Out of the shtetl and into the world

I have recently made a controversial move: I fell in love. And although he is not a Montague, nor I a Capulet, and although neither of us are members of the Jets or the Sharks, some might say that I am sleeping with the enemy. You see, I am Jewish. I’ve managed, to my family’s chagrin, to fall in love with a goy, a gentile – a non-Jew. To be more precise, I am in a relationship with a Christian Arab.

I know this is 2008 and Jews are out of the shtetl and into the world, but to my family, and many families like mine, an interfaith relationship is a big no-no.

Many non-Jews just don’t see why, and to be honest, sometimes I don’t entirely get it myself. I’m not dating a delinquent or a drug dealer – just a nice boy studying at a good school. Still, my father won’t talk to him.

My boyfriend doesn’t understand why our relationship presents a problem to my family. He takes it personally, and I don’t blame him. He can date whoever he wants. Religion is not an issue for him.

In an effort to understand the issue of interfaith relationships, I have conducted short, informal interviews with several of my Jewish friends. I simply asked them why they think Jews don’t date or marry outside the faith, and why they have chosen to follow or not follow this tradition.

Reaching out

One friend gave me a helpful response: “Jews have always felt battered and outcast. We band together because there is strength in solidarity. I can’t say that I wouldn’t date a non-Jew; it all depends on the person. But it’s hard to anticipate the problems that an interfaith relationship might cause.” She’s right: on the whole, it’s just simpler to date Jews. Heck, I’d be having an easier time if I just stuck to “my people.”

What I want to make clear is that this is not an issue of racism; my father doesn’t ignore my boyfriend because he thinks non-Jews are inferior. He disapproves because to marry a non-Jew would entail a dilution of the faith and the community, and a rejection of my family’s values.

One friend gave me an answer along those lines, a view I always thought I ascribed to: “Why don’t Jews date non-Jews? We just don’t. I don’t date non-Jews because I wouldn’t ever want to date someone I couldn’t think of marrying. I could never marry a non-Jew. It would kill my parents, never mind my grandparents. It just isn’t done. I want to raise a Jewish family.”

I often joke about being raised to be a Jewish baby-making machine. Of course I’m not being entirely serious – I do want a career and independent success before I breed – but to some extent it’s true. I want to raise a Jewish family. I love being Jewish, and I want to give that to my children. But why can’t I do that, and still date or even marry a gentile?

One woman I interviewed thinks she can. She has been dating a gentile for three years now, but maintains her faith nonetheless. Her grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and although her mother is none too pleased, she loves this man. She told me not to worry: “If you’re anything like me, you have a strong Jewish identity. It’s a part of who you are. Nothing can shake, damage, or change that.”

I hope she’s right, but I do think this experience has changed the way I think about my Jewish identity. Although I’m not especially religious, I was sent to Jewish schools and camps all my life. Part of the purpose of this was to learn about the faith, of course, but it was also about meeting fellow Jews in the hope that I would socialize with, and eventually marry into, the community. I’m not complaining: I love being a part of the Jewish community. But I always thought I would have a choice about who I spent the rest of my life with.

Not a political statement

One friend that I interviewed congratulated me on finally asserting my independence. She jauntily told me, in so many words, to “fuck religion and fuck my parents.” To her, religion is some deranged, outmoded phenomenon responsible for half the world’s problems. That may well be, but then I have to ask myself: am I dating a non-Jew to make a political statement? Can my relationship be reduced to some kind of belated teenage rebellion?

I sure hope not. I am not a radical or a rebel. And it brings me to tears to think that falling in love has to become political. I’m not trying to offend my parents or change the status quo; I’m just trying to be happy.

I’d never really associated my Jewish identity with anything negative until I started dating outside of the faith. Although my Jewish education taught me to marry a Jew, my Disney education taught me that true love conquers all. I had a fuzzy idea that the two might conflict, but I never bothered myself much about it. Unfortunately, things don’t seem to have worked themselves out as effortlessly as I had hoped.

Individual v. community

I’m torn. On the one hand, I have all my individual wants and needs. I want to be with this boy. He makes me happy. So, from one perspective, I am angry at my parents and I am confused about my religion. If Judaism connotes not only a positive and strong community but also an exclusive one, is that really what I want?

But on the other hand, I see where my family is coming from: a large part of my identity is Jewish. I see myself as a part of something. I love being a part of the Jewish people. But what exactly is it about Judaism that I love? It’s not the praying, or the laws, or all the stuff about God. It’s the people. I love the feeling of community, the knowledge that a Jew will always help another Jew. I realize that I cannot make a decision independent of my faith, because while I would be following my heart, I would also be diluting what I love so much about being Jewish. My children wouldn’t have, to the same extent, what I have. In some way, I would be destroying something I love simply by loving.

To me, that is the central conflict of an interfaith relationship – that conflict between what’s best for an individual, and what’s best for the community.

Even though this religion issue has caused me much grief and familial tension, I cannot say that I regret dating a non-Jew. Ultimately, the experience has taught me more about my Jewish identity than all my years at parochial school: I have learned that fundamentally, my appreciation of Judaism is community-based – it is about loving relations between people. And in that case, I have to wonder why I should feel guilty about falling in love.