Thursday, April 01, 2010

Is this post too sincere for April 1?

A group of fellow NYU PhD students have a newish blog, and one (going here by "Weiner") has just alerted me to his post about intermarriage.

I'll respond: If we're talking about secular-ish Jews in the US today, which I assume we are, my take is simple: You don't know until you know. In the words of the great philosopher Dan Savage, "Every relationship fails, until one doesn't." Many established Jewish-Jewish couples I can think of owe their relationships to the fact that previous relationships that happened to be with non-Jews happened to fail with reasons that had zilch to do with the cultural or religious background of either partner. Conversely, plenty of Jews in mixed couples had previous relationships with Jewish partners that happened not to work out for reasons that did not have a thing to do with Jewish self-hatred or with finding a partner 'too similar'.

What I'm getting at is that in real life, contrary to Portnoy's Complaint, Jews do not conceive of romantic partners entirely with respect to Jewishness or lack thereof. It's not as though there are the Jews who only date Jews, and then this other set who'll only date non-Jews. The very same Jewish person can be attracted at various points to Jewish and non-Jewish people. It's not like true 50-50 bisexuality, which as we all know is highly uncommon. The difference between Jews and non-Jews is not - and I realize this ought to sound more obvious than it does - as great as that between men and women.

But what I'm also saying is that those who happen to end up in Jewish-Jewish marriages, after a string of ultimately unsuccessful relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish partners, should not present a revisionist history of their own experience, as though they were 'all along' going to marry a Jew, that they, unlike the nasty intermarrieds, really care about the Jewish future. Nor, for that matter, should those who happen to end up intermarried declare that they've 'always' been exceptions to the rule among Jews, that they've always been somehow different, more enlightened, less parochial, provincial, blah blah blah.

So, to my fellow non-pious Jews: The person you end up marrying is not an overarching statement about your understanding of the Jewish Question, but a highly contingent eventuality, far more related to how integrated Jews happen to be in your milieu than to your abstract vision for the Jewish future. Do not retroactively attribute political motivations where there were virtually none.

(And... while this could make this post dissertation-length, I'll add that a good number of Jews, Theodor Herzl among them, have on some level thought that it would be convenient if Jews would just disappear through assimilation, and on another level thought that the Jewish future was the most important thing ever. This is what makes it so easy for Jews to retroactively justify their choice of spouse - Jewish or otherwise - in ideological terms.)


Britta said...

One thing that made me curious is, how can you "see" interfaith relationships? I know visual stereotypes exist, but they are, after all, stereotypes (and ones with a rather nasty history that people would do well to avoid). But I mean walking down the street, how would you know a couple is a Jewish/non-Jewish interfaith couple (in the way you can tell an interracial couple)? I mean, I know you can ask people about their religious and cultural heritage, but in terms of visceral reactions, I don't see how they would even be possible, unless you are making a lot of unfounded assumptions.

Phoebe said...


Jews are a semi-visible minority. Although my own Jew-dar is notoriously hopeless, there are many people even I would be able to say look Jewish, as in, physically appear to belong to the main ethnic group of American Jews, the Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. (Yes, there are Jews of all ethnicities, because Judaism's a religion, but the vast majority one may meet in the US are of this one.) It's unfortunate that it's seen as derogatory to say that someone looks Jewish - unfortunate, I think, primarily for those who do look Jewish and whose very physical presence is seen as confirming anti-Semitic stereotypes. As far as I'm concerned, it's not offensive to say that Jews tend to look Jewish, any more than it is to say Chinese people tend to look Chinese. I realize I'm in the minority, so to speak, on this point, but I think it would be better if we as a society could think of 'looking Jewish' as simply one way people look, as opposed to some kind of insult. And... (have I rambled enough?) intermarriage in this context is not necessarily (just) "interfaith" - even non-practicing Jews are often urged, and sometimes even urge others, to marry in.

That said, often enough one might meet people casually, through facebook procrastination, whatever, and know who's what for reasons entirely unrelated to their physical appearances.

Dave said...

Phoebe, I think you're right on the money in arguing that Jews should not think of their sexual relationships as political solutions to the problem of assimilation. At the individual level, I find I barely wince at all, especially when dealing with people I know and like. I know plenty of Jews dating non-Jews, and I like everyone involved, and I remain happy.

I guess I wince a little when I take a step back, and think about the community more broadly and abstractly. Maybe this a step we shouldn't be taking. But then I start to think about how the "Jewish community" is made up of millions of individual Jews' particular choices.

Also, though these are probably in the minority, there are interfaith couples that break up for religious reasons, and this is often very sad. And by interfaith I of course include secular atheist Jews.

Phoebe said...


My understanding from Essence was that the "wince" was about reactions to actual couples, not to abstract ideas, but I guess either is possible. Anyway, I think it helps to think of intermarriage as a natural response to a situation that already exists (i.e. unprecedented Jewish integration) rather than as a character weakness or lack of pride or who knows among the generation that finds itself with more non-Jewish than Jewish possible partners. It's not that the individual can't stand up against demography and insist on marrying in. But what's unprecedented is that it's no longer the default for Jews to do so, and that special efforts have to be made.

(I'm not sure, terminology-wise, what to call intermarriages between non-believers of different backgrounds. Interfaith can't be right, interracial only works for some cases. Interethnic? Just inter-?)

PG said...

(I'm not sure, terminology-wise, what to call intermarriages between non-believers of different backgrounds. Interfaith can't be right, interracial only works for some cases. Interethnic? Just inter-?)

Inter-esting question. I suppose my marriage sort of falls in this category, since I'm a leaning-atheist agnostic who was raised Hindu, and my husband doesn't adhere to any religion and was not raised in any particular faith but feels fairly confident that God exists. Your faith background, even if you don't explicitly believe, nonetheless tends to affect your habits of both thought and behavior, and of course your family will be inclined to pretend you adhere to their faith much more than you really do (and for particular occasions like weddings, it can be easier just to roll with that pretense than to fight it).

Britta said...

Hmmm...I guess my point wasn't that people don't "look Jewish," or that stereotypes magically appear out of thin air with no basis in reality, but rather that they are imprecise. Yes, there are plenty of Jewish people who look Jewish, but there are also Jewish people who don't, or non-Jewish people who do. So, even if in the statistical aggregate Jews are more likely to look a certain way than, say, Swedes, that will not be true of each Jewish person or each Swedish person. In that case, if you see two people walking down the street and one "looks Jewish" and the other doesn't, you can't necessarily say, "oh, that must be an interfaith couple" the way you can pretty easily identify an interracial couple.

I agree with you that there is a problem if people feel that saying someone "looks Jewish" is an insult, or that Jews should somehow not look Jewish to beat the stereotype. I guess my point was, the idea that Jews are in all cases obviously visibly identifiable just isn't true, and the idea behind Jewish people's ethnic visibility has a problematic history, and posits a greater visual gap between Ashkenazi Jews and N. Europeans than has ever existed. (This goes both ways, plenty of N. Europeans "look" Jewish, just as many Jews do not).

Hila said...

Hi Phoebe - I've read your blog, and was particularly interested in your post on intermarriage. I'd love to jump into the conversation and let you know about an essay anthology that I'm developing by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. If you know any amazing women writers who might like to submit a personal essay, please see submission guidelines here:

Thanks! And keep up the great blogging!