Monday, July 18, 2005

When the prom queen's no Esther

Amber's right that the Jewish day school with a Jews-only prom is being silly. It's a Jewish-only school, so how often would this even be an issue? Don't most people find prom dates from within their schools anyway? Amber's also correct in pointing out how little whom one attends prom with ends up meaning later in life. Think of all the gay guys (out or almost-out) who escorted single girls to the prom. Think of all the couples who dated for maybe four weeks, but who found that prom fell, conveniently enough, right at the end of week four. Think of all the people who went to prom in a big group, but who had "dates" just because the tickets had to be bought in pairs, and so that they could have the traditional prom-couple photos taken beforehand. A prom date is not a big deal, and any Jewish school secular enough to have a prom ought to be a bit more low-key about the whole thing.

The problem I have with Amber's post is that she seems to miss the difficulties of interfaith dating/marriage while suggesting that those who date outside the faith are especially courageous and are having an especially great time. She refers to the problems that arise when dating someone Jewish as "heavy baggage," as though they're no different than the ones that come up when dating someone who'd just gotten out of a serious relationship.

More upsettingly, she refers to Jewish teens who choose to date outside the faith as "Jewish Romeos and Juliets." Is it so inconceivable that, while they like to annoy their parents just like all other teenagers, some Jewish kids might feel enough of a committment to Judaism--and not just to their own Jewish parents in particular--that they'd seek out fellow Jews and fellow Jews only for serious relationships? There's nothing intrinsically exciting or romantic about dating someone non-Jewish for most Jews. It's not as if there are just tons of conflicted Alex Portnoys or Woody Allens out there in today's Jewish high schools and campus Hillels. For nearly all teenagers, Jewish and gentile alike, it's a given that parents don't want you having sex, period, and that's danger and excitement enough in itself; the religion of your partner isn't the issue. It's not as if Jewish kids can say, "I'm sleeping with Goldfarb, Goldstein, and Goldman these days," and receive a thumbs-up from their parents.

But as for what right a school has to keep a prom one way or another, as versus what rights parents have, it's worth noting that any parent who wants his or her kid to only date Jews has two options: move to Israel or choose Jewish schools. Neither is a 100% guarantee, but both point the child in the intended direction without turning the issue into one of parents-vs.-children, in which the parents will often lose. Most people in America aren't Jewish. Most people even at secular colleges where Jews are statistically overrepresented aren't Jewish. To tell your child to stop relationships at a certain line (say, hanging out with and maybe even dating non-Jews is OK; marrying them is not) is a silly and futile plan of action. Parents have many different reasons for choosing to send their children to Jewish day schools, but surely intermarriage-avoidance is one of them. (Similarly, campus Hillels may do many different things, but pairing people off with Jewish spouses is no doubt one of the big ones.) So complaining about the Jews-only prom at a Jewish day school is a bit like complaining about prayer in parochial schools. Sure, some people end up in religious schools who don't buy into the whole thing, but that's why public and secular private schools exist, to let those families who want their children to be free of these constraints (or who want to be the only ones imposing those constraints) do so. Part of the mission of Judaism is for it to continue. Jews don't go in for prostlytizing, so that really does just leave one option.


Amber said...

The Romeo & Juliet remark was not supposed to be a suggestion that young Jewish teenagers go out of their way to find non-Jewish SOs, but a recognition that sometimes you fall for people you might not think you would, and that if the young people in question don't feel the commitment to Judaism you mention, they should follow their hearts. But perhaps my romantic streak got the better of me there.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

There are a whole lot of surprises out there, even within the Jewish community. It's not as though contemporary non-Orthodox Jewish parents are arranging marriages, so to find someone very different but also Jewish is probable, not just possible.

Those Jews whose families really care about these things aren't meeting so many non-Jews socially; those whose families don't so much care may fall for whomever, but meeting a non-Jew will be no different for them than meeting a Jew. They will follow their hearts, but there will be nothing more romantic for them in falling for a non-Jew than in falling for a Jew. They don't care, their parents don't care, so there's nothing star-crossed going on. Those who do care will, if anything, find it more romantic when they find a partner they're attracted to who also shares their values and with whom they will one day be able to have sex without sacrificing everything they believe in.

Somewhat tangentially, I happen to think any non-Orthodox Jewish parents who really care that their children marry Jews ought to have up and moved their families to Israel, but that's for another post.

Amber said...

You're still reading way too much into the Romeo/Juliet thing. I was trying to evoke the "youthful lovers from different groups" but not the "star-crossed" aspect. I agree that there's no frission of the exotic/additional romantic element in these relationships. Clearly some of the kids in the article felt differently from their parents (who did have strong feelings against interfaith dating, and yet their children seemed to be meeting plenty of non-Jewish folks), and I just wanted to endorse letting one's own values and desires be the determinants of who one pursues, not those of one's parents.

Hat said...

I have a friend who just ended a long relationship with a Jewish girlfriend (he's Catholic). I think theirs is a fairly common story in these situations - they broke up in part because of the strain that a lack of a future together put on their relationship in the present (if that makes any sense). To address Amber's point about people following their own values instead of their parents, I think that's great in the abstract, but when it comes down to being in a long-term relationship with someone of whom your parents don't approve, that disapproval is often enough to scuttle a relationship. Whether someone agrees with her parents' values and disapproval or not, the spector of having her parents tsk-tsking weighing on her shoulders for as long as she's with her non-Jewish lover can be a lot to handle, and is sure to doom all but the sure-things. And not much is going to derail those sure-things. Point is, it's a lot to ask of someone who's not absolutely positive they want to marry their significant other to ignore her parents' wishes.

Amber said...

As someone who has forsaken her family's beliefs on most issues and who has gotten a hefty share of crap from them for dating *gasp* Jewish boys, *gasp* non-white boys, and *gasp^2* a non-white Muslim, I've learned to shove familial disapproval where it belongs (a place the sun doesn't shine). But not everyone is as flippant about their family's opinions.

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