As a teen, living under my parents’ roof, it was made clear that I only could date Jewish boys. They were serious, meant what they said, and I didn’t dare test them. But, years later, when my sister met and started dating a Catholic boy in college [uh, at Brandeis no less!], my parents warned that they’d disown her if she didn’t end it. As a matter of fact, if she dared to marry him, they said she would be dead to them and they’d even sit shiva for her. [I don’t know if they actually would have followed through with the threats, but that’s the way they played it until she finally broke up with him.]
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Today I spoke with a twenty-three-year-old man who, together with his twenty-one-year-old sister, will be going on a Birthright trip to Israel. He told me that they were hoping to find and meet their grandfather – for the first time ever. It seems that the siblings’ father had been disowned because he married a woman who wasn’t Jewish. Deemed “a disappointment for a son,” father and son have been estranged for over twenty years. But now, maybe two grandchildren – reaching out to a grandfather-in-name-only and eager to learn of their Jewish heritage – will turn an old man’s heart and help heal wounds.
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The concept of “intermarriage” or “mixed marriage” was always assumed to involve a marriage between a Jewish person and someone from a different faith. [Now, the term “interfaith marriage” is more commonly used.] Across the generations, however, the topic has become more complex.
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Recently, I met a Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset named Shlomo Molla. Shlomo was born in a small Jewish village in the Province of Gondar in Ethiopia. As a teenager, he and some friends decided to head to the Promised Land. They traveled on foot across their country into the Sudan. After much time and great challenges, they were rescued by Israeli Forces and taken to Israel.
Shlomo’s story was fascinating. What struck me the most, however, was his reaction upon meeting his Israeli savior…Shlomo didn’t believe the Israeli was Jewish! Why? Because Shlomo, a black Ethiopian man who knew he was Jewish and whose family practiced “Torah Judaism,” never even knew that white Jews existed.
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People in general, even Jews themselves, do not realize that Jews come in multicultural AND multiracial flavors. It certainly is known that different religious denominations exist (i.e. Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.). Most people are also familiar with family backgrounds or traditions that evolved from Ashkenazic (those who were originally from Germany and eastern European countries) or Sephardic descent (those of Spanish or Portuguese countries). However, there’s more.
If you travel to Israel, you may have the chance to meet people who are referred to as Maghrebim (those from North Africa) or Mizrachim (those from other Middle Eastern countries.) They are from Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, and other places. Those Jews are black.
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Today, more and more American Jewish parents – rightly or wrongly – are accepting or tolerant of interfaith marriages in their families. Very few are willing to break ties with their children over who they fall in love with. Plus, there are ample opportunities and resources for Jewish grandparents to help teach their grandchildren — and their non-Jewish in-law — about the rich history and practices of Judaism.
On the flip side, I would like to believe that the desire for children to “marry Jewish” means that parents will embrace any religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial differences that in-laws may bring to the union. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is yet a reality in the majority of cases.
I, myself, have enjoyed learning about and developing an understanding of forms and practices of Judaism that I previously knew nothing of. There are SO many fascinating historic narratives and cultural practices (and foods!) that make up the fabric of the Children of Israel.
While many factors may threaten the existence of the Jewish people, there also are many ways we can grow, thrive, and flourish as well. Dare to become enlightened.