Some of my friends began dating non-Jews. I stopped socializing with them in silent protest, after a more outspoken effort had failed. I self-righteously concluded that we had nothing in common, since they were prepared to give their Jewish identity the backseat. I was sitting firmly in the driver’s seat with mine, so much so that I became the leader of a Zionist youth movement, and started to mix with an idealistic new crowd.
In Ethics of Our Fathers, Rabbi Hillel warns us that we should be careful not to judge another person until we have stood in their place. And I was going places…
I don’t remember making conversation, but apparently I must have mumbled something, since the next morning the host of the party told me that Mr. Attractive had inquired after me. As I was catching my breath, she casually mentioned, “Oh, I told him you don’t date non-Jews, and he’s fine with that. He just wants to meet you. He really liked you.”
This was a delicate situation, to say the least. Here I was, being pursued by a bona fide heartthrob with absolutely no strings attached. He was an advertising executive. Flutter. He had a motorbike. Swoon. And, if that wasn’t enough for my ego, he was a commercial pilot.
“My Non-Jewish Boyfriend”
You’ll never realize how many blog posts I don’t write just because I don’t have time. I’ll read something or hear a snippet of conversation, and my mind pursues it and I begin to internally construct a short essay on the topic between 1500 and 3000 words. I never mean to write as much as I do, which includes this story about the girl who would never intermarry. It just happens.
In Christianity, this is yet another thing about Judaism that simply doesn’t register with us. What’s the big deal exactly? OK, among many Christians, there’s the idea that it’s not a good thing to be “unequally yoked” and I suppose the equivalent quandary would involve a young Christian woman dating a handsome, talented, and very romantic atheist guy. Look out. Danger up ahead.
But there’s something more operating here. There’s a lot more operating here.
I’ve written many times before about intermarriage and part of this blog’s mission is to address the challenges and dynamics of Christians and Jews being married. You can see the angst and the ecstasy expressed in missives such as Opting Out of Yiddishkeit and Cherishing Her Yiddisher Neshamah. If my wife had been observant when we met or even if she had been raised in a secular Jewish home, we might never have gotten married since I am a goy (we were both atheists when we met and her parents were also intermarried).
I’ve been spending some blog time lately struggling to define why it’s important for believing Jews to continue to live as halalaic Jews. If Jesus saves, what difference does it make if a Jewish person lives a Jewish life or not?
Plenty, as Cooper’s story reminds me.
The next day I found myself in the car with my father. We parked in the driveway. There we sat for a good few minutes, lost in our separate worlds. I, in my bubble of optimistic self-gratification, and my father – mourning the potential loss of future generations. Finally, I broke the heavy silence.
“Dad, why is it so important that Jews marry Jews?”
“Because it’s important that we preserve our unique heritage.” he replied, surprised by this basic question coming from me.
I wasn’t buying it.
“Yes, but what’s so special about our heritage, I mean, why is it SO important that there be Jews in the world?” I challenged.
“Because we are supposed to be a light among the nations,” he stressed, wondering where this was going. I pressed on, going for the jugular.
“So, Dad, if our heritage is so special, and we have to be a light among the nations, and my entire future depends on it, why do I eat McDonalds, and why on earth don’t we keep Shabbat?!”
More silence. This time, it was my father that spoke. “I don’t know. I guess I never thought that far,” he admitted, somewhat ashamed.
For the first time ever, I had stumped my brilliant lawyer father. But he still had one last trick up his sleeve.
I’ve heard it said you can’t choose who you fall in love with, but Jennifer had a problem. Without intending to, she had fallen in love with a non-Jew and all of her determination to never “marry out” was fast evaporating. Her parents were culturally but not religiously Jewish, but you can’t dismiss the importance of Jewish identity based on lack of religious observance. Something deeper was in operation here and it was enough to turn Jennifer and her father into emotional pretzels, turned and twisted and trying to straighten out again.
My heart was heavy with respect for my parents and the desire to please them. I felt the weight of my Jewish identity on my fragile shoulders. What exactly was I trying to preserve and protect? After all, I was not religious. Why had it been so fundamentally clear to me that I would marry a Jew? And what had happened to that clarity?
I had been taking my Jewishness for granted. Jewish day school, Jewish friends, a traditional Jewish home. There had been no challenge, no threat, no temptation. No chance to think or look outside the box. But now my exclusive Jewish education and traditional upbringing was on trial. Was it enough to save me?
I took the witness stand. For the first time in my life, I consciously thought about, and decided, who I was, what I wanted to be, and what was truly important. I was first and foremost a Jew. My heritage mattered. I wanted it to continue to be a part of my life. And it was vitally important that my future husband feel the same.
The Verdict: A strong Jewish identity saves Jews.
It wasn’t so difficult after that. A short, tense phone call ended what would have been the mistake of a lifetime. I never saw or spoke to him again, although I cried for days. I don’t really know why, but I think it had something to do with my soul.
There’s something more to being Jewish than just a string of DNA or whether or not you eat McRibs at McDonalds. It’s not just the cultural aspects of Judaism because films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) have shown us that cultural differences can be bridged (Nia Vardalos wrote and starred in the film and in real life, she is a Greek woman married to a non-Greek man…Ian Gomez, who plays “Mike” in the film).
No, there’s more than just genetics, religion, and culture going on with Jennifer and with Jewish people in general, but you have to go back to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob to find it. You have to go back to Moses and Sinai to find it. You have to look into a pillar of cloud by day and a column of flame by night and deep inside you’ll see the God who molded, formed, fashioned, and defined the Jewish people to be a unique and special people before Him for all time.
And every intermarriage, particularly where the intermarried Jew does not maintain their identity and pass that identity along to the next generation removes not just one more Jew from eternity, but that Jew and all of his or her descendents. Yes, if Jennifer had married her handsome, charming goyishe suitor, her children would have been halachically Jewish, but how would they have been raised and how strongly would they cherish their own Jewish identity?
Memories and regrets are part of what it is to being human, and if I had it all to do over again, I would still have married my wife and had our children, but I would have fought tooth and nail to instill a strong Jewish identity in all of them.
But that ship has sailed and here I am standing at the dock watching it slip over the horizon and into the distance and darkness beyond.
We want our children to care about the meaning of being Jewish. We need to nurture their Jewish identity to the point that it becomes innate. Our homes are where we nurture, and where our children learn to care. Our homes are where we show our children what it is important to care about.
A lot of people feel that they need to make a great sacrifice to live out their Jewishness. It is an even greater sacrifice not to. We can’t be complacent for lack of funding, knowledge, the right address or social circle. The good news is, caring is not a sacrifice. It’s fun, and it’s far-reaching.
How do we put a little Yiddishkeit into our homes? If you ask anyone that grew up with it, they will tell you the same thing: it’s the simple rituals that have the greatest impact. Lighting Shabbat candles, decorating a sukkah or eating matzah on Passover, putting up mezuzahs on every doorway, laying some Jewish books proudly out on the coffee table, saying Shema Yisrael with our children, hanging out an Israeli flag on Israel’s Independence Day. These are the definitive moments that can carve a caring Jew out of the stoniest backdrop of threatened assimilation.
Our Torah and Jewish calendar are filled with a veritable treasure trove of tradition and meaningful ritual, enabling us to live uniquely enhanced lives filled with memorable moments of celebration and wisdom, all with that inimitable Jewish flavor.
These are the moments that kept me in the fold. They can impact you and your children, too.
I can’t change the past, but I can tell you that I will not be responsible for separating even one more Jewish person from his or her God-given identity. I can’t change the past but I can learn from it, and more than that, I can teach from it. I can pass my knowledge on to whoever cares to read these words and explain that this is why it is not only important but absolutely vital that Jews who are Messianic must establish and maintain a strong Jewish identity, must observe the mitzvot, must walk in the footsteps of their Fathers and actively live out the wisdom of their sages.
I can’t tell you the right and wrong of every single mitzvot and the amazingly intricate details of each little item of halachah within each of the Judaisms in our world today, but I can tell you that without them, without all of the behaviors and the activities that define a person as a Jew, not only are the Jewish people in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth (although I believe God would never allow this), but that Jews who come to Jesus will vanish into the mass of Gentile Christians in the church, never to be seen or heard from again. Only God will know that Jews ever stood among the disciples of the Jewish Messiah in these latter days of history.
But it all starts with one Jewish person who realizes that his or her identity as a Jew is more important than almost anything because that identity comes directly from God. And we in the church must also learn to cherish Jewish uniqueness, to support it, to uphold it, to esteem it, for our Master said that “salvation comes from the Jews.” (John 4:22)
The story Jennifer Cooper relates occurred almost twenty years ago, but the heartbreaking actions of one young Jewish girl saved not only her, but her children, and future generations of children who would not otherwise be Jewish or value who God made them all to be. The Good Shepherd will come and seek out all of his sheep…those of the Gentile pen, but also those who know his voice from the sheep of Israel. God forbid that when he returns, he discovers that none of them survived.