Mixed Marriage

Dear Elliott:

       Some of my best friends are Jewish. Really. And their views on intermarriage, like mine, would probably distress you. Being Jewish, for many of them, is less a religious matter than a cultural one–and less substantive than symbolic. Being Jewish for them means having intermittent access to a heritage that has dissipated from disuse. In other words, being Jewish is for them not unlike what being Chinese is for me.
       You write that “only a powerful Jewish identity built on the faith and practice of Judaism can enable young American Jews to resist the temptation of intermarriage.” But do young Jews today truly seek to be “enabled” to “resist”? And why must intermarriage, like sin, be regarded as “temptation”?
       I know that many in the Jewish community see intermarriage as a crisis. You argue that those who don’t see it that way are simply fooling themselves. But I don’t get a clear sense from your entry why the continuity of Jewish-American identity, in the form it takes today, is so imperative.
       I don’t mean to be flippant: Certainly I appreciate the great richness of this heritage. I mean only to suggest that these days, especially to the minds of a younger generation, the burden falls on ethnocultural purists to establish why impurity is so bad. And merely saying that it’s bad doesn’t do the trick.
       The case of Jewish intermarriage, albeit unique in many ways, resonates for many others as well. Among us so-called “New Jews”–Asian-Americans–outmarriage rates are also high, approaching one-third. For Japanese-Americans, the figure is close to 50 percent; for Chinese-Americans, nearly 30 percent. (For more on Asian-Americans as the “new Jews,” see Nicholas Lemann’s ” Jews in Second Place” in the first issue of Slate.)
       When I got married last year, I added to those percentages. My Chinese family didn’t give me a hard time about it, and neither did my wife’s Scotch-Irish-Jewish family. Quite the contrary, in fact. To tell you the truth, everyone was so wholly tolerant that I worried for a moment–not about what might be lost through such a marriage, but about what had already been lost to make such a marriage so easy.
       My connection to Chineseness has never been very strong. I suspect, however, that when it comes time for us to have children, I will want to fortify the bond. I will feel the need to pass something down. The reproductive instinct, after all, is not merely biological. I will want to ensure that our kids are at least equipped to take advantage of the cultural legacies of their ancestors.
       At the same time, I can’t imagine requiring them to adopt any single way. That wouldn’t be fair to them–especially since my own parents, immigrants both, raised me with the freedom to do what I wished.
       Such freedom, as many have observed, is the double-edged sword of American life. It makes possible more invention and self-invention than other societies could ever accommodate. It gives us a gloriously recombinant culture. But it is also more tragic and more freighted with loss than many of us–myself included–like to acknowledge.
       I don’t pretend, then, that assimilation is cost-free. I do believe, however, that it is inevitable. And I insist that it can be an act of creation as well as of destruction.
       “The Jewish view,” you write, “has always been that every Jew has an obligation to instruct his or her children in Judaism, not in the virtues of free thinking.” I wonder whether some Jews might take issue with that characterization, but the point is clear. Talk of “ethnic options” and “fairness for the children” is irrelevant to you. In the marketplace of identities, you prefer protectionism. I understand that view; inasmuch as it relates to questions of faith, I can even respect it. Nevertheless, I doubt its viability.
       When people of different races and religions marry each other today, they generally do so not to defy tradition–that is, not as a conscious rejection of old pieties–but for the same reason they go to school together, live together, travel together, work together: because they can. You seem to acknowledge as much. Do you really think this trend can be reversed with stern restatements of tradition–that is, without some invocation of “free thinking”? Would it perhaps make sense to appeal to “lapsed” Jews, whoever they might marry, on the basis of what Jewishness canbecome, rather than what it must be?
       In America, mustn’t any ethnic identity adapt to survive?

Eric Liu