In The Mix

Same Sex, Different Faith

Posted in Uncategorized by intermarried on November 21, 2008

This one has already generated a lovely e-mail to me from a Mr. Alan Korn: “Julie, I thing [sic] you are the most mixed up person in the world.”

I neglected to post last month’s column, about intermarriage guilt, and now those lovely Jewish Week Internet archives seem unable to retrieve it. However, I’m pasting the text below. And I want to remind all readers that if there’s any column listed here that you are unable to access, feel free to e-mail me, as I have a Word version of everything.

Who By Intermarriage? (published in The New York Jewish Week, Oct. 24, 2008)


Julie Wiener

Special To The Jewish Week


On Yom Kippur this year, I held a Torah scroll for the first time.

As I stood on the bima during Kol Nidre, the covered Torah cradled in my right arm, it occurred to me that this experience was not so different from carrying a small child.

My 2-year-old daughter Sophie weighs about the same as a Sefer Torah and while at this stage in her development it would hardly be life-threatening if she were accidentally dropped, not so long ago I handled her (and her older sister, before her) with the same nervousness and enormous sense of responsibility I recently felt toward this sacred bundle swaddled in worn velvet.

I’m sure I’m not the first to observe the many similarities between a Torah and a small child: their holiness, their role as a link between generations, their lengthy gestation period — not to mention the fact that neither is capable of dressing itself.

The Torah and my two daughters have also played parallel roles in my life. As I become more knowledgeable about the Torah and its contents, and as I raise children, I find myself feeling more confident about my place in the Jewish community.

While many readers of this paper complain that I am too glib in writing about intermarriage, for several years I actually felt quite guilty for my out-of-the-Tribe nuptials.

About 10 years ago, a few months after our wedding, I came home in tears from my job at the Detroit Jewish News and wailed to my husband Joe, “Maybe our marriage was all a big mistake.” I no longer recall what specific incident had triggered this bout of remorse and doubt. The office lunch ‘n learn with the fervently Orthodox rabbi who referred to intermarriage as a “silent Holocaust” and said the angels cried each time a Jew married a gentile? One of the many interviews I had, as an education reporter in the late 1990s, with a communal leader decrying the Jewish continuity crisis and intermarriage “epidemic?”

Unlike many intermarrieds, I cannot blame my deeply ingrained sense of guilt (at least about intermarriage) on my family. My parents welcomed Joe from the beginning, and this was hardly a surprise since they’d never objected to intermarriage or inter-dating when I was growing up. Indeed, my mother once came home horrified to report that her good friend Joyce had said it was more important that her children marry Jews than that they marry Democrats.

My insecurities came more from within. Raised secular and unaffiliated, I always had this outsider-pressed-against-the-glass-and-looking-in feeling about Judaism. As a child of divorce, I’m sure some of this came from a yearning to belong to an intact family with a long history. Perhaps also it was simply curiosity about what I was missing. In any event, from an early age I felt an attraction to all things Jewish and a desire to be fully accepted by the Tribe.

Since I’d never had a formal Jewish education, one of the few things I knew about Judaism was that intermarriage was a big no-no. So in college, when I joined Kosher Co-op, began studying Hebrew and planned a semester at Tel Aviv University, I resolved to become a Good Jew-Marrying Jew.

In Tel Aviv, I threw myself into a problematic relationship with an Israeli video store clerk in hopes that his Sabra authenticity might somehow rub off on me. After graduating, I fell hard for an American who wore Young Judaea T-shirts and Israeli sandals almost every day, who’d had a Conservative bar mitzvah and whose mother was president of her regional Hadassah. Again, I hoped to passively become Jewish by association. My enthusiasm for him was not reciprocated, however, and a few months after that became obvious, my quasi-rebound fling with Joe turned into something serious.

Early on, Joe promised we could raise any future children as Jews, but I was nonetheless riddled with uncertainty. Was I, as numerous communal leaders insisted, breaking the chain, letting the flame die out, allowing our people to fade out of existence? Could I really defy The Statistics, the oft-repeated studies linking intermarriage to the all-but-death of Judaism?

Like many American Jews, I felt a deep-seated obligation to keep Judaism alive, without being entirely certain why.

Nonetheless, over the years my intermarriage guilt has gradually disappeared. Part of this had to do with growing older and more comfortable with myself in general, as well as less all-or-nothing in my outlook. Having children has made a big difference.

Raising a Jewish family is no longer theoretical but real. Both girls had Jewish naming ceremonies, and at Yom Kippur this year 5-year-old Ellie complained because she “didn’t get to kiss the Torah.” Each eagerly anticipates our family’s weekly Shabbat dinner and enjoys a personal relationship with our rabbi, Regina Sandler-Phillips, who Sophie excitedly calls “Rabgina.”

Throughout this all, Joe’s been supportive, with the exception of my (quickly abandoned) efforts to convert him and make our kitchen kosher.

As an agnostic, I continue to struggle with Judaism, and I am still not always sure why being Jewish feels important to me. What I do know is that it gives me a sense of belonging and community and that, while I may not believe in God, I do believe that the wisdom accumulated from centuries of scholarly Jewish arguments about God and ethics make life more meaningful and satisfying.

When our daughters grow up will they identify as Jewish? Will they raise their own children as Jewish? I hope so, but I don’t know. None of us, whether intermarried or not, can predict how our children will turn out, or even what will happen in the next year.

By the same token, I can’t guarantee that the Torah I held at Yom Kippur will last forever. All I can do is treat it with respect, learn what I can from it and pass it on, intact, to the next generation.


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