When Holocaust survivor Leah Welbel learns that her American granddaughter is about to marry a Christian, she cries out, "When this happened in my old hometown, my family used to sit shiva. Here they expect me to open my arms. I can't do it."
Leah's agony in the documentary, "Out of Faith," is deeply rooted in the memory of her 33 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the same dilemma of rejection or acceptance is faced by other American Jewish families, half of whose children and grandchildren opt for interfaith marriages.
The film, which will have a special screening on Sept. 12 at the Laemmle Sunset, is rich in the human drama of family relationships and sharpened by the Holocaust experience, while tracing the trajectory of the American arc from immigration to assimilation.
Leah, deported from her Slovakian hometown at age 16 and in her mid-70s when the film was made, is the classic indomitable Jewish matriarch. Voluble, feisty, humorous, a born survivor, she ably made her way, first in Israel and then in Skokie, Ill.
She taught herself the intricacies of the stock market and prospered, even as she continued to labor over her gastronomic specialty, potato sandwiches. And she hasn't spoken to her grandson, Danny, in six years, since he married a non-Jew.
Now her granddaughter, Cheryl, has announced that she will marry Matt, a Christian, and Leah tries a different tack. If she pushes Cheryl hard enough, Leah figures, maybe the new bride can persuade Matt to convert to Judaism.
Though raised in an Orthodox home, Leah is not particularly observant, not even lighting candles on Friday evenings. But by allowing her grandchildren to marry non-Jews, she insists, "I feel like a traitor ... we're finishing the job Hitler started. We'll become extinct like the Mayas."
Always in the background hovers her older husband, his eyes alternately dead or haunted, who worked in a Sonderkommando shoveling Jewish corpses into the crematorium. He says little but wonders, "Where was God in Auschwitz?"
Leah's son, Michael, also married a Christian, but his wife, Betty, converted to Judaism. Not an unmixed blessing, Michael observes, since "she became more Jewish than we are. We had to reel her back in."
A friend has a different attitude.
"If I didn't let my son marry a Catholic, I would have lost a son," she says. The different viewpoints toward intermarriage are reflected by the film's producer, L. Mark DeAngelis, and director Lisa Leeman.
DeAngelis, a 36-year-old Chicago lawyer, businessman and now founder of Eliezer Films, grew up in a secular home. When Leah, a family friend, invited him to accompany her on a trip to Auschwitz some five years ago, he accepted and found both a subject for his film and a new attachment to Judaism.
"I started wondering why, when I dated a non-Jewish girl, it bothered me, which seemed almost like a racist thought at the time," he said in a phone interview. DeAngelis has no doubt about his viewpoint now. "If our community is to have a future in this country, Jews must marry Jews. Only that way will their kids have a shot at staying Jewish," he said.
He is now launching an outreach campaign, "Keep the Faith."
Leeman, a veteran Los Angeles filmmaker and editor, represents, in her words, "the classic American story of assimilation."
Her father, she said, was "a New York Jew," her mother, a Protestant of Scandinavian descent from Idaho. Neither parent was religious and Leeman thought little about her identity until she attended a meeting of the Conference of Christians and Jews.
"At some point, participants were asked to divide into Jewish and Christian groups, and instinctively I chose the Jewish one," Leeman said.
As the product of an interfaith marriage, Leeman has a tolerant -- or ambivalent -- attitude on the topic.
"I can understand that any ethnic group, Jewish, Chinese or Mexican, wants to pass on its culture and heritage to future generations," she said. "But are they willing to do it at the price of family strife and estrangement?"
The web magazine, InterfaithFamily.com, interacts with about 20,000 Jewish visitors a month, says managing editor Micah Sachs. The webzine is not a professional counseling service, and most questions are referred to a hometown list of rabbis and social workers.
Yet, over time, Sachs and his colleagues have accumulated some pragmatic suggestions, particularly for parents struggling with a child's interfaith relationship or marriage.
- Your child is not rejecting you but making a personal choice.
- Opposing or condemning your child's love for a non-Jew is almost always counter-productive. While parents should not hesitate to stress their own attachment to Judaism, understanding and welcoming a non-Jewish partner works out better in the long run.
- Do not insist that the non-Jewish partner convert to Judaism, unless it's his or her own decision.
- Your situation is not unique. Depending on the definition of who is a Jew, slightly more or slightly less than 50 percent of Jewish newlyweds between 1995-2000 married non-Jewish partners. Some 33 percent of these mixed households raised their children as Jewish. However, in families with two Jewish spouses, 96 percent raised Jewish children, according to the National Jewish Populations Survey.
"Out of Faith" will screen at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 12, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatre, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, to be followed by a discussion between the audience and the filmmakers.
Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested. For information, contact Kim Fishman at (310) 907-5852, or e-mail email@example.com. For background on the film, go to www.outoffaith.net. For more information on "Out of Faith," visit, www.Jafah.org.
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