What Would a Jewish Veep Say About Intermarriage?

Talk of Senators Joe Lieberman or Dianne Feinstein being Al Gore’s running mate has raised the possibility of, at long last, a Jewish president. One issue is religious observance. Senator Lieberman is Orthodox and doesn’t work on Saturdays. He has reassured people that the Torah commands one to do one’s duties. In a crisis, he’d be there.

That seems like a no-brainer to me. The more interesting question is intermarriage. We live in times of enforced tolerance. George W. Bush was strung up for visiting Bob Jones University, which had a policy against interracial dating. So what about the dating policy in conservative Jewish organizations: the strict stance against intermarriage?

This is not something anyone is supposed to talk about. Non-Jews give these issues wide berth. And people like myself, who have intermarried, are sufficiently ashamed about their choice–hastening the destruction of the Jewish people, we’re told–that they rarely speak up to defend it, unless it’s in the Steve and Cokie Roberts mode of insisting (somewhat hollowly to my mind) in their book From This Day Forward that they’re preserving Jewish tradition by having big seders.

And yet as the Bush visit to Bob Jones shows, politicians sometimes have to account for their associates’ beliefs. Michael Barone, one of the authors of the Almanac of American Politics , reminds me that John Kennedy gave his landmark speech in Houston 40 years ago, assuring people that he would not be bound by the dictates of the Vatican, because of public resistance to electing a Catholic president. Oaths of office include the words “without mental reservation,” Mr. Barone says, because of the long history of religious influence in politics. We want to know a President’s heart and mind.

On some levels, the Jewish opposition to intermarriage is perfectly understandable. Jewish population numbers have changed little while every other group’s has grown; the future of the Jews in America seems at stake. A regular contributor to the Forward wrote recently that intermarriage is so “terrifying” that she had developed sympathy for her parents’ posture of refusing to be friends with the intermarried.

And that’s the problem. The rhetoric and practices surrounding opposition to intermarriage are often so discriminatory they seem to border on racism.

The Jewish mistrust of gentile culture is deeply imbedded, and God knows Christians have again and again given Jews ample basis for these feelings. The Yiddish word goy is loaded with negative associations, and the word shiksa , which everyone still uses, comes from Hebrew for “blemish,” according to Leo Rosten.

In ancient times rabbis barred Jews from eating or drinking with non-Jews, lest they intermarry, and such attitudes prevailed widely in the American Jewish community just a generation ago. They treated you like you were dead if you intermarried, they sat shivah for you, they said that you were doing Hitler’s work. Movies like The Heartbreak Kid reminded Jews of what they were losing in marrying out, painting Christian culture as cold and heartless. A lot of the details in that portrait were deadly. But many others were foolish mayonnaise shtik? In fact, how many gentiles have felt excluded, caricatured, misunderstood by Jewish associates?

Xenophobia and disdain are alive and well in the Jewish community today. Lately my wife and I attended a Sabbath dinner at the home of a well-known professor of psychology in his 50’s, who, when his 10-year-old daughter said that she had a crush on a boy named Scott Murphy, said, “That’s not a Jewish name, is it?”

If my wife were not so inured to this attitude, if she were better schooled in identity politics, she might have taken offense, felt excluded, pronounced it racist. (As it was, she responded adroitly, “Isn’t it a little early to be sending that kind of message?”) But what’s revealing about the episode is that this is hardly an aberration. This man is a sophisticated intellectual–yet that comment came casually, unthinkingly to his lips.

The rhetoric in conservative and Orthodox communities is of a piece with that attitude. The Orthodox Union, of which Senator Lieberman is a member, repeatedly characterizes intermarriage in chilling terms in public statements. It is a “threat” even to “physical survival,” one official commentary on its Web site says. Mandell I. Ganchrow, the Union’s president, says that intermarriage is sweeping young Jews “out to sea.”

The (rather successful) Orthodox response to this threat has been a policy of prevention. Orthodox children are all but segregated from wider American society in day schools; even play is discouraged. It All Begins with a Date , is the name of an anti-intermarriage book that is promoted on the Conservative movement’s Web site. There’s a hint (as in many religions) of indoctrination against outsiders: Children must be instructed that Christianity and Judaism are different and not the same (i.e., Christianity is not as good).

It’s odd to see a religion that has a history of not proselytizing forced to proselytize its own members. And while indoctrination may not be necessary for those who love being Jewish, surely the majority of Jews, yet at times the Conservatives must use a stick to keep people in line. They bar the intermarried from many leadership positions, including day-school teachers and youth workers, because they are not good “role models,” and exclude the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers (who have not converted) from attendance at summer camps.

Of course many sectarian practices have an element of exclusiveness. “Every religion has wacky stuff,” says Steve Friedman, a lawyer active in Jewish organizations. “That’s why we don’t drag it into political debate.”

But that pass was not available to George Bush. John McCain scored points in Michigan by saying, feelingly, that Bob Jones’s policy against interracial dating (since abandoned) was “cruel” to young people. The same can be said about attitudes and policies in the Jewish community: One can find young people falling in love and being coerced to break up, others who don’t break up being shunned or held in disregard. (One reason I get to talk about this is I’ve experienced that scorn and shame and guilt myself.) The pressing issue for Jewish organizations is how to keep their numbers alive. The last generation depended on negative lessons to maintain the group: concern about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust. Then those phenomena became somewhat meaningless to a new generation, mine, and Jewish organizations had to come up with better reasons to be Jewish. Which they’ve done. They are emphasizing the religion’s great traditions and spiritual understanding, and creating much warmer feeling about being Jewish among Jews. Many liberal Jewish organizations have accepted intermarriage as inevitable and reached out in welcoming ways to the intermarried.

Still, everyone is now waiting on the edge of their seat for the next National Jewish Population Survey figures, which will say how many young Jews are intermarrying. In 1990, the survey’s 52 percent figure turned out to be a bombshell.

The problem with even thinking about the intermarried is that there isn’t much you can do about them, you wind up meddling with people’s love lives, and you keep the intermarried, who have very good reasons for doing what they’re doing, from piping up about their choice. For myself, I wanted more. I wanted everything in this society that was available to my peers, and my family encouraged those ambitions in me despite its feelings of being far outside the mainstream. Miraculously, American society responded, and before long I came to find some tribal ways suffocating and encountered many Christians whom I admired and loved.

The political implications of the intermarriage question stem from the fact that Jews are today not a threatened minority. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, they have wealth, status, influence. And it is profoundly anti-democratic for a group of prosperous people to sit around devising ways to keep their children from marrying Christians (marriage between classes being, after all, one of the most effective means of redistributing wealth in a society). Even the term “mixed marriage,” favored by some anti-intermarriage writers, seems oddly reminiscent of southern whites’ concern with miscegenation.

Of course it’s a big country, it can stand some anti-Democrats, in South Carolina and Queens, too. There’s nothing illegal about these practices, and most people have strong tribal feelings. Joe Lieberman declined to respond to my fax on the issue, his spokesman saying he did not see the question as “pertinent” to his job. And both Steve Friedman and Michael Barone argue that Jewish policies on intermarriage should be off-limits in political debate. Indeed, Mr. Barone says that hanging Mr. Bush on the intolerant policies of a backwater institution (Bob Jones) struck him as a “stretch.”

Maybe that’s the answer, greater tolerance for intolerance.