November 30, 2000
No Big Deal
While The Jewish Journal was describing intermarriage as "no big deal" and as an issue over which "objections... have clearly collapsed," I was getting engaged last week -- to someone, uh, Jewish. During the period that I dated, my experience differed from, say, the singles life of Teresa Strasser. I was focused seriously on meeting the "right person," and I did everything possible to expand my horizons. I put out feelers to friends. I was on JDate. I answered some Jewish Journal personal ads. Friends in synagogue offered suggested matches.
And I met some wonderful, extraordinary women. Many are professionals, have really great senses of humor, have interesting insights or great stories. Most every lady introduced me to things, experiences, ideas I had not previously experienced. Each respective lady enriched my life by sharing her own unique qualities. And each is Jewish.
How could I consider marrying a non-Jewish woman? Couldn't. And the local universe of Jewish women is pluralistic, including those born to non-Jewish mothers but who have converted according to Jewish law; nonobservant Jewish women; African American Jewish women. (According to The Jewish Federation's census, there are more than 5,000 African American Jews in Los Angeles, a group approximately one-fourth the size of Torah-observant Jews in Los Angeles.) I might even have asked to meet Strasser, but she was not "country" enough for me -- and, as the new photograph accompanying my writings in this newspaper sadly reflects, we come from different centuries.
The bottom line is that I knew that I could marry only a Jew, and that is great. I have four children. On Shabbat, will a non-Jewish woman light Shabbat candles in the hour before we all gather 'round the table? What blessing would she recite: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, their God, King of the Universe, who hast commanded them with thy commandments and commanded them to kindle the Sabbath candles"? And what of the non-Jewish husband's "Kiddush" prayer, sanctifying the Shabbat day? And all else that is Jewish.
Judaism has, built into its blessings and its prayers, a recognition that marriage must be religiously endogenous, although it may be ethnically and racially pluralistic. "Public attitudes" do not change that. Not even if more than 50 percent of polled American Jews would make "no big deal" over eating pork. Not even if "objections... have clearly collapsed" over a rabbi participating at an Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl. Our beautiful, relatively egalitarian society facilitates Jewish assimilation and intermarriage among Jews reared without the benefits of a substantively significant synagogal life or substantively meaningful Jewish educational opportunities. They naturally will feel comfortable walking away from a heritage to which they never have been introduced.
How many Jews in America really know what Judaism means culturally? Even most Federation leaders cannot read a Rashi commentary, a Tosafot gloss, or, for that matter, a news item in Maariv. Everyone has learned the basic community mantras about Israel and the Holocaust, but no cultural community should justify its existence solely on the basis of shared pain and suffering. Armenians know this. In rearing a generation that knows naught of its heritage, we need not be alarmed nor surprised that the offspring of nothing -- the Jews for Nothing -- marry into a life of secular Christmas trees and nifty melodies. Quite the contrary, when the rabbi eats pork and does not believe in the Torah core, mocking a belief in Shabbat traditions and in kashrut rituals and in mikveh institutions, we rightly may expect less of our children.
When the rabbi and the temple treat the substantive core of the Torah text with the same mocking derision and historical revisionism that David Irving applies in treating the substantive core of Holocaust historicity, we cannot be surprised that young adults will focus more on pearly whites or a common affinity for skiing than they will on shared Judaic identity and commitment.
For those in the know -- the community of Jews whom Solomon Schechter, founder of Conservative Judaism's seminary, called "catholic Israel" -- the objections have not collapsed. Rather, the question is "no big deal" only because the answer is taken for granted. They know that the Shavuot celebration would be ridiculous if the blintzes were being prepared for someone outside the covenant, that Chanukah would be sterile if celebrated in a home built in contravention of the values for which the Maccabees explicitly and singly struggled.
Maybe that is the good news. The recent American Jewish Committee survey demarcates the Great Divide, giving the fence-sitters something to think about. If you want your kids to be Jewish in a dot-com millennium, cut back on the Holocaust/Yom Kippur/Israel-focus on suffering, and start teaching kids some substantive Tanakh, some Talmud, how to read a Rashi sentence, Jewish history and mitzvot. Take them to a Purim-night megillah reading, to a Simchat Torah celebration. Buy them some Carlebach CDs. Introduce them to the rabbi after services every Shabbat, not just at death time. Don't just talk Auschwitz and kibbutz life. Give them a year or two of a yeshiva high school experience. It does not take much. Just a little bit of substantive knowledge.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Jewish Community Relations Committee and national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, is author of "Jews for Nothing" (Feldheim, 1983), a study of the interplay between cultural assimilation and Jewish-Christian intermarriage in America.