Intermarry and be merry

December 12, 2007|By Arthur Blecher

It's hard to imagine a cozier holiday scene than the whole family gathered together to trim the tree. But for 2.5 million Americans in Jewish-Christian households, this is a scenario fraught with tension and feelings of betrayal.

As the rabbi of a congregation that is more than half interfaith couples, I have learned that the holiday season is an especially difficult time for people with multiple religions in their household. More often than not, the gentile partner grew up with Christmas cheer in the home, but the Jewish partner learned to view traditions such as Christmas carols and holiday wreaths as "un-Jewish."

Many Jews who are married to Christians feel tremendous guilt about simple rituals such as picking out the perfect spruce tree, because it recalls what may have been one of the most difficult decisions of their lives: marrying outside the faith. That's because American Jews have been fed a steady diet of fearful sermons about the imminent destruction of our ancient people - not through genocidal anti-Semitism, but through slow annihilation from assimilation and intermarriage.

It may sound silly, but many Jews in interfaith couples feel that sending out red-and-green cards to their neighbors and friends in December is a kind of betrayal. However thoroughly Americanized, the people I counsel can't quite forgive themselves for not living like a character out of Fiddler on the Roof.

When my congregants come to me with questions about presents under the tree and leaving cookies for Santa, I tell them that they should enjoy the Christmas spirit.

There's no reason to feel guilty about a little mistletoe. And more important, there's no reason to feel guilty about having married a non-Jew.

Fear of intermarriage rests on two great myths of American Judaism: that Judaism is disappearing and that intermarriage poses a grave threat to the continuing life of the religion.

These false notions, almost universally believed by American Jews and seemingly impervious to mounting contrary evidence, have long and impressive pedigrees.

In the century since prominent Rabbi Solomon Schechter's anti-assimilation warning that "traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country," the American Jewish population has grown from 1 million to approximately 6 million. Jewish summer camps, schools, charities and Web sites form a network of institutions that has no equal in Jewish history.

In recent years, the myth of the disappearing Jew can be traced in large measure to a single, well-publicized study recording 5.2 million Jews in America, down from 5.8 million. But many other counts disagree.

The American Jewish Yearbook, which has been keeping track of the number of Jews in America since 1902, reports the population is now 6.4 million. A recently released study from Brandeis University found as many as 7.5 million Jews in the United States.

Conventional wisdom mainly blames intermarriage for the mythical decline in the American Jewish population. Yet one-third of Jewish-gentile couples raise their children exclusively as Jews. Of course, almost all fully Jewish couples raise their children as Jews, but it's important to remember that Jewish couples produce, on average, 1.9 children - below the replacement rate. Even if every Jew married another Jew, there would be no population boom.

Meanwhile, two Jews who each marry non-Jews will collectively produce an average of more than four children. Even the pessimistic National Jewish Population Survey acknowledged that the vast majority of these kids grow up with either an exclusively Jewish identity or a dual Jewish-gentile identity.

The math of intermarriage should give rise to optimism, not overblown comparisons with the Holocaust.

Intermarriage is as old as the Jewish people. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Even the insular Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were not immune.

American Judaism must move forward from viewing intermarriage as a threat. Marrying the person whom you love, whatever his or her faith, is no betrayal. And celebrating this season of joy with that person is no transgression.

Rabbi Arthur Blecher of Beth Chai congregation in Washington is also a therapist and the author of "The New American Judaism: The Way Forward on Challenging Issues from Intermarriage to Jewish Identity." His e-mail is info@theunorthodoxrabbi.com.

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