March 4, 2004
Keeping Jews in the Flock
Brace yourselves, people: We're about to celebrate a holiday that touts intermarriage. Yep, our beloved Queen Esther married a goy -- minus the ol' now-a-Jew sniparoo. According to today's Jewish demographic reports, that puts Esther in the "Bad Jew" category.
We're told repeatedly that intermarriage is the death knell of the Jewish people, but let's face it: Jews have been intermarrying since the beginning of our tribe 4,000 years ago. Marrying "out" is precisely how we got Jews with looks covering the gamut from blonde hair and blue eyes to black skin and nappy hair. It's also one of the reasons that Hitler hated us: We were at it again, blending with the local race, destroying its ethnic purity.
Even that sorely desired Messiah we're always yappin' about is going to be the descendant of King David, who in turn is the descendant of Ruth. Well lookie here: Ruth was a Moabite! If that's not heaven's approval of intermarriage, I don't know what is.
True, Ruth took on the Jewish faith. But were she around these days, her children (that's right folks, the ancestors of the Messiah) would not be allowed to enroll in any number of Orthodox Jewish schools. After all, Ruth never did the dunk. The way we're looking at things today, her conversion was not kosher.
Another thought to consider: Until recently, conversion to Judaism was based on patriarchal concepts of marriage: A man "took" a wife, so he could "take" that wife from whatever tribe and religion he wanted. The woman automatically would be subsumed by her husband's identity, religious affiliation and way of life. Not exactly what I would call a heartfelt, spiritually conscious entry into Judaism. Nonetheless, we consider the descendants of such a woman to be Jewish -- including descendants of those women who predated the days of the mikvah, the ritual immersion bath.
The way I see things, we're losing Jews not because of intermarriage today, but because of how we're treating Jews who intermarry today. Our community is following the "I'm losing a daughter" routine, instead of the more pleasant and expansive option, "I'm gaining a son." As a result, we're casting out interfaith couples and their children.
Rather than ostracize and sit shiva for someone who marries a non-Jew, why not invite the non-Jewish spouse to learn about and practice the wonders and joys of our precious heritage? Why not ensure that the couple's children will grow up with Jewish holiday celebrations, religious teachings and values?
I have known plenty of Jewish youth who have given their hearts and souls to the Jewish community, just to be told they are not "really Jewish," because their mothers come from non-Jewish backgrounds. Only exceptionally strong youngsters have the spiritual wherewithal to continue to affiliate with the Jewish community, following such an onslaught of rejection. And
we wonder where all the Jews are going.
As for myself, I guess I should not have been shocked when I got hate mail several months back, following an article I published about my Arab Muslim boyfriend and me. I was especially struck by the letter of a woman who had admired my outstanding contributions to the Jewish community ... until she read that article. Suddenly, she was ready to turn me into the authorities and publicly damn me to hell. Good thing my Judaism was stronger than her interfaith vitriol. Reactions like hers can, and have, sent Jews running away from us.
Ironically, interfaith relationships can bring Jews closer to our tradition. My friend Rebecca, for example, was a thoroughly secular Jew until she got involved with Jamal, a Muslim man. Inspired by his religious devotion, Rebecca began exploring her own religion. Not long after marrying Jamal, she began celebrating Shabbat, attending Orthodox services and moving toward keeping kosher.
True, interfaith coupledom is not the easiest path to take, especially when each person cares about her/his own religion, and even more especially when kids are involved. But that's all the more reason for us to be a loving and embracing community -- to help families pass on the Jewish torch.
There are so many factors involved in finding a partner, and finding one's mate is such an individual decision. In a world of violence and decay, let's congratulate those of us who have managed to find love, respect and laughter. Rather than spending our energy on condemning intermarriage, let's put it into creating a Jewish community where all of us will want to stay.
Loolwa Khazzoom, the editor of "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage" (www.loolwa.com/anthology), will read from her new anthology, "Unveiling the Crossroads," on Thursday, March 18, 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, $10 (general), $5 (members and students), call (323) 655-8587.