By Book or Bagel
The challenge of preserving Jewish culture in an intermarriage is to emphasize the content and not just the trappings of Judaism.
By Laurel Snyder
Intermarriage is either the biggest hurdle the Jewish community has ever faced, or the biggest scapegoat.
Don’t get me wrong, the recent and overwhelming trend in Jewish intermarriage is complicated, but when people talk about intermarriage, they often seem to suggest that intermarriage is at the root of Jewish assimilation, that people are marrying and then losing their ties to the tradition, when the reverse might be closer to the truth.
Because in a world of “Just Jews” who say things like, “You don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish,” does it really matter who Davey Feinstein takes to the Chuppah? What’s he got to pass on to his children anyway?
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t meaningful ways to be Jewish beyond traditional religious observance and devotion, but when I was working on college campuses for Hillel, promoting a renaissance in Jewish campus life, I was amazed that most students didn’t identify with the content of Judaism so much as they identified with the appearance of Jewish culture.
Not only weren’t they kosher; they also weren’t socialists or Zionists, and they didn’t read Singer or Potak. They seemed disinterested in Jewish art, history, geography, and mysticism, but they could list off all the Jewish celebrities, and they liked bagels. That was important—they knew a good bagel when they ate one.
Recently I was talking with “Yael,” an Israeli friend of mine. Yael and her husband are Jewish, though neither of them grew up attending synagogue or Hebrew school, but Yael explained to me that she’s looking to join a synagogue, and that she wants to enroll her son in Jewish Day School.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, my whole sense of what it means to be Jewish is based on being Israeli,” she explained, “but my kids are American. Being a secular Jewish Israeli in America feels like it has meaning, and it offers community… but what does a secular Jewish American have to pass on? Why is that a religion?”
Which got me thinking—that because she could see a huge shift within one generation, Yael was able to identify what so many American Jews can’t perceive. We all stand at a distance from observant Jewish tradition on one side, and complete assimilation on the other, and so we forget just how far we are from each. We just hope that our kids will lead lives a little like our own. Most of us forget that our grandparents came to this country keeping kosher and arguing Talmud, and that our parents, while not quite so observant, attended synagogue weekly as kids, and lived by the Jewish calendar. But what is a Gen X Jew? Most of us don’t keep kosher, wake up on Saturdays for synagogue, read Jewish books, or otherwise participate in the community, but we want to claim our culture.
Which is where, perhaps, this intense fear of intermarriage comes from, this fear that our brisket recipes and Yiddishism might get lost in the watered-down bloodlines of the American melting pot. This fear that our children will intermarry and lose what little birthright we have left to hand down. But is that the fault of intermarriage or a lackluster birthright?
I am doing all I can to preserve the Jewish culture. I am learning, praying, writing Jewish books, cooking Jewish foods, respecting the tradition in an intentional manner. And I will take all the energy I could spend fearing intermarriage, and harness it, to teach my son to read and learn and think and grow as a Jew. Because if it happens that my mother is not Jewish, and my husband is not Jewish, then it is my job to assure that my son will be Jewish—a man of the book, not the bagel.
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