For years, we at JOI have tried to balance the negative messages about “marrying out” that still emanate from parts of the Jewish community (though much less frequently) with a vision of intermarriage as “marrying in.” And we continue to hear story after story of individuals who were not born Jewish yet are now important members of the Jewish community. Last week, the editor of the Jewish Forward, Jane Eisner, conducted a fascinating interview with newsman Mark Whitaker, who said, “My grandpapa saved Jews; I married a Jew, and I’m raising my children as Jews.” But of course, Whitaker himself is not (yet) Jewish.
Whitaker was the first African American to head a major newsweekly when he became editor of Newsweek in 1998, and he is currently the managing editor of CNN. In the interview, he describes the kinship he felt toward Jews even before meeting the Jewish woman who would become his wife:
I felt this incredible sense of solidarity with Israel, a sense of it being a piece of the family history…. Coming from two different traditions of being persecuted — black and French Protestant — I thought that Jews taking responsibility for themselves in the aftermath of one of the worst atrocities in human history showed great determination….
I was looking for some laughter and levity in life, and a lot of Jewish friends I made in college were hilarious. Smart. Irreverent… They are very motivated to make it, to be a mainstream success, but they still have an outsider perspective and a sense of humor about it. A lot of my black friends have it, too.
He married a Jewish woman, sent both children to Jewish day school, and still thinks about converting to Judaism. Clearly, this intermarriage, like so many others, is a tremendous gain and great benefit for the Jewish community, and one that should rightly be celebrated. But perhaps the most striking feature to me of the interview was the headline, in the US Jewish community “paper of record,” calling this a “quintessentially American family story.” While it is unique because of his unique story, and we all have unique stories, it is also an experience shared by so many other families in similar ways that it is no longer considered “exceptional,” but “quintessential.”
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