An Open Letter to My Son and Yours…Why Marry Jewish?

by Marnie Macauley August 27, 2018


Jewish couple, just married.

Shalom, San Diegans: During our High Holidays, I’ve chosen to tackle a tough and controversial issue: The changing commitment among many Gen Xers and Millennials to our faith. I’ve titled this special column …

An open letter to my son and yours… “What difference does it really make if I date or marry a non-Jew?”

My adult son has asked me: “The world’s changed. What difference does it really make if I date or marry a non-Jew?” Perhaps your son has asked you the same question.

It’s troubling. Particularly as we get together to hear the shofar blow– or the melancholy, haunting strains of the Kol Nidre.

Regardless of your observance, the world has changed. And we Jews have changed with it. In the West, our grandparents came over quaking, their feet and hearts blistered from running with the memories of unspeakable evil, clinging mightily to their only true possession – their faith. Judaism. The “tribe” meant “us.”  It didn’t matter how they observed. If you were a Jew, it was as much your singular identity as your fingerprint. There are our beliefs, Holy Books, teachings, but it was more.  Being a Jew was a feeling so strong that for most, only two generations ago it was unthinkable and impossible to veer from it.

How do we Boomers convey a feeling so alive in us to my son or to yours? How do we justify exclusion in a country that claims to eschew “exclusion?” Are the books enough?  The Jewish education? The break fasts? The Yom Kippur rituals? My son went to a Jewish Day school, had an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah, a father (my late husband) who fought his bosses at the “Grey Lady” who would skew the truth about Israel and a mama who writes about and embodies Yiddishkeit.

And yet he asks me “The world’s changed. What difference does it really make if I date or marry a non-Jew?”

It was the 1950s. I was born into an Archie Bunker neighborhood in lower-middle-class Queens, New York.

Some, like my father, were on their way up. Most were civil servants trapped in jobs for the pension. Post-war, the men still remembered the buddy-ism created in foxholes. My father, who spent four years in the jungle, felt a kinship to them all. He was resolute about mutual aid, wherever there was a need, and to whomever “needed.”  That is, until a rabid anti-Semite moved onto the block.

Within a few days, the drunken parties got ugly. Names were screamed from their porches – porches my father helped build –vile names that were used a few years earlier to incite and justify mass murder.

And now these same names also came from the mouths of neighbors’ children he had helped save when they were ill and couldn’t afford medical care.

One of them, Rosemary and her followers, accosted me daily in those mean streets we called “gutters.”

“You killed Christ!” she’d yell, despite the Pope’s encyclical exonerating us. She and her band of bffs, all seven years older than I was at the tender age of six, accosted me daily.

“I didn’t!” I’d say with a vehemence I didn’t yet understand.

My head was bashed against car windows.

When I was eight years old, we moved to an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood. But the memories, the names, the feelings were set forever. I learned to stand up, to shout out and to care about the underdog when standing up meant risk. I also learned fear.

Would this story dissuade my son or yours –a story of a fear he hasn’t known or felt? The old “If you marry out and one day we are again targeted, will your spouse go to the left or the right?” doesn’t work anymore. To our sons, this is ancient history, impossible to imagine when they were raised in the relative safety of the Goldena Medina; a place where fear is weakness and exclusion is reviled, at least nominally.

After the War, with assimilation, many sons chose to “break away” from what they considered the stronghold of the old Jewish “family” traditions, which they considered to be limiting.

Sadly, many did so by satirizing what they considered negative stereotypes: borne of ridicule, heightened by Borscht belt comics, portrayed in media – and casually accepted by Americans who went for the joke, the easy zetz (punch).

Once revered, our traditions became “cartoons,” shtick. The prototype was the overzealous, over-involved, over-worried, over-protective, over-nurturing, over-bearing presence that invaded popular culture with a Sylvia Fine (“The Nanny”) mouth and a Jack Klugman nose.

We became an embarrassment to many in the next two generations of liberal sophisticates who toss punch lines without context, history.

How do I teach my son and yours about the courage … the chutzpah … the empathy … the inclusiveness Judaism taught me while still fervently believing in equal rights, and empathetic acceptance of difference?

Perhaps the answer is so obvious and visible, it’s overlooked in the fervent desire to convince with books, anecdotes, and statistics.

Perhaps it’s simply about presumption; the presumption that We Jews have existed during shared triumph and catastrophe for 3,000 years.

And we have remained Jews.

Much like a tapestry, each generation has added to its intricacy, complexity and dynamism. And from it, we see the patterns of our fore fathers who have taken on as much as shoulders can bear and then some.  We see the images of laughter, wisdom, tears, outrage, tzedakah, courage, involvement  in culture and contributions to humanity.

Presumption. It’s an elegant way of saying “chutzpah;” the chutzpah to deny, to extinguish a heritage and bloodline sewn, re-sewn, and sewn again in tears and triumph.

No one says you must remain Jews, but would you presume  to let the 3000 year-old-tapestry fray? Remain undone; unfinished in just a few generations?

Ask yourself, my sons, what right does one stitch have to ignore the design?


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