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Harriet Berkal: The Kink in the Link

by Harriet Berkal, Oct 11, 2023

I think about my beloved father often. He spoke about longing for the mother he lost at age 3 and how he missed her, until the day he died. A special bond between mother and child.

We raise our kids to become responsible adults and the vast majority marry. My father officiated at thousands of wedding ceremonies, and back then, there wasn’t the same prevalence of intermarriage that we are seeing today.

It’s not unusual to find mixed marriages of different religious backgrounds or gay marriages, with increased tolerance and respect. Just look at advertising campaigns to appreciate the inclusiveness I am referring to.

But it raises a variety of questions in my mind. On the one hand, I see Louis Berkal boarding that ship to come to Canada, leaving the pogroms behind him. He also left grandparents who were too old to travel. The sacrifice was made for future generations to continue the line of Jewish heritage.

But the reality is that our offspring are assimilating more than we did. To us it might have been paramount to marry within the tribe. But to this generation, love crossed the boundary of religion and we see a new type of family emerging.

Traditionally, if the mother is Jewish, then her kids are born Jewish. I believe the Reform movement, has modified it to recognize children born to males married to non Jews, as Jewish as well.

It’s commonplace to see within mixed marriages the celebration of both Hanukah and Christmas. So you may not get your own stocking under the mantle but your grandchild will. How does that feel to those of us raised as Jews ? We must adjust our expectations in order to welcome our childrens' choices of husband or wife, who weren’t raised in the same faith. By doing so, you retain a relationship with your kids and future grandchildren.

Some can never accept this and there have been cases of disowning a family member. Conversion sometimes softens the blow, but I have never really believed in converting for the sake of marriage. If one wants to become Jewish, let this individual forge on the journey alone.

At these intermarriages, we typically see some elements of yiddishkite incorporated into the ceremony, such as: a chupah, the breaking of the glass, the cheering of Mazel tov plus a horah dance.

Would our ancestors have looked upon these filtered unions with dismay ? I don’t know.

As a parent, be you religious of just spiritual, do you feel you failed your kids, by not focusing on heritage more and possibly your fear of assimilation?

I’m simply posing questions we each may have pondered privately, in a day when white supremacy is re-emerging at an all time high.

That image of my dad helping to push his Baba and Zaida onto a train heading elsewhere, as he left for Canada, keeps presenting itself in my brain.

People who love each other should be together. Isn’t that fundamental in life ? Does their gender, colour or religion come into play ?

How will their kids be raised? Will any of their lineage be saved? Does it matter to this generation as it may have to ours ?

I used to be more of a practising Jew. I kept kosher until age 18, observed all holidays and went to shule. It was until when I was older that I rejected organized religion, for my own reasons.  We respected my parents' adherence to each and every holiday as long as they were alive.

German Jews were quite assimilated before the Holocaust. It didn’t matter to Hitler if they were pious or not. To him, a Jew was not worthy of living.

Do I worry about the dilution of Jews in the future generations ? Will all customs be ignored or replaced by other ones from other cultures ? I’d have to admit, given my upbringing, that I do, despite my own rejection of some elements of Jewish tradition.  Does that make me a hypocrite? Not sure, as it’s a really complicated set of feelings to process.

Clearly my dad having been a rabbi and cantor, influences my thoughts. I keep coming back to the mammoth sacrifice that generation made to salvage Judaism.

If only I could have a discussion with my beloved father on this subject. He was very wise and maybe he’d shed some light on a topic we never raised growing up. It was more rare to see intermarriage back then. Now it’s become quite the norm.

Hence the “kink” in the “link”. Now, families must face this new norm. The Jewry in the shtetl weren’t faced with these considerations.  

You want your kids to be happy. They are adults and make their own life choices. If you want to keep a unified family, you must become flexible, otherwise, you may struggle to experience the joy of grandchildren and other simchas as they arise.

For me, it was important to marry another Jew. I felt an instant connection to someone who grew up with the same experiences.

However, Judaism is evolving. This generation is not the same as the previous one. The future demographics speak to this phenomena and so we too, must be fluid in our perceptions and expectations of the life of a Jew in the decades to come.

I look forward to Halloween, a fun pagan holiday filled with creativity. ( The previous discussion can fordray you a kop ! ) More importantly let all of us be a mensch.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.