Monday, November 23, 2009

Guess Whose Coming to Dinner

Many years ago there was a sensational movie “Guess Whose Coming to Dinner” which was intended as a social commentary on the racial divide in America. The United States has come a long way since the heady days of the 60’s, when Jews locked arms with social activists and black leadership, joined at the hip protesting the political and social establishment that had denied fundamental human rights to African Americans. The Jews have come a long way too. But we all know that! Most surprising however is how far the modern orthodox Jewish community has come.

There was a time not too long ago that an orthodox Jew not only didn’t marry gentiles but also didn’t date non-Jews . Without reviewing statistics suffice it to say that it was hitherto atypical for an orthodox Jew to marry a non-Jew twenty years ago. It still isn’t typical, but it also is no longer anecdotal. Less than a decade ago, there were several members of the modern orthodox shul that I was affiliated with, who were intermarried. Notable however was that in all those cases the Jewish partner was an FFB (frum from birth), an alumnus of Jewish day schools and high schools as well as orthodox / Zionist camps.

I was fascinated as well as puzzled: how does it happen? If you’re an FFB with all the educational and support systems in place how does it come about that a Jew becomes so heavily involved with a non-Jew that the logical outcome is marriage? No system is perfect and there are exceptions to every rule, or as Forest Gump says: shit happens! It would also appear that these aren’t isolated examples either, because if it happened in my community I can only assume that it has happened in others as well. But we don’t make a big deal out of it because it’s no longer unusual. Rarely do I read a comment in the press remarking on the unique character of an orthodox Jew marrying a non Jew albeit with a conversion (excluding Noah Feldman who, although was raised in a modern orthodox home no longer identifies as an orthodox Jew).

As a matter of fact the Forward of November 6, 2009 carried the nuptial details of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew. For a moment I was saddened at the news of this intermarriage but as soon as I read that the conversion was orthodox and that the mesader kiddushin (officiating rabbi) was non other than Rabbi Lookstein I felt better, much better.

The Forward reassured its readers that we have come a long away. The Forward article took note of the fact that the New York Times was very casual about the entire affair indicating that not only has the “wasp” establishment come a long way in accepting Jews into their families, but that Orthodox Jews have come a long way as well. Not only do Jewish people marry non-Jews but it’s even become socially acceptable for a non Jew to marry a Jew! There is, as the Forward suggests a “relative nonchalance” to this kind of pairing reflecting a sea of change in the American Jewish community.

We Jews ought to feel good about ourselves now. Finally after all these years, after all of our struggles, we have risen to the level in which the gentile finds us acceptable! And not only have we found acceptance among them but we have also embraced them into the bosom of our Jewish families. As the article suggests there is a significant and pronounced shift in attitude among young Jews. “Young people today while embracing their Jewish culture reject the “us” and “them” worldview of their elders”. At first I thought, to my chagrin, that Sylvia Barack Fishman who authored the article missed the entire point because this marriage isn’t between Ivanka Trump and some assimilated Jew who has no idea what a siddur looks like. Jared Kushner is an Orthodox man educated formally and otherwise in an orthodox environment who benefitted from the best that the Jewish community has to offer. Orthodox people I reasoned don’t date non-Jews. It might happen that two people meet under unusual circumstances, unexpectedly by default and fall in love. Bu this would be totally anecdotal. So I thought.

Sylvia Barack Fishman has put under the spotlight a new phenomenon developing apparently in the modern orthodox Jewish community: normative intermingling between Jew and gentile, dating and exogamy as a logical outcome. It isn’t clear if this is becoming an emerging pattern, but the tone of the article gives me pause and concern that this may be a sign of things to come.