In 1966, when I was just 13 years old, my parents surprised me by taking me to New York City to see Zero Mostel star as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I was enchanted by Shalom Aleichem’s inspiration, “Tevye the Dairyman,” which was written in Yiddish in 1894. Set in a shtetl (Jewish village) in the Pale of Settlement, the story centers on Tevye and his attempt to preserve his Jewish faith and traditions as outside influences encroach on his family. Tevye learns to cope with daughters who wish to marry for love, each one moving farther away from Jewish customs and religion, until his youngest daughter runs off with a Russian soldier, breaking her father’s heart and the traditions that define him.
Fast forward to 1970, when I was dating and my own parents were troubled when I brought home fellows who didn’t fit the “Jewish doctor/lawyer” paradigm. My mother’s cautionary words: “Every date is a prospective mate” haunted me throughout college and law school but never deterred me from dating a wide range of guys — few of whom were Jewish, let alone doctors or lawyers!
Thankfully, at the age of 28, a girlfriend fixed me up with Ray, a “nice Jewish doctor” from Los Angeles. I knew before the chips and salsa arrived that this man with the soulful eyes and beautiful smile would be my husband. And in him, I found my soulmate and best friend.
So where does that leave Tevye today? Would we find him sitting shiva (mourning) for his daughters or joining the more than 70 percent of Jewish families who are coping with and adjusting to the exponential increase in intermarriage?
The statistics are stunning: According to the 2012 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S Jews (a telephonic survey of 3,475 Jews conducted nationwide), the overall intermarriage rate among all Jews is 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent and according to a recent article by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, experts in Jewish contemporary life and trends, 20 percent of Reform Jews marry other Jews and only 8 percent of the grandchildren of intermarriages are being raised in the Jewish religion.
Most of us don’t get a vote, let alone a veto, on the decisions and choices our children make — in life or in love. And while we may feel frustrated or disappointed when they make decisions that don’t comport with our world views or personal hopes, we do have a choice as to how we react and respond to their autonomy and self determination.
With between 70 to 80 percent of today’s Jews marrying non-Jews, staying open and welcoming to the non-Jewish partners our children choose is a necessity if we hope to remain relevant and a part of their lives. As my kids would say: “That train has already left the station.” It’s up to us if we want to be on it or not.
It seems clear that we can no longer play “hardball” with our children, threatening or demanding that they “marry Jewish.” The better alternative is to find a way to leave the door and our hearts open so that staying connected to family and Judaism, in whatever form that takes, remains a viable option.
As parents, we can lead the way by remaining available to and interested in our children’s choices thereby setting an example for them to remain open to us as well. We can become better role models, both as Jews and as parents. If our children experience our intentional commitment to communicate about their choices and challenges, if they witness our own renewed interest in Jewish learning and culture, we are more likely going to encourage, rather than damage, the relationship we seek to preserve with them.
Grandparents can play a very significant role in a family’s dynamics. As the older generation, they can more easily transmit family traditions and values, particularly because their influence is more often accepted than ours is as parents. From our kid’s perspective, it may matter little that lighting Shabbat candles or making a seder is preserved out of love for “Bubbie” rather than a dubious relationship to Jewish tradition.
While we may not always agree with or understand our children’s choices, we can attempt to ensure a continuing, respectful give and take of ideas and values as they navigate the ups and downs of marriage and family life. For in the end, an open heart can permit us to understand who they are and how they want to live and love.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at www.amyhirshberglederman.com.