Dear Dawn: How many times do I have to hear a Jewish parent worry about the future of their child’s romance with a non-Jew? At a recent lunch with several Jewish girlfriends, one worried out loud about her son’s non-Jewish girlfriend. There is always this focus on the non-Jewish girlfriend/boyfriend’s perceived level of interest (or lack thereof) in Jewish life. The reality is few people connect to Judaism and the Jewish community (and all that entails) and begin to feel at home without enthusiastic, consistent and sincere encouragement from one’s partner and others. I wanted to ask my friend: Where’s your son in this picture? It would be normal for him to be fairly disconnected at his age; having children pulls most of us back into religious communities. If he’s not that involved now, it’s hard to expect that she would take it on by herself. For me, it was my marriage to a Jewish man that motivated me to convert to Judaism. I wanted our family to be unified in our practice. As I got more involved, I developed friendships and connections that have drawn me deeply into my Jewish identity and practice. Why are parents talking about the boyfriend/girlfriend? The real question is: How does your child relate to their own Jewishness? This conversation really hurt my feelings. Here I sat, a non-Jew when I married my Jewish husband, now deeply committed to Judaism, and I identified with the poor non-Jewish girlfriend who wasn’t “good enough.” — Chava bat Sarah v’Avraham
Dear Chava: I am sorry that your friend was so oblivious to what she was saying and how it would impact you. Gaining your involvement and passionate work for the Jewish community is a huge blessing for the Jewish people. I wish your friend could have noted that and asked, “How did you become so committed? Do you have any suggestions for what I can do to engage both my son and his girlfriend? I don’t want to overstep, but I do want to share my own love of Judaism. I feel like my son somehow missed the boat and I feel guilty.”
You are right that Jewish parents have a laser-like focus on non-Jewish romantic partners. It’s as if they were unable or uninterested in influencing their child while they were raising him, and now desperately hope to secure him a partner that will “make” him interested in being Jewish.
For some there is guilt: I didn’t do enough, I didn’t do the right things, I should have been more involved, I shouldn’t have forced Hebrew school, etc. Unless you are running an observant home, and living a traditional life in which your children’s friends are primarily other traditional Jews, chances are great that your child will be influenced by U.S. culture.
Many Jewish parents are so Americanized they don’t know how to point out Jewish culture. Many find practicing Judaism too much trouble. Others want to fit in. With their ambivalence, it is not surprising that they have not shared any significant reason with their child about why being Jewish is worthwhile.
Until recently, Jewish parents didn’t have to do anything. The dominant culture, be it Christian, Muslim or other, never let Jews forget they were Jewish, and they didn’t let their own children marry Jews.
Now things have changed. If you want your child to embrace Judaism, they have to see a value in that; how much more so, their romantic partners.
I doubt your friend was self-aware as she bemoaned her situation. She was thinking about her own fear and saw you as another Jewish mother who would sympathize.
As a Jew-by-choice, you were hit hard by her comments, but there are born Jews who would have felt offended, too.
In any case, you should speak to her and say what you wrote to me. In order to preserve your valued friendship, she needs the opportunity to understand your hurt feelings and to apologize. As you stated, you sympathize with her and understand her anxiety, and you are a person who can be of help to her.
Speak with her. When you do, ask her if she considered how she intends to support this new person in her son’s life? Share with her your wisdom and experience. For starters, she should invite her son and his girlfriend over so everyone can get to know each other and value each other as individuals.
This Mixed and Matched column was originally published in The J-weekly.