They Might Be Afraid of Contagion

I suspect that you were blindsided by the way your friends responded to your daughter’s non-Jewish boyfriend because you didn’t know something about their attitudes and concerns, something which perhaps even they had not recognized: Your friends appear scared of contagion.

By reporting the details of your daughter’s current romance to your longtime friends, it seems you have led them to glimpse a danger they’d rather not confront, a challenge they’d like to avoid.“Not in my family!” their behavior seems to shout.

As players on the stage of non-Orthodox American Jewish life, your friends find lines such as these (as yet unspoken) in their scripts: “Don’t you want your grandchildren to be Jewish? Don’t you care about the continued existence of our people? Even if he converts, your grandchildren will have Christian grandparents who may dilute or distort whatever Jewish identity the children will have imbibed at home. You ought to be protesting your daughter’s choice not acquiescing in it. You should let her know that you care about the Jewishness of your grandchildren, and that minimally you want her to discuss conversion with her boyfriend.”

From here forward the script invites improvisation. You could, for example, become defensive and say something like, “I am 100% certain my daughter will bring her children up as Jews.” Or you might play self-righteous parent: “I care more about my daughter’s happiness than I do about her maintaining religious practices.” Or maybe you’ll assume a diplomatic tone: “I’m sure if and when the time comes, my daughter will work out a thoughtful plan for creating and shaping a Jewish home, and I will of course work with her in whatever way she wants.” Or you might even stand firm as a principled heretic, risk your friendships, and say, “I really don’t care about the future of the Jewish people; I just want my daughter to marry a man she loves.”

In this Jewish American drama each choice triggers a path toward a yet unwritten third act. Perhaps as players on this stage all we can do is study our fellow actors, feel our way into our own roles, and remain ever ready to stop, even in the middle of a line, to hear and respond to a new cue. It’s a unique play and we are in it together.

As you have learned, some people, fearing the play is a plague, think they must keep their distance from even their closest friends. You may help them understand that their survival is not at stake, that radical change may yet offer us new possibilities for living as Jews in an ever evolving world.

James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain Emeritus at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has four children and six grandchildren.

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They Might Be Afraid of Contagion

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