Thursday, January 10, 2008

A link in the chain

Several readers have asked me to tell a bit about my family history, and since there are many interesting stories to tell and many places which would be good to start them, today I'll mention something that was, and is – unfortunately – very common in our family, and in many other Jewish families around the globe. I refer, of course, to intermarriage and assimilation.

My maternal grandmother, Magda (Miryam) Rosman, was born into a Jewish family in a small town in Transylvania, the second child out of seven siblings. She grew up in a community where all work ceased on the Sabbath day, blessings and prayers were said all the time, and if a Jewish man (in some very far-fetched situation) declared his wish to marry a non-Jewish woman, the entire village would run out of their homes tearing at their hair and crying "gevalt!"

Yet with all that, my grandmother ended up marrying a man who wasn't a Jew. Please understand that I'm not passing judgment on my grandmother or anyone else here. But the fact remains that intermarriage is one of the strictest, most serious prohibitions in Judaism – and for a good reason. Judaism isn't theory – it's a practice, alchemy of everyday life, of turning the mundane into holy. This cannot happen without a Jewish marriage and family, which was one of the strongest forces that glued the Jewish people together throughout the centuries. And just in case you might think we're talking about some crazy pure-blood doctrine here, I'll clarify that there was, and always will be, room for converts whose heart is sincere. And it's not like we think there's something WRONG with not being Jewish - we simply believe that if God made someone a Jew, it means this someone has an obligation to marry another Jew.

My father wasn't Jewish either. My aunt and uncle married non-Jews as well. So did many of Mom's cousins who didn't make aliyah right after World War 2. The natural result? Their children, for the most part, aren't aware of the fact that they are Jewish. I didn't know I'm Jewish until a while after we came to Israel, I just didn't make the connection. No one ever told me! One more generation of life like that, and the assimilation would have been complete. But thankfully, I was given the privilege to know my roots better and connect to them. I'm not sure why, of all the extended family, I'm the only one who came to see the incredible importance of passing the torch that was ignited so many generations ago at Mt. Sinai.

Even so, a moment came when I had to wonder; what would be better – intermarriage or dying alone, as a single? Surely intermarriage would be better; I tried to reason with myself for a while. I'm a woman, which means that even if I married a non-Jew my children would still be Jewish. Wouldn't that be better than if I had no children at all?

But then I realized that numbers isn't our problem. We have always been a small people. The problem in this generation isn't that we have too few Jews, the problem is that we aren't sincere enough and committed enough in our faith. Marrying a non-Jew would water this commitment down even more. And so the inevitable conclusion I came to was that it's better to die alone than to marry a non-Jew.

Not that I'm worried about the extinction of Jews as a whole – not even one bit. The One Who preserved us through thousands of years of exile will be The One Who continues to guard us and keep us safe. No; it is only the fate of individual Jews that detach themselves from their people that I see as a tragedy. The Jewish people will go on, like they have always gone on even after very numerous losses. But each and every Jew decides for himself or herself whether they choose to become another link in the chain.

I know this might sound pretty strong and maybe even a bit gloomy, but this is my share of thoughts on family history and Jewish history for today.

45 comments:

Jeannine said...

Thank you so much, Anna, for sharing part of your family history with us! It was very interesting and I think I understand you and your decisions well.

It is not easy today for a young Christian woman either to find a believing husband, at least not in Europe. I too had to decide if I wanted to marry someone who was a believer or a non-believer. I mean I could still practice my faith for myself and hopefully our children... But the problem of assimilation (in the wrong direction) is there and very strong. I was close to making wrong decisions at least twice, but God brought me out of those relationships and now I am happily married :).

singlemomforgod said...

I think it is a beautiful story. I am glad that you shared. It sounds silly or may even sound ignorant to some people who may read my comment, but I sort of know how you feel. Not that I am comparing being African American to being Jewish but the principal behind your story is somewhat in a distant relation to my family's past views on interracial marriges.My ancestry has been traced between an African tribe, and Indian tribe and I can not relate to either side, I am too American for both but I will shut up now because I don't want to seem as if I am trying to take anything away from your story or compare myself to it, but I do understand how you feel. Thanks again for sharing.

Lutheran Woman said...

Marriage is hard enough when you both have the same faith. It is MUCH harder when your faith is on opposite ends. Our growth, spiritual and emotional is all linked within what we believe. When we marry someone who is on an different road then we are we tend to grow apart.

Maggie said...

Anna,
I think your story is very familiar to perhaps many of us who are not even Jewish. There are many Christian denominations that are loosing numbers; yes we still have those who we refer to as 'craddle Anglicans' [I'm Anglican so I am using this as an example, I'm sure others can relate to this as well] those who go through the motions of Baptism, Confirmation, desire to be married in the Church. But do they actually attend Church on a weekly Basis? Do they follow the Church seasons and keep God first? Sadly no, this current generation too is pulling away from the Church. But like you Anna, we persevere, carry on.
I think Judiaism and Christianity faces more of the same challenges than differences.
Maggie

Haus Frau said...

I didn't read *any* gloom into your post. I agree with you.

The Bible speaks of the danger in marrying outside one's faith - of being unequally yoked. The wise woman (and man of course) will marry a person of the same faith.

A step further .. there is orthodox, conservative and liberal Judaism, correct. I believe then it would be important to marry someone equally yoked w/in the preferred degree of devotion. Am I right in assuming this to be true?

The same goes for Christianity and people marrying outside their faith, and expression of that faith.

Blessings...

Erin said...

What a beautiful story! Thank you very much. I am a little overemotional today so it isn't all your story, but I cried a wee bit.

Thank you.

Calamity Jean said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I love that we are getting to know you a little more these days :)

Andrea said...

Anna,

thank you for that lovely post! I didn't find it gloomy at all; simply sobering, when one considers that in various ways, the pattern of compromise is echoed throughout our generation. It may not always be in faith, but in standards, morals, even unthinking acts of charity and kindness as a simple way of life-- we seem to compromise on so many of the things that should matter the most!

I'm also glad you mentioned converts; it puts the whole thing in a much clearer light, really, that you aren't looking at Jewish ancestry but rather the faith itself and one's degree of observance. Oddly enough, it works much the same in Christian marriages too; there's the same concern that marrying somebody who doesn't concur on core doctrine will have a detrimental effect on the observances/practices of one or both spouses.

Thanks so much for sharing!

USAincognito said...

Interesting...thank you for sharing! :)
Say, I have a question for you:
What is the difference between an Orthodox Jew and a Messianic Jew?

Liedeke said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks for the lovely peek into your thoughts. This is why I love reading your blog, even though we would probably disagree on many fundamental issues. It's not just my curiosity, it's the knowledge that you make me aware of ideas and patterns that are at the roots of our humanity.

Also, are you severely moderating or what? The comments seem particularly wise today (not necessarily including yours truly (-;).

Anyway, you follow through on your beliefs. That may be somewhat 'fatalistic', but it's definitely not gloomy. Personally, I find it admirable and comforting - and even charming. Your willingness to stand for your convictions is a great example for me. So thanks.

~Liedeke

Anna S said...

USA,

I'm not sure what you mean by "Messianic". All Jews are waiting for the Messiah, you know. :-)

Maybe you refer to Hebrew Christians?..

Kathleen said...

USA,
Orthodox Jews do not believe in Jesus was the Messiah, but "Messianic Jews" do. Whether Messianics are "Jews" is hotly argued, and we don't need to go into it here! They're also known as Hebrew Christians, though the term isn't used much anymore. (Too bad!)

Anna,
I'm so glad you shared this. I love hearing people's stories, and you write so beautifully.

USAincognito said...

I was listenign to some people here in America talk about there being 2 types of Jews. I heard them talk about the two groups "orthodox" and "messianic" so I wasn't sure what the difference was between the two groups. Could be whomever I was listening to talk didn't know what they were talking about either. ;)

Terry said...

I think your point about intermarriage is key here. This is a Christian principle as well. We are commanded not to marry outside our faith. As I've said before, Christianity and Judaism are inextricably linked. Our New Testament is filled with Old Testament references. What I have found however, is that the freedom from sin offered to us in Christianity has been interpreted by many believers as a freedom from adhering to the doctrinal principles that are supposed to guide our daily lives and, as you noted, a watered down faith can't help but be weakened as we pass it down from generation to generation. So in effect, we are seeing the same results in many Christian families as you describe in the Jewish families there in Israel, and around the world, for that matter. But I agree with you that God's covenant with Abraham was indeed an everlasting covenant so his posterity can never be watered down to inexistence. It's just not possible.

Hil The Thrill said...

Hi Anna! I mentioned you in my Jan. 8 post. : )

Elizabeth said...

usaincognito: As Anna said, all Jews are waiting for Messiah. Messianic Jews are (usually - the term is over-used, I think) Jews who take pride in their Jewish history and heritage and IDENTIFY and LIVE more strongly as Jews than as Christians, BUT believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah - thus, that Messiah has already come. Messianic Jews are waiting for Messiah to come AGAIN - at The Second Coming.

Kathleen: Hebrew Christians are Jews who identify as Christians, since they too believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Usually, they don't identify OR live as Jews - hence, the term: Hebrew Christians.

Anna ... this post is lovely (not at all 'strong' or 'gloomy'! I enjoy reading about your family history ... it's fascinating! "... each and every Jew decides for himself or herself whether they choose to become another link in the chain." This phrase is beautiful!

I love the way you have with words!

Mrs. Brigham said...

This post has been interesting to read, Anna. Family histories are a type of history most fascinating to me. The stories are so rich, and we can learn so much, oftentimes just by looking or asking around our own extended families.

deb said...

"Judaism isn't theory – it's a practice, alchemy of everyday life, of turning the mundane into holy. "

The above statement should be true of all religions. People should know that we have faith without even having to ask. This is sadly not true in today's world.

My husband's mother was Jewish but she converted to Christianity to marry his dad.

After we married my hubby became curious about his heritage. His family had escaped from Austria when Hitler invaded.

Of the descendents of his grandparents, only about three are practicing Jews. The rest, including my hubby are either Christian or agnostic.

I think that you told a very beautiful story and I can't imagine anyone being offended.

Krystyna said...

I didn't find this at all gloomy either - after all, you seem to be on the best road to achieving your goals, though the perspectives may have been bleak at one point.

I know there are people here in a similar unenviable position. I once attended a talk by a girl from the Jewish Students Union, who mentioned that a lot of the members were considering emigration ("making aliyah", I suppose?), specifically because the probability of finding an appropriate spouse here is very small. Most of them hadn't known they were Jews for a long time either - their families had assimilated, at least for the duration of Communism.

And actually I'd like to add my voice to all those who have mentioned the difficulty/inadvisability of intermarriage. Atheists have this problem too - most people in my country are only "cradle Catholics", but I believe marrying one would have meant too many compromises on my part. Luckily, the person I found shares my worldview to a large enough degree that it won't be a problem eg when raising children.

Karen said...

I'm glad your religion and heritage is so important to you!

USAincognito said...

Kathleen...
Thanks for the clarification! :)
USA

Rebekah S. said...

Wow, thank you for this! There's so much I'd like to comment on. :)

First of all, it's so important to know and chronicle your family history like this. We're commanded to tell the future generations the goodness of God and to tell them what God has done to the blessing of us and our ancestors. To have a multi-generational vision and worldview is such an important thing, that is all too often lost, especially these days. This is why I feel so blessed to have my 2 great-grandmothers still living as well as my great-gradfather. This way, I can ask them all about our family history, and what has happened in our family's history along these various generations. That's also why I keep a diary, and plan to until the day I die-so that I can read them to my future children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren(Lord willing) all about how my life was, and so that I can witness to them the goodness of God.

I can see why the Jews view intermarriage as such a horible thing. Because when you're intermarried and thus have differing religious views to your spouse, then it can be just torture attempting to raise your children in the way you know is right, Biblically! That's why we Christians,as well, are commanded to not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.

That's right-God has promised to always preserve Israel. How good He is!

I would love to read future posts on your family history, Anna!

Blessings,
Rebekah

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Anna. Your words are strong, yes, but hardly gloomy! I am a believer in Jesus as Messiah, & we are called as well not to be unequally yoked. Believing as I do, I could not have married someone who didn't share my faith.

You have reclaimed your rightful heritage, & each day you seek to serve God, He will draw you closer & closer to Him.

blessings!
Brenda

magda said...

thank you for sharing this! i am so happy for you that you had the opportunity to discover and embrace your Judaism. and i love your grandmother's name :)

Kelly said...

Beautiful story Anna and I didn't think it was a gloomy story either.

singlemomforgod said...

Anna- on a different note, you liked Terry's meme so much that I tagged you over in mine. Hope you find time to join as I know you are a busy gal! I am sure thought that this will provide a little fun for you.

Michelle said...

Thank you for sharing your story Anna!!!!!

I think the one of the things that is true whether one is Jewish or Christian, being unequally yoked isn't a good idea.

Andrea said...

USA,

I don't know how those terms are defined in other parts of the world, but here (Eastern Canada) when we refer to a Messianic Jew we mean a Jew who keeps to all traditional observances of Judaic law (very often they are Conservative or even Orthodox in practice) but also believes that Jesus was the Messiah. Some Jews who are not Messianic feel quite comfortable attending certain (not all) Messianic synagogues because in many of them, the practices are identical; I am actually not really sure if there is any difference at all in actual practice in some synagogues and homes, but obviously this one difference (belief in Jesus/Yeshua as the Messiah) is massively divisive!

Where I live, Messianic Jews are quite different in practice from Christians who have Jewish ancestry, since usually they (what we'd call Jewish/Hebrew Christians) attend Christian church services and may not even be observant at all, simply Jewish by ancestry. However, the terms Jewish Christian and Messianic Jew are often used interchangeably in other parts of the world (which isn't borne out in practice where I live) so I can see why you'd get confused!

And yes, as Kathleen mentioned, there is serious debate amongst Jewish communities as to whether or not Messianic Jews are really Jews, although they themselves identify proudly as such (none of my Jewish friends, who have kindly explained much of this to me whenever I get confused, are Messianic, and none of them really seem to see Messianic Jews as truly Jewish; that said, though, one of my friends, a Reform Jew whose father is quite Conservative in belief and whose grandparents are even more so, also admitted that many Orthodox Jews wouldn't consider her a "real Jew" either, so that muddied the waters further for me! Hope I haven't done the same for you!)

laariii said...

I can empathize with you here.
I am Roman Catholic - it is both my faith & my heritage but most of my family have abandoned any sort of religion or have become neo-pagans.
Because of the state of society it is hard to meet practicing Catholics.
The only men who have asked me out have been non-religious.
I have had to decide that it is better to be alone than marry someone who does not share my faith.

Stephanie said...

usaincognito:
Maybe I can help, as I've heard of these terms quite a bit. At least within the evangelical circle, Orthodox Jews believe the Messiah has not come yet, and Messianic Jews are Jews that believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, that He has come. Hope that helps. Anna, I was confused when you said that "all Jews are still waiting for the Messiah". Can you clarify?
Thanks! God bless!

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you could direct me to an article or something explaining why you don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Thanks so much for all you have shared.

Jimena said...

Hi Anna, thanks for sharing again. It wasn't gloomy or so... I'm glad you are able to just say what you think and stand for it. Your post made a very good topic of conversation for us over here last night as my husband is a Jew and I'm not, although my husband thinks that he would probably not be considered a Jew by many Jews. You are so right about who is preserving you, and He always will. To me just the fact that my husband is alive is a miracle knowing what his family went through during WW2...Years before I married him, not knowing I would marry a Jew, I did Political Philosophy at the Uni. and my last presentation was on the Jews... the Beginning of the Jewish people and so on through history and how it is really impossible to not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...when we study the Jewish people. I could go on and on... I'm jut happy to see a Jew that knows where she is coming from, as I know many who don't really know or care to know. Blessings

Anna S said...

Just a little note again on the "who is a real Jew" question, before we close this discussion:

Being Jewish is a birthright. A Jew is someone whose mother was Jewish. Or someone who did a proper conversion.

Once you're a Jew, there's no "converting" or "becoming a non-Jew". A Jew who becomes a practising pagan, or calls himself a Muslim or Christian or anything else is still A JEW. That's the Law and there's no way around it.

Anna S said...

... I said this because some people made comments about who would be "considered" Jewish. Is a Jew who 'converted' to another religion still a Jew? Yes, yes, YES! Always in our prayers, and always with the possibility to embark on the path of teshuva!

Rebekah S. said...

Anna, you said: "A Jew is someone whose mother was Jewish." I've never heard this before-perhaps I'm just ignorant. :) I had always heard of things being passed down through the father (such as sin!). So, I didn't know that Jews are Jews through their mother and not their father. That was surprising to me, as I've only read in the Bible where it speaks of things being passed down through the father.

pendragon said...

Thank you for this post. As the product of intermarriage myself, I respect the Jewish prohibition against intermarriage. There is no doubt that the commitment to a Jewish life, or the possibility of such a commitment, is lost in intermarriage -- but a lingering sense of Jewish identity may remain.

Like you, a quarter of my ancestry is Jewish (although on my father's side). My father's mother was born into a secular Jewish family in the U.S. (I read somewhere recently that the vast majority of New York Jews circa 1900 were not religious and that a religious and cultural revival among their descendents only came later mid-century). Anyway, my Jewish secular grandmother married a non-Jew, and my father married a non-Jew, and I have a married a non-Jew. Neither my father nor I have ever lived as Jews culturally or religiously, nor would we ever be identified by others as Jews since we do not have a Jewish name. (My father, however, is Jewish by Jewish law as he was born to a Jewish mother, whereas I am not.)

Despite all this, both my father and I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. That is, we have a strong sense that a lot of our values and beliefs and sensibilities have come to us through Jewish culture and Jewish religion. Maybe we are wrong, but we both share that sense of identity and pride. My father and I are probably both more proud of that heritage than my grandmother was. I don't know if that feeling has any meaning. All I know is that that feeling is there, and that it did not diminish in my generation even though I have less Jewish ancestry than my father. Despite that, however, I would expect that sense of Jewish heritage to disappear entirely in the next generation. Having one Jewish great grandparent seems far too attenuated a connection to maintain that sense of Jewishness.

Bravo to you for reconnecting to your religion and culture and homeland. I may disagree with a lot of your ideas (especially about women's role), but I respect what you are doing.

Pendragon said...

Here is a question I have been wondering about for a long time that perhaps you can answer: I learned recently that having one Jewish grandparent qualified me for Israeli citizenship. But how does one prove to the Israeli government that one has a Jewish grandparent?

Jenny said...

I can relate to the decision to intermarry or be lonely. I'm racially mixed myself - black mother and white father - so people don't generally think I'd hesitate to do intermarry myself. I've also never had any problems befriending other kinds of people. But I just don't feel comfortable with the idea of not having someone with a similar cultural understanding and background. I'm not saying that I'd never intermarry, but do some extent I'd rather be lonely rather than be with someone who can't or won't understand my culture.

Anna S said...

Rebekah,

That's right - by Law, being Jewish is passed through the maternal line. That's why I - with my Jewish maternal grandmother - am Jewish, while someone whose father is Jewish isn't Jewish.

Pendragon,

You're absolutely right - both you and your father can get an Israeli citizenship. Whether it's advisable for a non-Jew, that's a whole different story, but technically, yes you can.

You do this by contacting Israeli officials and presenting documents which trace your heritage, such as your grandfather's, your father's, and your own birth certificates. They might also ask for proof such as family pictures.

By the way, I don't have a Jewish name either.

Anna S said...

PS: I know many people with Jewish fathers do feel a certain connection to the Jewish heritage, and a large number of them become converts eventually. I have written something about it which I don't feel entirely comfortable to publish here, but if you want to read it, drop me a line by email!

Coffee Catholic said...

What you say makes sense! It's very difficult to marry a man (or for a man to marry a woman) of a different faith - or no faith at all. I love my husband with all of my heart but often we are not on "the same sheet of music" when it comes to the simple every day details of morals, ethics and world view. Even with our strong love for one another these things grate like sandpaper on flesh! It's not about one of us being better then the other - it's about large differences existing between us and I would caution anyone to be *very* careful before intermarrying in any context: you won't be able to ignore the differences!

Rebekah S. said...

Thanks for that info, Anna! I'd never known that.

Gila said...

I am going to chime in with many others--I don't find this gloomy at all. There are quite a few stories of chains that were seemingly broken until one generation somehow found a way back. I always find that inspirational.

Shavua tov.

Gila

Pendragon said...

Anna,

Thank you for your response! I don't actually intend to become an Israeli citizen but I respect Israel a great deal, so it is nice to know that it is a theoretical possibility. I am on the move at the moment, but I will send you an email.

Heather said...

Very interesting. I had always assumed that Orthodox Jews consider Jews who practice Christianity to no longer be Jews. My dad's family came over from Germany before WW II, and always insisted that they were not Jews because they went to a Lutheran church. I don't know if they said that because of anti-Semitism in the U.S. or because of their own experiences in Germany. They are no longer around to ask, so I guess I'll never know.