“She was trying as hard as she could not to be beautiful. But she had a brightness on her, made stronger by the fact that she wanted to hide it; thinking if it was seen, somehow, it would make him choose her, and of course it did.”
I wrote this about the Persian Queen Esther just before Purim, the year my son’s father and I got divorced. When Esther first married the Persian King Ahaseurus, he did not know she was Jewish. By the time he discovered her faith he didn’t care, having fallen in love with a brightness that could only have come from his queen’s willingness to meet life head on.
I am at a Purim celebration on Grand Avenue, thinking of Esther. My son Josh is dancing with other children and then settles to watch a Purim play. My friend Melody sits next to me, having brought her daughter, who is Josh’s age. “I always feel bad on Jewish holidays,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Because I didn’t marry someone Jewish.”
Of course, I think. This is the story of our generation, of those who married outside the Jewish faith. When I was growing up it wasn’t quite forbidden, but close. There were hushed conversations my mother had about this or that one who fell in love with a Catholic—in my youth they were always Catholic—and the heartbreaking dilemma faced by the couple, especially the Jewish half.
Some families sat shiva over intermarried sons and daughters, mourning them as though they were dead. Others gossiped about couples of differing faiths, calling the women “shiksas.” But it would be unfair to say that Jewish misgivings about intermarriage are restricted to older generations. There is still a very real atmosphere of discomfort for people who choose to “marry out,” as the saying goes. I found it in my former spouse’s synagogue, where a congregant said Jews who marry Christians “are finishing what Hitler started” because they are destroying Judaism for future generations.
Okay, she gets no points for the Hitler analogy. But I do see how intermarriage can result in a watering-down of the culture, where a couple’s children might end up knowing little or nothing about Judaism. Because our religion is matrilineal, Jewish women may have it easier in terms of whether their children are considered Jews in rabbinic law. This is not the case for Jewish men, who sometimes ask their brides to convert. I have to say, though, that doesn’t always work out so well, either.
So no matter how you slice it, intermarriage is still a prickly subject. I know writers like Philip Roth have a lot of fun with the ideas I’m raising here, but for people in orthodox and conservative Jewish communities, the stigma remains.
It had been almost two years since I separated from Josh’s father, about eight months since the divorce became final. Now, like my friend, I was seeing someone who wasn’t Jewish, though it had not been my intention to “get involved.” In fact I had tried hard not to—as Esther did, centuries ago. Perhaps she and I had something in common.
Or did we? Esther married the Persian king at the behest of her Uncle Mordecai who hoped she would save her people from the king’s evil vizier Haman. The Purim story ends with Esther’s side winning and a great celebration for the Jews. But we never discover if she was able to introduce any Jewish customs into the king’s family, or if her rituals were forbidden in his court.
In my case, Pete was extremely supportive of everything I did, including Jewish rituals. We had known each other a few years, but I had never thought of him as anything more than a friend. After Josh’s dad and I broke up, Pete had pursued me but I held off, knowing I wasn’t ready for a relationship. As time went by, things seemed to gel in ways I hadn’t expected. One, he not only liked my son Josh, he had a real rapport with him. Two, being with Pete didn’t feel like work; it felt like home. When Josh and I celebrated Shabbat, Pete brought flowers and even tried to sing some of the blessings. I didn’t get the feeling that he would want to convert, but it seemed if I wanted a kosher home and Jewish celebrations, he would be right there with me. Was that enough?
I looked at Melody, who felt like an outsider because she had married out. Would that happen to me? Would I lose my community being with Pete? What would that mean for Josh? Should I continue seeing him or look harder for a Jewish man?
Problem was, I did not want to look for someone else. I knew my son would grow up Jewishly since his father and I were both committed to raising him that way. But if I married an Episcopalian—even a non-observant one—would it be easier for Josh to marry outside the faith too? And would that mean his children would grow up with Christmas trees as well as menorahs?
Did Esther have dilemmas like this too? Not that her story, with its heroism and sacrifices, has anything to do with my choices. But if Esther married a Persian king to make sure the Jews survived, doesn’t Purim show us no one can break your faith if you believe in it strongly enough?
I looked around at the costumed children and turned to Melody. “You know, Esther wasn’t married to a Jewish man, either. But she did all right, don’t you think?” Melody looked at me, eyes widening, and then laughed.
“I’d be glad to celebrate with you any time,” I said, and she took my hand.
“You’ve got a deal.”
Fast forward here, not a lot, but a little bit; in the end my feelings were stronger than tradition. So. Reader…I married him.
Fourteen years later we are still together and my son still identifies himself as a Jew, Christmas, Hanukkah or otherwise. And every year at this time, I think of Esther. The lessons she learned might have been different if she married a Jewish man, but maybe—I don’t know—she shone more brightly because life took her elsewhere. At least, I hope so—for us both.
Photo: Elizabeth Budd Ellmann, 2008
Filed Under: Being Jewish