Friday, March 09, 2007

Jewish Journalism and Intermarriage

Of the one-trillion or so words written about intermarriage since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, nearly all have been devoted to demographic issues, including how marrying out affects our numbers and whether Jewish life is diminished or enhanced by the practice. We know that for many, intermarriage is now a different experience than it once was, that a significant number who wed non-Jews are determined to identify as Jews and to be involved in some fashion in Jewish life. This transformation has induced attitudinal and behavioral changes in families that have experienced intermarriage and in other associations.

As a consequence, most American Jews, among them fierce opponents of intermarriage, have what may be regarded as a more tolerant attitude toward the intermarried and their families. The welcome mat is not quite out, nor has it been taken in. The critical mass of intermarried, as well as sanguinity and proximity, have bred a measure of accommodation. We are light years away from the intermarried walking entirely out of Jewish life and light years away from the stereotypical picture of parents sitting shiva and saying Kaddish when a child married out.

While we may know how intermarriage impacts on American Jewish life, we know little about how it is navigated within families and other close relationships or about its impact on our organizational and communal life. Are the intermarried, including spouses and offspring, shunned? How are they treated in our shuls and schools? Are they invited to family events? When they show up, are they regarded as an embarrassment or pariahs? What, in short, is their and our comfort level, including interactions with those who strongly oppose intermarriage?

This isn't a taboo subject, nor has it been sufficiently addressed in our sociological literature. What seems to have happened is a pattern of accommodation, perhaps in much the same way that other deviations from our religious norms are handled. The offspring of intermarriage are generally accepted by most Orthodox day schools, but not yeshivas, even when the mother is not Jewish. Of course, overwhelmingly intermarried parents choose a different educational path. Synagogue life is also witness to increased accommodation, although with the exception of Reform, most intermarried families do not participate. In our organizational life, the doors are almost always wide open.

Accommodation, if not acceptance, is evident in many Orthodox communal and social transactions, probably because it could not be otherwise. Religious Jews can insist that kosher food be served at events they participate in. They cannot insist on the genealogical purity of other participants. When I dabble in demography and estimate the number of American Jews, I do not emulate what Major League Baseball did when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record and put an asterisk next to the figure to indicate that it must be qualified because a number of those who are counted are not Jews according to religious Jewish law.

The accommodatory stance toward those who marry out is evident in family relations where those who cast away the prohibition against intermarriage are by and large not regarded as outcasts. At simchas and other gatherings, there is a certain warmth toward the sinners, perhaps less so if they come with their non-Jewish spouses. This may be an inconvenient truth. The prevalence of intermarriage, the American ethos of tolerance and the socio-psychological imperative to avoid stress in face to face encounters combine to produce a high degree of civility when mishpachas and friends get together.

This reality lends support to Gary Rosenblatt's response, published two weeks ago, to those who object to Julie Wiener's monthly column in this newspaper. Typically, she describes her experiences arising from her interfaith marriage. As he put it, the "important voice" of "interfaith families themselves" has been largely missing from our discussion of intermarriage, pointing out that "intermarriage is here to stay - affecting the majority of Jewish families indirectly if not directly - and that our [journalistic] job is to report on the community as it is, not just as we would like it to be."

There is, however, a large difference between assigning a reporter to write about life among the intermarried and providing space on a regular basis to an intermarried columnist to describe her life as an intermarried Jew. The former is a journalistic exercise, while the latter inevitably becomes advocacy, the message being that stuff happens and Jewish life goes on. What is being transmitted is the view that one can be fully intermarried and fully Jewish. This isn't what Jewish journalism should be about. Nor is the message accurate, as Steven M. Cohen and other researchers have documented, even if it may be accurate in Julie Wiener's situation.

It is good and necessary to describe how our families live their Jewish lives. A good place to start - there are others - is to examine families that live a fully religious life. Although there has been improvement over the years in this newspaper so that every wart among the Orthodox is no longer a catalyst for a front-page story, it remains that much of what has been written about this segment is bigoted and/or inaccurate. What we do not get is a profile of typical Orthodox families. We do not see their sacrifice, how hard they work, how they are raising their children, how time is devoted to Torah study and how time is devoted to helping others.

It would be good journalism if those who determine what is published would be as open to families that cling to our heritage and practices as they are to those who abandon our heritage and practices. This column arose from the determination to present a more accurate picture of Jewish life.