On my wedding day. Photo by Jorge Lemus
I was a “nice Jewish girl” looking to date a “nice Jewish boy” when I met him. He was a nice secular non-Jew from Seattle whose religious identity was rooted in memories of hanging stockings on Christmas and eating chocolate on Easter. I never expected it to be more than a summer fling, but things escalated quickly. On our fourth date I informed him in no uncertain terms, “This can’t go anywhere.”
“Why?” he asked. “Because you’re not Jewish,” I stated. “And I can’t marry a non-Jew.”
I then explained the concept of a shanda—something that would bring shame upon oneself, one’s family, and the entire Jewish community. Based on my upbringing, I would feel guilty for betraying generations of Jewish martyrs who had died so that I could be free to be Jewish. How could I marry a non-Jew, contributing to the assimilation and possible disappearance of my people? And even if I could accept intermarriage, my father never would.
My father believed that intermarriage was a shanda. He had repeatedly told me how important it was to marry “inside.” He worried about the ultimate demise of the Jewish people through assimilation. He also believed that marriage was “tough enough as it is” and “easier if you start with a common culture, religion, and values.” Years ago, my father threatened to disown my older sister if she married her non-Jewish boyfriend. I didn’t think he would have had the heart to do it, but the relationship ended before his will was tested. I loved my father dearly, respected his convictions even when we didn’t always agree, and ascribed great importance to his opinions.
But I wasn’t willing to break up with my boyfriend. Sure, I shared my father’s concerns about the survival of the Jewish people and, though it might sound stereotypical, was aware of the cultural differences between our Jewish family and his non-Jewish one. Our families communicated differently. In my family we addressed our feelings openly; his tended to ignore uncomfortable issues, hoping they would just go away. Yet I still felt that our similarities outweighed our differences. I just hoped my father would agree and come around to the idea that dating—even marrying—a non-Jew didn’t have to be a shanda. However challenging, I believed that intermarriage could work and I could have a Jewish home, raise a Jewish family, and contribute to Jewish peoplehood.
As the years went by and our relationship intensified, my boyfriend accompanied me to many a seder and Kol Nidre service. When we moved in together, we lit Shabbat candles weekly and danced around the living room singing z’mirot (Shabbat songs). We attended Judaism classes and a support group for interfaith couples and agreed that if we ever had kids, we would raise them as Jews. Through it all, my father and I had many long discussions on the subject of intermarriage. Eventually he came to accept my choice, though it was very difficult for him.
When my boyfriend asked my parents for my hand in marriage, he reassured my father that he understood the importance of Judaism in our lives and would honor and uphold Jewish traditions and values. Though probably still reluctant, my father lovingly said yes. He had come to adore this young man and saw that we were happy together.
In the months that followed, friends and family were surprised at how well my father was “handling” our engagement. But I knew that a piece of him was dying inside, and I felt horribly guilty about it. The Reform rabbi we’d asked to marry us counseled my dad several times before our wedding, helping him work through his conflicted feelings.
About a year after our beautiful Jewish wedding, we found out we were having a baby boy. When he was 16 months old, I discovered that my husband was having an affair. He told me he was in love with the other woman and wanted a divorce. I was shocked and devastated. If there were cracks in our relationship, he had not communicated them to me. In an instant my seven-year relationship and three-year marriage was over. One of the first things I said to him was, “How will I tell my dad?!”
I had worked so hard to convince my father that this marriage would not bring disgrace upon myself, my family, or my people. Now I could hear him saying, “I told you so! A Jewish guy wouldn’t have done this!” He believed that Jews were less likely to keep such secrets and commit such despicable acts. Of course, plenty of Jews also withhold their feelings and cheat on their spouses. It was not lost on me that my husband’s mistress was Jewish. (Didn’t she know that having an affair with a married man is a shanda?!)
But when I told my dad, his first and foremost concern was for my wellbeing. To this day he and my mother have been extremely supportive of me, though occasionally my dad makes an “if only you would have listened to me…” statement, which pierces me to the core.
Recently I asked my dad if he still thought intermarriage was a shanda. Without hesitation he answered, “Yes.” Then I asked if he thought divorce was a shanda . Without hesitation he answered, “No.” Yet I feel otherwise.
I feel intense shame around my divorce. I worry that I failed at the most important relationship in my life and will be judged by the Jewish community. After all, nice Jewish girls don’t get divorced, right?
Moreover, I fear that my divorce could signify to the outside world that my father was right about intermarriage. On principle, I don’t want my dad to be right. I want to believe that my divorce is not related in any way to the fact that my ex was not Jewish. And yet I can’t help but think sometimes, Maybe things would have turned out differently had my husband been Jewish. Even though I believe we should welcome non-Jews into our communities—because intermarriage is not a shanda—these days I nonetheless find myself searching again for a “nice Jewish boy.”
Annette Powers is Communications and PR Manager at the URJ. You can read her personal blog at huffingtonpost.com/annette-powers.