After the Bus Wreck
Five years ago, I edited and published a book called Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes. In some ways, the book was an accident. By accident (which is to say, for health care) I happened to be working for Hillel. By accident (which is to say, at a conference), I met Richard Nash (then publisher of Soft Skull). By accident, things worked out.
I wasn’t qualified to edit Half/Life, really. I’m not a therapist. I’m not a social worker. I’m not a rabbi or a priest. At the time, I was a poet, finishing grad school. But I’d grown up “Half” as well as Jewish, and as a new Hillel professional, working with Jewish students on college campuses, I found myself bothered by the lack of support for kids like me. I was struck by how much the Jewish community “addressed” intermarriage, but how little they actually understood it. So—since I was a writer—I pitched the book, and a year later I found myself an expert!
Simply because we don’t have any.
So it was that I was invited to speak at Makor, at Jewish Literary Festivals around the country, at JCCs and shuls. I blogged for Haaretz, and was reviewed in the Jerusalem Post and the Forward. I became an advocate of sorts, and I could handle that. It was fun! I’ll be honest—I liked the public speaking, the unearned authority. What I couldn’t handle was how at every event, and in regular emails, I found myself approached by Jewish families, by parents and grandparents, asking me for help. All of these people saw me as an expert, and so came to ask me “what to do about it.”
“What can I do about my granddaughter?”
“What can I do about the Christmas tree?”
“What can I do to get my husband to convert?”
I was lost. I had no idea what to say to any of these questions. So I developed a set of standard responses. Knowing as I accumulated them that in some ways, they were the opposite of the answers that “the Jewish community” wanted.
“You can love her.”
“Umm… probably you shouldn’t try.”
Maybe because I wasn’t a rabbi (or a Hillel professional any longer), I had trouble seeing how the goals of the community could override the goals of each family. The people I encountered seemed to be so convinced by, say, the evils of a pine tree in December. So overwhelmed by shame. I wanted to tell them all that while we can come up with some best practices for daily observance (or lack thereof), the most important best practice is finding a path of your own, a faith (or lack thereof) that suits your personal set of issues and needs.
I would explain that while I’d grown up with a practicing Catholic mother, I was still a Jew. I’d always been a Jew. I would tell people about how my husband, a man named Christopher, wasn’t a barrier to my own observance. And that I’d never thought of “getting him to convert.” Though of course I’d welcome it if he ever arrived at that point. Because it would simplify things a bit. But I tried to stress the ways in which I had become a strong Jew inside of, and maybe even because of, my pluralistic world.
Most generally, I stressed that people needed to talk about these issues with each other, from the heart. They needed to discuss their individual needs and arrive at compromises before they got married. They needed to meet with rabbis, priests, and therapists before they had a problem, while they were still starry-eyed. While they still believed they could make it work. They needed to figure out their (I cringe as I use this term) dealbreakers, and put them on the table before things got too ugly, or simply unexpected.
Nearly everyone who came to me troubled would respond to these suggestions with the same answer, “But what if it turns out we can’t agree? We might not end up getting married!”
Which made me want to slap them. Because the the path that extends from that way of approaching problems is so obvious, and sad. So then I’d hit them with this zinger…
“If raising a Jewish family is important to you, you need to ask your non-Jewish partner what will happen to your Jewish kids if you are hit by a bus. Will they raise Jewish kids on their own? What if they remarry a non-Jew?”
Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.
There is a polarizing force in divorce that attaches itself to religion. Religion helps to soothe the jangled soul of the newly single parent, creates automatic community and home. So divorce drives us into the bosom of faith. But for a kid who has grown up with one set of rules and signifiers, the sudden shift, the change in terms, can be brutal. At a time when things are already baffling enough.
Which is why I’ve developed the horrible question-to-end-all-questions. The worst-case scenario. To give people a glimpse of where things might end up. But of course nobody can do it. Nobody can ask this question of their new marriage before they even have the kids. Nobody can bring themselves to demand this thing. It’s too scary. To speak these words is to invite disaster in any number of ways. I understand that.
Still, I think that we must come as close as we can. We must each, for ourselves, engage with the question, and understand how far we are willing to bend religiously to be with someone else. From this place we must try to broker a deal about our kids before we have them, hard as that is to do. Then we must learn to stand by and swallow our own needs as adults, for the sake of constancy in the lives of our children. That’s the hard part of intermarriage. Not everyone will end up there, but everyone might.
After the recent Reyes debacle, in which a divorced intermarried father baptized his daughter in the Catholic Church, I received emails from a few people, who wanted to know why I hadn’t responded to the case on my blog, or even mentioned it in Facebook or Twitter. People wanted to know why I had been completely silent on the subject. The truth is that it just made me so sad. I don’t think it’s the kind of story that represents most of us. So much of it is upsetting—the early media involvement, the question of mental illness, and the extremity of that particular divorce. I don’t want to feed the frenzy of fear-mongers. “See, this is what intermarriage leads to.” When I googled “man baptizes daughter,” the first hit I got was for a White Pride site. I don’t like to play ball with people like that.
But now, I can’t help reflecting on the situation and thinking that what upsets me most is not that Joseph Reyes took his kid to church. What upsets me most is that he was a Jew! He’d converted. I can’t help wondering if maybe that contributed to this awful scenario somehow. Clearly he wasn’t a Jew in his heart. He was the furthest thing from it. I wonder at how that incongruity affected him as his life unraveled and anger replaced love.
And I can’t help but wonder about the years before his marriage, before his daughter’s birth. I can’t help but imagine the grandparents, who might very well have met me at a book event and asked me, “What can we do to get him to convert?”
The pressure that we, as a Jewish community, place on conversion and absorption, on quieting the multitude of non-Jewish voices in our midst is a problem for me. I fear it is leading, in some ways, to a kind of dishonesty in our cultural identity, an incongruity. Not unlike the incongruity in Joseph Reyes. If this is so, the path ahead bothers me. Since, being an “expert” and all, I know where it leads.
Laurel Snyder is a contributing editor to KtB, the editor of Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, and the author of a poetry collection, The Myth of the Simple Machines. She’s also written several books for children, including the forthcoming title, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. She lives online at LaurelSnyder.com.