How to Stop an Intermarriage. Or Not.
Intermarriage says a lot less about who people marry, and a lot more about our inability to communicate our heritage and values.
New Voices is a magazine written by, and for, Jewish college students, and last week posted a feature, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Intermarriage.” These types of pieces pop up every few years either in response to a study – the most recent being the Pew Research Center’s 2021 Report on American Jewry, which counted intermarriage at about 72 percent amongst more recently married non-orthodox Jews – or as another sub-generation comes of age and grapples with the issue.
In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Intermarriage,” the author, Drew Perkoski – currently a student at Washington University in St. Louis – chronicles his experiences, as well as those of the people he interviews, dealing with intermarriage. They discuss attitudes they feel are out of touch with the contemporary realities of Jewish life, but also reflect a way of thinking that is alienating, and a major turnoff for most young people identifying as Jewish. Those attitudes are also inconsistent with the basic message they get growing up as American Jews.
Perkoski’s first example, which bookends his prose, is from a conversation he had with a friend, “The second topic we got into … was how she was going to make it through Thanksgiving. Her father was bent on making her brother’s girlfriend of nine years convert. What she couldn’t understand is why her father, who theoretically supports patrilineal Jews, was so dead set on conversion when they’d already decided the kids will be raised Jewish and their home rabbi had agreed to perform the ceremony. Intermarriage seemed to only be an issue because of tradition… We both got up from the table, mutually baffled that her dad will die on the hill of intermarriage.”
Most people don’t get married for ideological reasons. You marry the person you love with the hope of building a home, starting a family, and sharing a life together.
Unfortunately, Perkoski didn’t interview his friend’s father, so we don’t know his motivations. Although my guess is that Jewish continuity is probably an issue that resonates with him. But let’s be real, whatever his thoughts are about Jewish survival, trying to convince your son’s fiancé after nine years, out of the blue, to convert to Judaism – is a dumb thing to do.
Most people don’t get married for ideological reasons. Most marriages aren’t a rebellion against your parents or upbringing. Marriage isn’t about making a statement. You marry the person you love with the hope of building a home, starting a family, and sharing a life together.
Your spouse is usually someone similar to yourself, and who travels in similar circles. He or she is often a friend of a friend, or someone from work, or someone you met at a social event. You share similar interests, values, and assumptions about life and the future. Those things are important, and usually something you take for granted. They define who you are and how you see the world, and while, at least in theory, you could be attracted to anyone, it’s unlikely that you’d invest in a relationship with someone who didn’t share those assumptions. It’s too hard. You lack too much common ground.
If you grew up in suburbia, went to public school, hung out with a diverse group of friends, consumed popular media, and then went to college; those, obviously, are also the people and institutions who inform your identity and how you see the world. Your parents, siblings, extended family, and religious upbringing color your perceptions as well, and sometimes in significant ways, but given that those people are influenced by – and supportive of – those same cultural forces, and especially as you get older and begin to assert your independence, it’s unlikely their influence is going to hold that much sway in the face of those other overwhelming ideals. You’re a product of your environment and the world you grow up in. That’s what you relate to, who you associate with, how you see yourself, and who you want to be around.
And for many Jews most of those things have very little to do with being Jewish.
That doesn’t mean you have a problem with being Jewish. You probably like it. But being Jewish is an ethnic identity. It’s not much different from being Irish or Italian. There are certain foods you like, in-jokes you get, and a handful of experiences you can bond over with a small minority of others – and that’s about it.
If that’s how you were raised – and that’s how most young American Jews are raised – that also describes your friends and the people you date. That’s your world. It’s where you live. It’s what you’re comfortable with. Your spouse is going to be someone similar. Being Jewish is an interesting color, it may even make you somewhat exotic, but so is your hairstyle, taste in music, and goofy laugh. It’s just another interesting thing about you that pales when compared to the cultural gravity of being a suburban-raised, university-educated, progressive, secular American.
If being Jewish isn’t central to your identity, when it’s time to get married, why should it suddenly become relevant?
And then someone tells you – usually out of nowhere – that it’s wrong to marry a non-Jew.
Most people opposed to intermarriage are not bigoted xenophobes. They have strong feelings about Jewish survival, an intuitive sense that Jewish continuity is important, and maybe also a little guilt. But do they really expect someone to abandon the person he loves for what’s, at best, an ethnic, or cultural, identity? If being Jewish isn’t central to your identity, when it’s time to get married, why should it suddenly become relevant?
Jews aren’t marrying non-Jews because they have chips on their shoulders or issues with being Jewish. They’re doing it because to them being Jewish just isn’t that important. It’s not relevant to their identity, how they see themselves, or that significant.
Intermarriage demonstrates the terrible job we’ve done passing our values on to our children.
They may tell you otherwise, but for 72 percent of Jews who don’t identify as orthodox, when it comes to the most important decision they make in their lives – choosing the person they’re going to marry – choosing the person they feel best shares their values, lifestyle, aspirations, and dreams, being Jewish isn’t a factor.
And therein lies the rub.
Intermarriage is still an important conversation. It demonstrates, better than anything else, the terrible job we’ve done passing our values on to our children. The statistics don’t lie, and the next generation is not getting the message.
Is that because they’re not listening? Or maybe, more likely, that’s because we’re not living it ourselves.