by Norri Leder (Houston, TX)
I got married at 33, just two months shy of 34, and, let me tell you, it was cause for celebration. My sister and I have five first cousins. Between the seven of us, one cousin and I are the only ones currently married. Two others were married, but are now divorced, and both of those unions were interfaith. They married non-Jews. My grandmother would say to people in her thick Georgia drawl, “If you have five grandchildren, you’re lucky if two of them are married.” And I married a nice Jewish boy. I hit a home run.
My husband Jason and I knew each other as young children. Photos of us exist from a family friend’s birthday party at a miniature golf venue. I remember having a crush on him as a kid. His big brown eyes looked like Speed Racer’s. But we were never at the same schools, and our families weren’t in close contact. He reemerged at the same friend’s birthday party – but this time the friend turned 30 instead of 7. Jason and I noticed each other, finagled an introduction, and the rest moved incredibly smoothly. He called when he said he would. Our conversations were long and effortless. He displayed great sincerity, integrity and smarts. Dating around for well over a decade had jaded me, but Jason leaped through every ring of courtship. After six months or so, I realized, “We’re never breaking up.” This was it. I felt peace, and upon our later engagement, elation.
Companionship – to me – always seemed like a huge bonus in life. Truth be told, I was frequently angst filled over the years worrying about whether I would ever find that “special someone.” I now shudder to think of the time wasted fretting about this issue, and can only hope my daughters are spared the anxiety. Ever since I hit late adolescence, I longed for a companion. I wanted a friend, a partner, a romantic “soulmate.” And I always wanted that person to be Jewish. At first, I wanted Jewish because my parents told me it was so important. Their reasons were manifold. Judaism was a beautiful, vital part of our lives, and I would want someone to share that with me. It would profoundly disappoint them, and even hurt them if I married a non-Jew. My grandparents would be crushed. Marriage is so much harder when the husband and wife have different religions; matrimony has enough challenges.
Then there was the genuine guilt of marrying outside the faith. Jewish organizations have commissioned studies that show how intermarriage drains the number of Jews worldwide. The studies include statistics showing overwhelming odds that your children, grandchildren, and certainly great grandchildren will not be Jewish if current intermarriage rates continue. Rabbis, Jewish professionals, and practically all identified Jews know these numbers, and they expend tremendous energy trying to retain Jewish culture – and yes – Jews. This issue resonated with me as an identified Jew, a Jew who actually took part in at least some religious traditions and felt connected to her culture. I didn’t want to diminish a three thousand year old heritage for which my ancestors had endured hardship and persecution.
On a personal note, Judaism was always an integral part of my upbringing. My sister and I attended very integrated public schools and had friends from a variety of backgrounds, but we always had a family Friday night Shabbat dinner, kept kosher, and observed Jewish holidays. We had passionate dinner time discussions, many times involving Israel, Bible stories and the merits and drawbacks of religious observance. We had friends over to share holidays or Shabbat with us. At Passover time, we were all enlisted in a massive effort to clean the house and switch out our dishes so nothing was “contaminated” by bread. My sister and I attended Hebrew school three times a week, studied for a year to prepare for our bat mitzvahs, and attended Jewish summer camp. In our family, Judaism was fun, social, warm and relevant. Its absence in life – and certainly family – would be palpable. So, I invested myself in trying to meet a Jewish man.
One way I tried to ensure I would marry Jewish was by only dating Jewish. Many people I knew hoped to find partners from their same cultural background, be they Jewish, Indian, Catholic or Latino, to name a few. But I was particularly disciplined. I remembered my father saying that if you don’t date a non-Jew, you won’t fall in love with a non-Jew. This comment generated lots of teenage rebellion in me during middle school and high school. But as I got older and experienced heartbreak on my own, I knew I didn’t want to endure it more than necessary. Ever since my college years, when I met a non-Jewish man I was attracted to, I forced myself to let it go. In some cases, I set him up with close non-Jewish friends, in the hopes that two great people might find happiness where I took a pass. And I continued to wait for my Mr. Right.
But as my late twenties were starting to take hold, dating was getting older and older. Oh, the bad dates – how do I recount them all? The set up with the guy so big he could barely fit in my Honda Civic. The car actually tilted once he finally got situated. (I’m too picky, complained my cousin/matchmaker. In time I wouldn’t see his weight at all.) The brother of someone who took me out a couple times and said approximately 20 words combined on both dates. (I’d regret it, said the brother. He was very successful.) The overly slick, combed back guys who drove sports cars and wore clothes that screamed of mid-life crisis before mid-life. And, of course, those I found compelling, but they didn’t feel the same about me. My mother would always say, “You like them more than they like you, or they like you more than you like them. When it’s even, you get married. That’s the way it is. You only need one.” Her words were meant to comfort, but the search was starting to take a real toll.
By around age 30, I started to wonder if it was really possible. Maybe I would never meet anyone at all – forget the Jewish element altogether. My first cousin, a single man, would panic me even more, telling me that odds were terribly low that I would meet anyone I wanted to spend my life with at all. “Meeting someone Jewish is even less likely. Statistically, everything is stacked against you,” he warned. He may have even pulled out the old, “You have a better chance getting killed in a terrorist attack than meeting a man, much less a Jewish man.” It felt overwhelming, and depression would take hold at times. I would call my sister and close friends, chanting what was becoming a mantra: “Do you think I’m ever going to meet someone?” One of those friends was a non-Jewish buddy from law school. We were very close, and there had always been a pull between us, but he was one of those I let go. Suddenly, I began to wonder. What if I was making a terrible mistake? Work was nice, friends were great, but I didn’t want to spend my whole life alone. What if my cousin was right? What if I was passing up my small statistical chance for happiness? It haunted me.
And what if I took action? How would my family react? Would I feel shame? Could I sacrifice personal happiness for heritage? But soon, the questions shifted. Would I be happy with a non-Jewish partner? What would I personally be giving up? How would I pass my traditions and beliefs on to my children? Would I sing the songs and prayers by myself? With whom would I carry on the passionate debates about Israel, religious observance and history? Who would care with me? Would my children, as the statistics predicted, disappear into the American melting pot? I ultimately realized that I wanted a Jewish partner. I needed someone who cared about the meaning. I needed someone who saw it as a beautiful gift – something worth handing down. Parents, guilt, and Jewish continuity all took a backseat to this.
As for my law school friend, after much hand-wringing, I decided to take a chance. I knew I wanted a Jewish partner, so – I thought – perhaps he would consider converting to Judaism. As a general rule, I can’t say I endorse converting to a religion for the sake of romance. But we were close friends, and I thought it might work in our case. Regardless of the outcome, I was terrified of losing the friendship. And, truthfully, I was also very frightened at the thought of rejection. I went over to his apartment. I shakily confessed my feelings, with the caveat that he should not even kiss me unless he could consider building a hut in his backyard once a week each year and hanging fruit from it (in celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot). It was a scary moment, because I knew he had feelings for me, but didn’t know if he would be willing to jump this far. Additionally, I knew that if he reciprocated, my Jewish life would be different and possibly more challenging than I had anticipated for myself. Ultimately, he opted to date someone else he had been seeing. And he didn’t bother to share his choice with me until weeks later. It was very disappointing for me initially, and I was back to ground zero in terms of finding Mr. Right. Still, the process crystallized the importance of culture and religion to me personally. This realization is with me to this day.
I met my husband within a year or so of this event, and everything — miraculously — fell into place. We have a strong, happy marriage full of humor, affection and joy. We also share a lovely Jewish connection with each other. We have beautiful Shabbat dinners with our children and parents each week. We build our sukkah in the back yard each year and invite friends over to share the fun with us. Jason and I attend lectures on Jewish topics, debate Israeli politics and belong to a chavurah (a group of Jewish friends that meet regularly) through our synagogue. Our kids keep kosher and attend a Jewish day school. It wasn’t easy getting here, but I have to say, it’s truly wonderful. And what about those years of anxiety spent finding a partner? What of all those failed attempts, lost opportunities and psychological stretch marks? The impact runs deep. Almost a decade into marriage, I still have this recurring dream. Jason has left me. Maybe he met someone else. Maybe he’s just rejected me. My parents are asking me what I’ll do. Where will I work? I’ll have to move out of the house. And even more pressing, at least in my dream, is how will I meet someone new? My mind races with the realization that I’m alone again. I have to start dating, looking, trying all over. I’ve returned to the same agonizing spot I was in before. Then – I wake up.
The dream makes me appreciate the life I have. Work is good, friends are great, and I’m not alone. For me, it’s an incredible feeling, especially because I wasn’t sure I would land here. I never took it for granted. As I write this, I realize some might think my dating approach was backward and impractical. In this enlightened age of diversity, why limit myself? “Be open to everyone,” they might say. “Give yourself the chance to meet everyone. Religion is only one aspect of life; it isn’t everything.” Others might think my insistence on dating Jewish men to be lacking in spontaneity or somehow squelching the natural way we meet people in life. Some might even consider my approach to be racist. Did I somehow think my background was part of a special pedigree that had to be preserved? As for the racism charge, I can decidedly say I feel no superiority to others. How could I? My family’s story is one of poverty and oppression, of faith and endurance, just like millions of others in America. The Jewish people’s story, while unique and compelling in some ways, is no more special than many other ethnic and religious groups’ tales. As for the natural development of relationships, I obviously chose to let mine progress only with lots of forethought. I consider it perfectly valid, thoughtful and sensitive to think through expectations for a relationship. I think I would be naïve if I didn’t recognize that practically any date could turn surprisingly into a romance, and therefore any romantic relationship could develop into a marriage. As for diversity, some of my most valuable experiences in life have been in highly integrated schools and through my many friendships with people from different cultural backgrounds. In fact, I would have been completely open to dating and marrying a Jew from Ethiopia, Iran or India. My question is how do we slide into the melting pot without forgetting who we are? For me, marrying Jewish – or trying to – was a way to remember who I was, and not melt away. I’m glad I didn’t.
Norri Katzin Leder lives in Houston, Texas. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Houston Law School, she worked in management consulting for over six years, and is now a full time mother of two amazing, wonderful, brilliant daughters. When not packing lunches, she is active in the Houston JCC Jewish Book and Arts Fair and other sundry organizations. She enjoys writing, and hopes to do more of it in the near future.