“Is he Jewish?”
That’s the first question my family and some of my friends might ask after I say I’m seeing someone new. When I started dating my most recent ex-boyfriend, one of my oldest friends, after doing some Facebook stalking, sighed happily. “Oh good,” she said, turning to me with relief on her face. “He went to Brandeis. He’s Jewish.”
The rub was that he was Jewish — in the sense that he understood the traditions and his family celebrated Passover. He wasn’t religious. He didn’t wear a yarmulke or want to move to Israel. It didn’t matter to them. It just mattered that he was pushed from a Jewish vagina. He was a Jew.
My ex-boyfriend from freshman year of college was similarly born into a Jewish family, but he identified as an atheist. Aside from his childhood bar mitzvah, curly brown fro and traditionally Semitic schnoz, there was nothing currently Jewish about him.
“He’s Jewish though,” said everyone.
“His parents are Jewish,” I’d counter. “He’s an atheist.”
“Right, but then you can raise the kids Jewish. The kids will be 100 percent Jewish,” they said.
“I…guess,” I said. “If we even have kids. 1) We’re like, 18 right now and 2) What is this? A Russian dynasty? Do we need a pure bloodline like inbred English monarchs? What year is this?”
I grew up very Jewish. I went to Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, Jewish youth group. From elementary school to university, I had no non-Jewish friends. My friends were the rabbis kids or my camp mates. I chose not to go to a Jewish college because I was being slowly driven crazy by the insular nature of my upbringing and I wanted out.
Once in college, my long-time on/off boyfriend was the most Irish Catholic person since the brothers from The Boondock Saints. He was blonde. His family had pictures of John F. Kennedy on their house’s walls. We went to church. My super liberal, hippie-dippie parents were…fine with it. I went to synagogue every once in a while. I spoke Hebrew. I was a cultural Jew. I’d long since given up on the religious part of Judaism, but it was still important to me.
Later on, when I started seeing a girl — a very Jewish girl — my parents were noticeably more supportive. (Though my mom would say it’s because she adored that girl. They did get along really well.) A few months later, when that relationship ended, I was sitting on the couch with my dad and I asked a question I’d been curious about for a while: “What would you prefer — me dating a non-Jewish guy or me dating a Jewish girl?” The answer was, “A Jewish girl.” The reasoning was there’d be no argument about which religion to raise the children in. Once again, the focal points were the “purity” or Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret confusion of the hypothetical offspring.
I’m no longer close friends with anyone who would seriously ask me if my new beau was one of the Chosen People. They might ask if he has a job. Or where we met. Or if he does anything particularly weird in bed. (I have nosy, perverted friends. They mean well.) But his religion? It wouldn’t come up.
With my family, particularly my Holocaust survivor grandmother, it still does. Recently, she was peppering me with her usual Law and Order interrogation on my personal life and I was being vague.
“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked.
“I…uh,” I said. I am very eloquent.
She let me fumble about and then said, “Do you not want to tell me about him because he’s not Jewish?”
Every Jewish young person reading this just went, “Yup.” This is the expected, humorous line of questioning from our (usually older) relatives. There’s a leftover “us vs. them” mentality that’s scarred over and left a deep, unrelenting fear of the “other” or the “goy.” There’s shame and guilt tacked on to not perpetuating our kind. On a trip to Israel in college, I had a counselor warn me, after I said I had an Irish Catholic boyfriend that “assimilation is the greatest problem facing Judaism today.”
The worry is that Jewish people need to marry other Jewish people so there will keep being Jewish people. Totally. I get it. And for some, it’s very important to be with and procreate with someone who understands their core values and principles which, for them, stem deeply from their Judaism. They want someone who can relate. They don’t want to have to explain anything. Comedian Ali Wong has a funny bit about how she likes to date other Asian people because they can go home and “be racist together.” It’s not politically correct, but the joke hits on something true about comfort, familiarity and priorities within a relationship.
I’ve had non-Jews tell me this is racist, or that it hurts their feelings. That makes me sad. No one wants to go in to meeting their girlfriend’s family knowing that said family is disappointed they are a certain race or ethnicity or religion or any other such uncontrollable, personal thing. Shouldn’t they be happy that their child is with someone who makes them happy? (This is what my mom always ultimately says.) The analogy, to them, is a white parent saying, “Oh, that’s so nice you have a new boyfriend, sweetheart. Is he white?”
Would my family treat a non-Jewish partner differently? No. Not on purpose. They might think they have to explain everything like the other person is a child, and there’s a weird whispered disclaimer where his lack of Tribe-hood might be mentioned every third sentence, ie: “This is Gaby’s boyfriend. He is lovely. He is not Jewish.” And I’d hope that if I were with someone of a different religious or cultural background, we could learn from each other and appreciate the unique experiences we each bring to the relationship. Isn’t that the excitement of dating someone new? Learning all about them? (And because it’s important to me, my kids will learn about Judaism. No matter who I end up with.)
Someone’s religion doesn’t, and hasn’t ever, factored in to why I’d date them. If he is, great. That eliminates some difficulties but doesn’t automatically mean smooth sailing. If he isn’t, it’ll come up when it comes up and if we love each other, it’ll all be okay. (Just like in every relationship ever.) To this day, Irish Catholic boys tend to be a sweet, little pattern for me and I am more than down with that. But there’s some ingrained prejudice that’s got to start being shed by the younger generation. We are not our grandparents. They might have an excuse that we definitely don’t have.
Let’s lose the subtle judgment and disapproval inherent in asking, first thing, “Is he Jewish?” Let’s start with, “Is he wonderful?” Then, we can go from there.