This past December, somewhere between the first night of Chanukah and the last vestiges of Yuletide excess, it dawned on me that despite both my spouse and I coming from halachically Jewish families, we are the only ones among our generation of British-born siblings and cousins (most of us now in our thirties and forties) who don’t celebrate Christmas. Unsurprisingly, we are also the only ones who married within the faith.
These two facts are, I’d argue, inextricably linked. For despite Karen Glaser’s impassioned defence of mixed-heritage unions recently published in these pages (JC February 7) , my own observations of Jews who marry out is that their walk down the aisle tends to lead them further away from their cultural and spiritual birthright rather than closer.
I witnessed this first hand when my brother began dating a lovely Christian girl some years ago. When he announced their engagement, my parents’ delight at the prospect of a wedding was undeniably tinged with disappointment. Their own parents had barely survived the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and now, within two generations, our grandparents’ Jewish faith — the one they had been so brutally persecuted for less than a century ago — was withering on a central branch of the family tree.
Historic suffering is not, of course, a reason to marry someone, or not to marry someone else. But I can’t help dwelling on the fact that while our forebears fought for millennia to keep the Jewish faith alive against the odds, my generation don’t think twice about forsaking it — even if it is for love. And occasionally, the spectre of the Holocaust is unavoidable: during the wedding of one Jewish relative to a German Catholic woman, I discreetly exited the receiving line before having to greet her grandfather, unable to bear the thought of shaking a hand that may once have spilled Jewish blood.
Many will no doubt be outraged by such sentiments. In Glaser’s piece, author Rivka Bond, who herself married out, maintains that even a mixed marriage can result in a “home that is rich in Jewish tradition and practice”. But while I know many families where only one parent — or grandparent — is Jewish, few of them have embraced Judaism culturally let alone spiritually. Before her wedding to my brother, for example, my sister-in-law sought to reassure us she would keep the candle of Judaism burning brightly within their home. Their kids, she said earnestly, would never feel left out during Christmas (as my brother had growing up) because she would make Chanukah even more exciting, with plenty of toys, games and chocolate.
With each year that passes her good intentions recede farther into memory. Although my brother and his wife have kids now, a tree twinkles merrily in their living room each December while the only nod to Chanukah is a hastily-lit menorah outshone by a canopy of fairy lights. The rest of the chagim are equally neglected (one year, when we were invited round to lunch during Pesach, we were even offered chametz for dessert). I can’t fault them for wanting to create wonderful memories of Christmas for their children, but they are denying them the opportunity to one day feel a similar nostalgia for their Jewish heritage.
The sad reality is that our traditions are too onerous, too alien, and often, frankly, too boring for non-Jews to ever truly embrace (except for those who have undergone the equally onerous process of an Orthodox conversion). Who can blame non-Jewish spouses for picking hot cross buns over hamentashen or pumpkins over prayer books when many of us secretly yearn to do the same?
Sometimes, though, it’s worse than simple disinterest. I’ve encountered non-Jewish partners who harbour downright hostility towards our customs. During my son’s bris, when an aunt tried to comfort me by reassuring me the procedure carries life-long health benefits, a non-Jewish relative by marriage interrupted to pooh-pooh her, declaring loudly that scientific studies had debunked any perceived health advantages of circumcision. It was tactless at best, deliberately offensive at worst — and don’t even get me started on the subject of Israel.
So while I admire Glaser’s optimism — “If you throw your lot in with the Jews, you become Jewish by osmosis,” she wrote — forgive me for not sharing it. If anything, my heart breaks a little every time I hear of another Jewish friend or cousin or even celebrity marrying out. The rise of Corbynism only reinforced my despair, particularly in the run up to last year’s general election when Facebook was awash with non-Jewish relations singing the Labour leader’s praises. Attempts to explain the very real fear we felt for the future of British Jewry under a Corbyn-led government were met with disinterest and even derision.
That’s not to say I would ever cold-shoulder a non-Jewish spouse or partner, even though those I know are deeply averse to both Judaism and Israel. One of the reasons I am writing this anonymously is to avoid wounding family members and friends who are not Jewish or who have married out and whom I love dearly.
But it’s becoming increasingly hard to swallow the deep sense of sadness I feel whenever I think about the Jews who turn their backs on Judaism — sometimes even while standing beneath a chuppah — the moment they pledge their troth outside the tribe.
Some identifying details have been changed