Welcoming the Intermarried: Feelings in Perspective: Yours
For a variety of reasons, Jewish parents and grandparents
tend to be upset when faced with the prospect of an
intermarriage, even when they have no particular objection
to the individual young man or woman who is to be their
in-law. Occasionally intermarrieds report, "Being
upset at our intention to marry was the very first identifiably
Jewish act in years for our parents."
In addition to their own ties to Judaism, their concerns
about Jewish survival, and suspicions about Christian
anti-Semitism, parents whose adult children have intermarried
or are about to may well feel some sense of personal
guilt that somehow even if their childs intermarriage
is not the childs "fault," it is their
Rabbi Rachel Cowanherself a convert to Judaism
after many years of having been in an intermarriagehas
observed that when she and her late husband Paul (a
born, and later "reborn" Jew) married, they
didnt believe that they were doing anything wrong.
They simply loved each other. What better reason for
Almost all intermarried couples articulate much the
same reasons. Why, then, do so many Jewish families
of the newly engaged (or intermarried) couple take a
different view? Practical concern is often one of the
reasons. With the rate of American divorce climbing
almost as rapidly as the rate of intermarriage, parents
have legitimate concerns about the additional stress
that differing religious and ethnic backgrounds place
on the delicate balance of marriage. Many familiesChristian
as well as Jewishhave deep commitments to their
religion that involve emotions, family, community and
theology. Many thoughtful Jews also recognize the central
role of the family and the home in transmitting the
uniqueness of Judaism, its universalism and emphasis
on education, study, and charity (tzedakah). They fear,
with some justification, that in an intermarried home
those values will be too difficult to transmit since
the husband and wife will not be able to present a unified
message to their children.
From the viewpoint of Jewish parents, there are at
least two additional concerns. First, we Jews are a
very small groupperhaps no more than thirteen
million in a world whose population now tops five billion.
That is about one-quarter of one percent. Intermarriage
is, therefore, seen by many Jews (unlike the way it
is viewed by others) as a threat to Jewish group survival.
Second, Jews often view Christianity as having been
the greatest threat to Jewish survival over the last
two millennia, and, more specifically, feel that the
Christian Church has been a major force of anti-Semitism
over the years. In the eyes of many Jews, particularly
those who are older and biographically closer to the
immigrant experience, intermarriage often evokes feelings
of group betrayal, even though the record, both Roman
Catholic and Protestant, has gotten demonstrably better
over the past generation.
Young couples often seem oblivious to these parental
concerns. They do not share our alarm about their future.
Understandably, they only have eyes for each other as
unique and precious individuals and cannot see the significance
of the groups that divide their ancestry.
Interestingly, the time surrounding the engagement
and wedding is usually also a time of heightened interest
in family history and ancestral culture. Parents of
the intermarried need to take special care not to "poison"
the natural openness of the young couple to family history
by openly or subtly emphasizing the young couples
departure from Jewish family norms. It is more useful
to find ways to enlist the young couples curiosity
about family history through the sharing of stories
that invite admiration, empathy, and emulation.
For example, describing with some humor the courtship
of grandma and grandpa, illustrated by photographs,
if possible, is a gentle way to weave a subtle web of
attachment between the young family-to-be and their
Jewish heritage. You need not be the one to emphasize
how an interfaith marriage diverges from Jewish family
norms. Your children are likely to know that quite well
already. You need to help the new couple find a way
to forge a link that will bind them to those venerable
norms. Open to them the treasure-trove of your own family
memories, be it in conversations or letters. These may
well be the first heirlooms with which they will "Judaize"
their own new nest.
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