September 9, 2004
I fell in love with a brilliant, attractive and witty Filipina woman last year. She was a fallen Catholic, didn't accept Jesus as her savior and was totally cool with raising kids Jewish. When I went to her uncle's place for a birthday party and everyone was singing "Sunrise, Sunset" on the karaoke machine, you'd be hard-pressed to find a closer, warmer, more Jewish family than theirs.
Apart from the fact that our cuisine is superior, I was amazed at how similar the dynamic was: Abundant food, loud overlapping conversations, juicy gossip and more food. I felt like I was at home, except for the fact that I was only white guy in the room.
I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. I went to a public high school that had roughly the same percentage Jewish population as a yeshiva. My local synagogue was so Reform I think they closed down on High Holidays. And yet, of the women I've dated post-college, I've had exactly two Jewish girlfriends. What, in the name of my concerned Jewish mother, is going on here?
Well, it's certainly not due to my love of the other major religions out there. Once you've had one drunken girlfriend speak in tongues, and had another say that, despite how much she loves you, you're still going to hell, it's hard to be sympathetic to non-Jewish zealots. My guess is that it's just a numbers thing. There are 2 percent of us and there's 98 percent of them. The odds are stacked in favor of intermarriage. Four out of my five cousins went that route and are all very happy. This poses an obvious dilemma: How important is it to marry within our religion?
On Passover 2002, I e-mailed my very close, very bright, very agnostic friend a simple "Happy Pesach" to greet her in the morning.
She innocently replied later, "Happy Peaches?" Ugh. You gotta be kidding.
In other relationships, I've had women suggest that we could raise our kids in both religions and let them decide what they are when they're older. Yeah, right. Those kids won't be Jewish -- supporters of Israel, consumers of gefilte fish, complainers about drafty rooms -- they'll just be two more white kids in search of racial, ethnic or religious identity. That's not a crime, per se, but it's certainly not what I want for my children.
The Filipina and I ultimately didn't make it as a couple, but not because of religion. Still, I decided to get serious and start dating Jewish women.
A lot of people don't understand -- or can't accept -- the strangely powerful hold Judaism holds for secular Jews like me. What makes me Jewish? My bloodline? My last name? My prominent nose, mop of hair and acute sense of sarcasm? It's pointless to isolate individual qualities, especially ones that play to stereotypes, but as far as I can determine I'm Jewish because I was raised that way. I identify with others who were raised that way.
When I attended college in North Carolina, where only 20 percent of the student body was Jewish, all of my best friends were Jews -- even though I wasn't hanging around the Hillel. I didn't seek them: I found them. We were like-minds sticking together in a foreign environment. And while many bristle at this comparison, my Jewish experience, far more cultural than religious, is more akin to being black than it is to being Christian.
Jewish neighborhoods in New York aren't homogeneous ghettos because we're forced to live there. They result from the desires of people who are looking for quality public schools, short commutes to the city and access to good bagels.
By any definition, I'm a bad Jew. I don't keep kosher. I haven't been to Jerusalem. I don't belong to a synagogue. In fact, there are years that I don't go at all because tickets are scarce and davening with Chabad isn't my idea of a good time. So what difference does it make to me who I marry? I'm not sure, but it does. Not because of parental pressure, because I have my mother's blessing no matter what I do. Not because Jews are better, as the best relationship I've yet to have was with a non-Jew. Rather, I see myself marrying a Jewish woman because of internal pride, shared values and cultural identity. Because of the commonality of knowing that our people have been persecuted for millennia and are still thriving. Because regardless of how often I demonstrate it publicly, there's one important and undeniable fact: I am Jewish.
And whomever I end up with had better know off the bat that the satin thing I grab from the box in temple once a year isn't called a beanie.
Evan Marc Katz is the author of the "I Can't Believe I'm Buying This Book: A Commonsense Guide to Successful Internet Dating" (Ten Speed, 2004) and is the founder of e-Cyrano (www.e-cyrano.com) an online dating consulting service.