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Elliot leven

Elliot Leven: Marrying in or out more complex than it once was

By Elliot Leven, August 18, 2013

I read with interest the opinion piece by Jennifer Menashe (Heltay) “Marrying In or Marrying Out”.  Ms. Menashe decries intermarriage and expresses nostalgia for a simpler era (which she identifies with her grandparents) in which intermarriage was met with disapproval, and was rare.

Of course intermarriage is more widely accepted and is less rare than it was a couple of generations ago. However, the reasons and the implications are not as simplistic as Ms. Menashe implies.

Being gay, I have a slightly different perspective than do straight Jews like Jennifer Menashe.  Ms. Menashe’s grandparents (like mine) did not understand the facts about sexual orientation, and generally saw it as either sinful or sick or both.  Until recently, gay Jews did not have the option of marrying anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish. Of course, some did (and some sadly still do) participate in sham marriages with members of the opposite sex, but I don’t suppose even Ms. Menashe would advocate such sham marriages.

Today, gay Jews in some countries (including Canada but excluding Israel) can legally marry other gay Jews.  If Ms. Menashe advocates the principle of Jews marrying Jews, I hope she is a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights in Israel.

Orthodox Judaism holds that the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, even if the father is not.  Reform Judaism holds that the child of one Jewish parent can be Jewish if they sincerely identify as Jewish. I assume Ms. Menashe supports the idea that children of Jewish mothers should be raised as Jewish. 

However, Ms. Menashe expresses skepticism that children and grandchildren of mixed-marriages will continue to be actively Jewish. 

In small, insular communities, behaviour can be shaped by negative peer pressure.  For example, in the shtetl, gay Jews faced overwhelming peer pressure to marry and have children, so most did.  They remained in the closet all of their lives.  In ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, this sort of negative peer pressure still works.

But the age of the shtetl is gone forever. If Judaism is going to survive, it will have to do so by appealing to individual Jews.  Like it or not, Jews now have choices.  If Jewish identity is going to survive, a majority of individual Jews will have to choose to embrace Jewish culture and Jewish identity. That applies to children of two Jewish parents as well as children of one Jewish parent.

I know of children of two Jewish parents to whom Jewish identity is more or less irrelevant. If pressed, they call themselves Jewish. But being Jewish is not part of their lives.  Not only are they not religious, but they do partake in any aspect of Jewish culture. They do not follow Israeli news.  They are not active in any Jewish organizations. They do not read books about Jewish topics.  They may have two Jewish parents, but they are not, in any practical sense, members of the Jewish community.

I would remind Ms. Menashe that Noam Chomsky had two Jewish parents.

On the other hand, I know of children of one Jewish parent who are profoundly Jewish in many ways. They are active in Jewish organizations. They have visited Israel and care deeply about Israel’s fate. They read Jewish books. They help ensure Jewish continuity.

Jewish communities must reach out to all Jews, gay or straight, single or married or intermarried, children of one Jewish parent or of two. The richness of Jewish culture and Jewish life must be fostered and nurtured.   Although I am a secular Jew, I would say that we must have faith.  We must have faith that the Jewish people will survive, not because of negative peer pressure, but because a vibrant Jewish culture can stand on its own two feet.

Jennifer Menashe and I are two very different Jews.  But we each strengthen the Jewish community in our own respective ways. I do not plan to have children, but I plan to be actively Jewish until the day I die. Diversity is a huge asset, not a liability.

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