Whoops, I Fell in Love With a Non-Jew
The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]
I’ve Never Felt So Unconditionally Loved
I am a recently divorced Jewish woman who has accidentally fallen in love a non-Jew. I wasn’t looking or expecting to — but paid a professional call to someone I’ve known for a long time and things happened. He fills my soul completely and I’ve never felt so unconditionally loved.
My family is a mix of traditionally Conservative and modern Orthodox. No one intermarried, and it would have been a shonde if anyone had. I have grown children who we sent to day school, Jewish camps, Israel — the works.
My partner and I are hoping to be together for life, but we are NOT planning on getting married, mostly because he’s been married several times and just doesn’t want to go there again. We have discussed converting, which he actually considered in the past, but is not interested in doing now. He respects my commitment to Judaism and is willing to participate with me in Jewish life, including having a kosher kitchen when we choose to live together. He practices no religion but is very spiritual.
I have kept this relationship under wraps because I am really worried about my family’s and community’s reaction. On the one hand, I have done my job already by raising my kids Jewishly, but on the other hand what kind of example am I setting for them? How will my larger family ever accept this sweet and wonderful man who makes me so happy? And as a leader in my synagogue, I can only imagine what people will be saying about me. Seesaw, what do you think? —In Love
Take it Slow
Ruth Nemzoff: You are a fortunate woman to care deeply about both your community and your significant other. It seems as though you do not want to choose between these two wonderful, supportive, and enriching aspects of your life.
You have been a wonderful Jewish role model for your children, both as a leader of your synagogue and by providing them with many Jewish experiences, both in and out of your kosher home. You are also a model of resilience and hope, having found the strength to love after a disappointing marriage.
I would talk honestly with your children. Give them a clear message about your plans to continue practicing Judaism the way you always have and your partner’s commitment to support you in this endeavor. Let them know that you hope they too will always treasure the gift of Judaism.
With both your relatives and your community, I would suggest introducing your “para-spouse” to a few people at a time. Start with those who you think will be most welcoming. Hopefully, the rest will come along as they see how committed he is to facilitating your communal work and your Jewish life. Some will welcome him sooner than others. Try not to be hurt or hold a grudge when those close to you repel him. It will serve you well to be understanding. Help your partner understand that they are not rebuffing him, but rather trying to protect an ancient legacy. Over time when they see you are still a committed Jew and that he is an asset to the community, they may become more accepting.
The whole Jewish community is grappling with how to welcome the partners of the many who are coupling with those from other faiths. Synagogues are places of worship, but also of learning. In the wonderful, open society in which we live, you are doing a service by opening your community to letting all those enter who wish to learn.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family” is a resident scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is on the Board of Interfaithfamily.
Love Is the Most Anti-Political Force in Human Life
JAMES PONET: You are presently living your love as a secret. And there are, as the Beatles sang it, many good reasons to hide your love away. Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that love is the most anti-political force in human life for it threatens to yank the lovers out of the world, unless they somehow find a way, literally or metaphorically, to bring forth a “child.” The “child” can rescue the lovers from losing the world by creating a distance between them and inspiring them to accept a joint responsibility to protect and enhance the world they inhabit.
It sounds to me like you want to build a home with your partner, one that in addition to having a kosher kitchen will be a place of friendship, joy, tenderness, and generosity. Maybe the home you and your partner bring to the world will offer your friends and family an experience of hospitality that they have not yet known. Maybe that’s your “child?”
You believe, perhaps correctly, that your family and friends have loved you only on the condition that you have lived according to your community’s norms. But maybe you are underselling them; maybe they will surprise you by choosing to share your new-found happiness with you. You ask what kind of an example you would be setting for your kids?” How about the example of someone who, having discovered unconditional love, is brave and generous enough to try to share it with others, knowing that not everyone will be ready and able to receive it?
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain 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 4 children and 5 grandchildren.
You Are Right to Think About the Consequences
STEVEN M. COHEN: You are right to think about the implications of your committed relationship with the non-Jewish man whom you love — particularly at this moment in Jewish history. You (and I) are part of a distinctive generation of Jewish parents: More than any other generation in Jewish history, more mature adults are parents of intermarried children. Never before have so many Jews had so many non-Jewish sons- and daughters-in-law. Never before have so many Jewish grandparents had grandchildren whose identities are “TBD” (to be determined). Hence, you are indeed correct to be concerned about the impact of your marital-like decision upon your children and the identity choices of your prospective grandchildren.
Now, with respect to ensuring your descendants’ Jewish identities, you’ve done “everything right.” You raised your children in an observant Conservative family (Conservative Jews’ children exhibit half the intermarriage rates of Reform Jews’ children — and the rates are even lower for more observant Conservative Jews). In addition, you provided your children a selection of Jewish day school, trips to Israel, camp and the like. These all raise the chances that one’s children will marry Jews — with no guarantees, of course.
But the research is silent about the impact of parents building loving relationships with non-Jews in later years. Now, I’d bet that your children’s years of intensive Jewish experience and education forged thick Jewish social networks and deep Jewish commitment. Hence, your actions now will exert only a minor impact upon their chances of meeting Jews and marrying them. Your relationship’s impact upon your prospective grandchildren’s Jewish identities, though, cannot be predicted.
Aside from your concerns for your immediate family’s Jewish continuity, you need to enter into this relationship fully aware of what it will mean for your year-round Jewish life, and the experiences that you’ll be unable to fully share with your new non-Jewish partner. I suggest that you both read the classic, “Mixed Blessings,” by Paul and Rachel Cowan to help prepare for this next chapter of your life.
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.