle hasn't been too hard. Even when you are part of the community, as I am, it's exasperating to watch the rabbis concentrating more on squabbling among themselves than addressing how to make Jewish identity count.
Now, as I start to introduce my two-year-old to Judaism, through our Friday night Sabbath eve rituals such as lighting candles, and the steady march of the festivals, I try to instil a positive view of Judaism mindful of her future.
Will she marry in? The chances are fifty-fifty. Am I prepared for her to live a highly religious, ghettoised existence to ensure she only meets Jews? No way. But do I care? Of course.
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