Marrying Jewish

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.

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14 Comments

Filed under American Jewry

14 responses to “Marrying Jewish

  1. That was great. Thank you for sharing your story. I loved the descriptions. I felt like I was in side your head. And I think it was an important point that Jews come from all racial backgrounds so dating and marrying Jewish isn’t a racial thing, it’s about preserving our religious beliefs and heritage.

  2. I recently wrote a guest blog post for Vicki Boykis on this very topic entitled Jewish Dating and Christmas Brisket. Your post, however, did make me feel better, or at least not alone in my quest. Thanks!

  3. Alex

    Great story,thanks for sharing

  4. You write well and express your ideas logically, with feeling and without sentimentality. I look forward to reading more of your writing.

  5. goffa24

    Hi there, I am an non-jew and I am happy to see that you would have consider this other man if he was open to convert to Judaism. I have met a jew, and after the second date he told me he liked me but it could never work between us on the long run because I was not a jew, which I understood…but I did not understand the fact that he still wanted to have a “relationship” with me, and would not even consider the fact that I might have been open to the discussion to convert, it is sad that someone could hide behind his religion not to say what he really wants, an easy way out…congratulations to you, I wish you eternal happiness.

  6. Gary

    As a non-Jew, I don’t think that you need to be so apologetic about being particular in such an important matter. It obviously mattered to you, and that’s OK.

  7. Dana

    I am a non-Jew and truly enjoyed your essay. I have a 21 year old daughter who has grown into a very devoted Christian young woman, and I forwarded your essay to her. She doesn’t even date because she believes that is not what God wants her to be doing right now. I believe she will be just as particular about the men she dates as you were. I hope she ends up finding someone who suits her as perfectly and makes her as happy as your husband has you.

  8. Jeff B. Houston

    Marrying a jew doesn’t guarantee a happy marriage. I am jewish and my parents are divorced. I married a non-jew and my marriage will last longer than my parents. Marry the person you love no matter how culturally different you are. When I was single, all the jewish women were only looking for the doctor, lawyer, accounting partner for the financial security. Many men can pick this up by the way the woman acts.

  9. Bob Berentz

    I discovered that I wanted someone that I was comfortable with. When a marriage is based on “Acting Out a Part” like being on stage .. you are looking at a disaster. The heart has a brain .. so to speak. Listen to it. I am a German Christian and at age 69 I started studying Hebrew. I really zeroed in on the Ancient Root Word Meanings. At age 71 I discovered my name means Grain and Grape Blossoms in Hebrew. In the Southern part of Parthia was a state called Karmen or Cermanii. It moved out of the desert and into the forests of what is now Germany. The Bible says, “I have a plan for your life and it is a good plan.” I sometimes almost get the words plan and Diaspora .. mixed up. Plan in Hebrew relates to a sailing ship. It means steerage .. a system of ropes and rigging and it is always plural. Stop trying to steer your sail boat. Trust Adoni.

  10. miriam

    Great story, but there is always the other side. I not only married non-Jewish, but a man of another race. It is so funny, but my parents burned the candle on me when I was 18, died never meeting my husband or children. True enough, this is my 3rd marriage, but it has lasted over 26 years, and my parents went to their graves old, miserable, and alone because they couldn’t accept their child of the 60’s.

  11. Ale

    I like your story, but in my opinion there are other set of values different than religion more important in a partner. And I’m totally against discriminating people just based on religion […].

  12. Ashley

    I really enjoyed reading your story, and it actually helped me a lot. I am 20 years old and go to a college with a lot of diversity. It’s not too hard to find a nice Jewish boy if I wanted to. I constantly get in arguements with my parents about dating. They don’t want me to date at all right now, and if I do they want him to be Jewish. I, on the other hand, want to date everyone. I can’t help it. I know that I should limit myself to date only Jews, because like you said, how do I know I won’t fall in love and end up marrying him? Although I’m not entirely concerned with dating for marriage now, I want to marry Jewish. And even though I am young, I really wouldn’t mind getting married at this age.

    Many of my close friends are guys, and there is one in particular that I have grown very close to. He is sweet, genuine, good-looking, and smart. I can easily see myself falling in love with him. And we’ve spoken about it and I know him well enough to say that he is not the stereotypical good-looking womanizer college guy. He’s the kind that would fall in love before he even tries anything physical, which at 22 he still never has (definitely not the norm for a good looking college guy!) This makes me like him even more. But the problem is that he’s not Jewish. He asked me on a date last week, and I said no. I explained this to him and he understood, but we both still have very strong feelings for eachother. He asked me out to dinner again last night, and I went. We were already very close, but we had never spent time alone with eachother. I had a wonderful time with him, just talking and laughing the whole time. I came home to my entire family of five sitting around the dinner table, waiting to lecture me. After about 2 hours of yelling and screaming, they rather forcefully made me not continue with him. Or with any non-Jew for that matter.

    Although I see their point, I did not agree with them. I liked him and wanted to date him. I know I shouldn’t though because we will fall in love. Reading your article gave me the perspective I needed, and hopefully I will be strong enough to date only Jewish from now on.

  13. Michael Krieger

    Great blog! Sounds like all is going well. I married at 34 myself and have a lovely 11-year old daughter named Gabriella. It was nice to have been part of your dating life when we were in our 20’s. And I am glad that I was able to fit into your car without tipping it over 🙂

  14. What a great story. I, too, was encouraged to marry Jewish. It is truely the best thing to do as the common heratige makes for less problems as lives unfold. However, after 36 years of marriage to a Jewish woman who shared my dreams, we divorced. Now, what to do? As we age, do we still need this common bond, or do we have less reason to marry within our faith? I still don’t know the answer, but there is a great opportunity to find “our own” on Internet dating sites like Jdate or Jpeople. I have reflected much on the process in my blog: http://www.whoyoudatingnow.com I am still looking for the answers and this wonderful story helps to put things into perspective. Great story, Norrie!

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