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“I Want to Marry a Jew”

Esther Kustanowitz is a writer, editor, prolific blogger and Jewish dating columnist for the New York Jewish Week who we’ve blogged about before. She was the “session artist” in one of the sessions about intermarriage where I was a “thought leader” at the recent PLP Conference. She wrote about the experience in her “First Person Singular” column, explaining that:

I read a piece from my book-in-perpetual-progress, a chapter considering whether it would matter if I intermarried: If my babies would always be Jewish, maybe it paid to expand the dating pool and be more open-minded. (To ruin the ending, I decided intermarriage wasn’t for me, and to this day I restrict my dating pool to Jews who are interested in living a traditionally Jewish life.)

…I underestimated just how personally everyone in the room would react. While people were polite, challenging me respectfully and non-confrontationally, afterward I became aware that some offense had been taken. Some people — themselves intermarried or children of intermarriages — had heard my personal exploration as a condemnation of their (or their parents’) choices….

I want to marry a Jew. Not because I hate non-Jewish people or think they have nothing to offer me in terms of love, personality, humor, advice or life experience. But because having a Jewish life is important to me — it’s a lifestyle and perspective I find personally resonant and I think makes a contribution to the world.

Esther blogged about this column on her website, which gave me the opportunity to post a lengthy reply (perhaps the longest blog comment ever!). It obviously raises a lot of important issues and I applaud Esther for grappling with it even as I might disagree with her. As to the crux of the issue, I wrote:

You still seem to be operating on the assumption that intermarried couples don’t create Jewish households, when there are literally hundreds of thousands of us who do. For example, you write, “I want to marry a Jew…because having a Jewish life is important to me.” Having a Jewish life is important to countless intermarried Jews as well – myself included, and others in that room at PLP – and who you marry is neither cause nor effect of doing so. You’ve set up a clear corollary that you must in-married in order to have a Jewish life, implying that those who intermarry no longer have a Jewish life. It’s just not true. And I think that was the major cause of the reaction you felt in the room that day.



9 Comments

  1. I am not sure what you see wrong with her comments. As with any ethnic community, you can as you say, have a rich life in that ethnic group if you intermarry.

    I guess I would say that I am not sure why you would feel you need to defend yourself to someone who clearly believes in the traditional tenants of Judaism. Shouldn’t we be encouraging Jewish people to marry Jews, especially if they hold strong their Jewish values? And shouldn’t we encourage intermarried couples to embrace their Jewish faith as they wish? I don’t think anyone should have to defend their choice. sorry I didn’t read the whole blog though.
    all the best, Jackie

    Comment by Jackie — December 26, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

  2. Ms. Kustanowitz is entitled to her opinion even though she’s aware that not everyone will be in agreement with her. she isn’t saying that in-marriage is the only way to go, she’s saying it’s the only way for HER to go. that’s the difference. honestly, i don’t think there’s anything wrong with her wanting to be with someone of her own background. if this is what she wants, shouldn’t we be happy instead of defensive?

    Jackie has a point. the Jewish community should encourage in-marriage, but should also encourage the intermarried to explore Judaism in ways that suit them best. not everyone is going to convert, especially if their initial introduction to the Jewish community is an unpleasant one. but i also think that Paul has a point. marriage shouldn’t be measured in successes and failures based on who we marry. whether we want to admit it or not, not all in-married Jews opt to partake in Jewish life. they may have chosen a Jewish spouse, but it doesn’t stop there. perhaps he’s right when he mentions the potential cause of the reaction Ms. Kustanowitz received. many of those people were intermarried, yet look at how involved they were in Jewish life. it just goes to show that who we marry does have an effect on our lives, and not always in the ways others predict.

    Comment by h. — December 26, 2007 @ 11:48 pm

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I happen to agree with both of you! Of course Esther is entitled to her opinions, which is why her reading met with mostly polite silence from the room at that time. However, when she wonders aloud in such a public forum as her column in the New York Jewish Week about why it might have been offensive — and she speculates as to the reasons, speculation that I found faulty considering she’s trying to guess MY feelings and does so incorrectly — I felt a responsibility to try to demonstrate to her what was going through my mind at the time (and in reading her subsequent column). I wrote it personally but also in my capacity as an advocate for intermarried couples in general.

    I happen to think highly of Esther and have met her on several occasions, and wouldn’t have even bothered if I didn’t hope that influencing her thinking would in turn influence the thinking of many other folks in her circle, which is an important one.

    Intermarriage in not a casual choice, it’s the culmination of a lifetime of experiences (some related to Judaism but mostly just related to life in general). An analogy might if a bisexual woman addressed an audience of gays and lesbians (and their friends and allies) to explain how she considered being a lesbian but ultimately decided that heterosexuality was right for her. It’s not a moral thing, she assures them, though she does lament that there are so many gay men who she now can’t date because they’re going out with other men instead of women. Met with a less than enthusiastic response, she later writes publicly about not understanding what the offense was. Of course she’s entitled to be straight (and some might even say she should be applauded), nobody is questioning her entitlement to hold an opinion or make a lifestyle choice. But invited to speak to a room full of people who were specifically getting together to discuss the challenges of being gay and lesbian, how is she helping? Shouldn’t it be explained to her why it was actually unhelpful rather than helpful?

    Certainly, a piece of the blame lies with the conference convener for matching inappropriate material to the session, but if the presenter still can’t identify the offense and wonders about it publicly, well, I felt a responsibility to reply.

    Comment by Paul Golin — December 27, 2007 @ 4:42 am

  4. First of all, I had really great responses from the presentation, in general. Whether they were being honest or not, I don’t know. But on the whole, people told me in the room and once they’d left, that they DID appreciate my sensitivity and my consideration of other perspectives, even if in the end I decided that, for me, to have the kind of Jewish life that I want, the decision was “not intermarriage.” Which is why it was the one comment that bothered me and prompted my self-analysis.

    This was never intended to be about YOU, meaning Paul Golin specifically. Nor was it intended to be a general piece about “how intermarried people feel” or even “how the Jewish community should react to intermarried couples”. I went into that session with the mandate to be the “artist” for the session, and with the title, which asked if Intermarriage was “the third rail,” meaning–in my mind, because no one ever contacted me in advance to advise me on an alternate meaning, or in any way regarding suggesting content–”was it an issue that cannot be broached, lest we die?” And my answer, clearly, was no. It is a subject that can be discussed. It is a personal subject, and I tried to write about and read some of my personal reflections on the subject, even coming from “outside the discussion.” In doing so, I apparently laid myself open to personal and ideological criticism in the service of larger conversation.

    To address this particular note: “You’ve set up a clear corollary that you must in-married in order to have a Jewish life, implying that those who intermarry no longer have a Jewish life.” That is NOT what I was implying. If that’s what you extrapolated, then fine. But what I was stating was that, again, FOR ME, to have the kind of Jewish life I want, I need to in-marry if it is at all possible to do so and still find a true life-partner.

    But even beyond that, for me, it’s not enough to marry someone who’s technically Jewish but has no Jewish connection other than a bagel break-fast on Yom Kippur even if he hasn’t fasted. It would be really difficult for me to make a life with someone who believes that Israeli political policy is apartheid, or that Israel isn’t an important part of Jewish life. Should I be criticized for believing and saying that? Will that be viewed as an insult to people who self-define that way, or could they just say, “ok, then she’s not for me”?

    And I’d have to ask my gay friends if they think it’s the same thing as the situation you laid out above, but honestly, I don’t think it is.

    Paul, you know I have great respect for the work that you and JOI do, and that I advocate a policy of erring on the side of inclusion when it comes to a Jewish communal approach. I have never indicated that intermarried couples cannot raise Jewish families, or that they have intermarried because they have no connection or contribution to make toward Jewish life. So while I am happy to converse in a constructive way with you on this subject, please refrain from painting me with the same brush as the detractors, the nay-sayers and exclusionists. Please.

    Comment by Esther Kustanowitz — December 28, 2007 @ 2:32 pm

  5. Well I guess we have our answer: YES. Intermarriage is still the third rail. ;)

    No matter how well we may try to write, “tone” is still something that is always best expressed in person, and if my tone reads as attacking rather than impassioned, I’m truly sorry. Just as I understand that you were not attacking me with your chapter, I was not trying to attack you in response. When you talk about personal choices about personal issues, people take it personally. I was trying to explain why I took it personally.

    Believe me, I do not put you in a category with anyone, let alone with the detractors of JOI. And I don’t begrudge your choices. But I feel like you were putting it out there as to why someone might have been offended and I wanted to explain why. I can’t help but think that there is still something there to explore further with you, but in person not on the web.

    Comment by Paul Golin — December 28, 2007 @ 3:56 pm

  6. Esther,

    I read your article in the Jewish Week and found it to be very artful and sensitive. You have made a very deeply considered and difficult decision to only marry another Jew, and should be applauded for it, and for being willing to speak openly about such a personal topic.

    I think people are very (sometimes overly) sensitive to certain issues, which stifles conversation and intelligent conversation and debate. One of those issues in the Jewish community is intermarriage. I was once at a Federation speaker event on Jewish perception in the American media (The speaker was a local professor). An audience member asked what seemed to me a relevent question:

    “With the declining American Jewish demographic, partially attributable to low birth rates and high intermarriage rates, and the simultaneous increase in the American Muslim and Arab populations, do you think the generally positive perception of Jews in the American media can be sustained over time?”

    His question was met with a hostile attack by the professor on his perceived (imagined?) attach on intermarriage as the cause of the declining demographic. The professor never answered the question, but rather gave a lengthy diatribe on how intermarriage was not harming the Jewish Community, something that was way outside her area of expertise. My point is only that people should lighten up a little. If we really hold “personal choice” in such high regard, than your decision to marry only Jewish, whatever might be your reasons, should not be insulting to anyone, at least not when so sensitively presented. If those remarks are still taken as some insult, it speaks more about the reader’s/listener’s comfort level or sense of security than about your presentation.

    May G-d grant you success in finding your bashert!

    Comment by marc — January 2, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

  7. Hello !!!
    Wishing you a pleasant day !!!
    This is not a decision of a few days. I have worked with Jewish
    people in 1989 to 2002. I told my boss that parctically I loved his religion, due to his manner but could not say to my boss that I loved to have a Jewish girl to marry as we ahve a big
    gap of rank. Please help me to have some one. I am a muslim but want to change my religion to jewish no problem. From the core of
    my heart this is my feelings.

    I am 46 colour brighter but black / brown ( Line indians )
    Profession : Apparel merchandising expert for the last 24 years

    Appreciate your feed back
    Thanks a lot
    Muheeb

    Comment by Muheeb Hassan — August 29, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

  8. hi
    my name mousa i want to marry jewish girl
    thank

    Comment by mousa — September 16, 2009 @ 12:35 am

  9. I want to convert to jewish n want to marriage a jewish girl. I m 29 yrs now. Can u help me. Reply me at akhlaq117@gmail.com

    Comment by Danish — February 9, 2010 @ 4:22 am

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