Mixed Marriage

Dear Elliott:

       Again, your tidy distinction between ethnic and religious intermarriage seems to ignore the hybrid reality of Jewish identity in America. Far be it from me, of course, to speak for “serious Jews”–I should only like to emphasize that many Jews of my generation (and yours) do not share your fundamentalist view of things.
       I do think, however, that you have brought us to the nub of the intermarriage issue: children.
       Much of what you say is true. Children are not cut from whole cloth: They bear the threads of many fabrics. They do not enter the world wholly autonomous: They are born into many systems of commitment.
       But at the same time, they are not simply inert objects, mere vessels of prior obligation.
       Let me borrow your “guided missile” analogy. When the time comes, I will want to give my kids powerful booster rockets, a sense of trajectory, a knowledge of the firmament, a taste of gravity. I will not, however, chart their course for them. I will not select their targets.
       In other words, I won’t require them to be very Chinese–or not at all Chinese. I will give them the choice. Before that, however, I will give them the ability and the self-awareness to know why they choose. They will learn how their family came to be, from what corners of the world their ancestors sprang, what tongues and rituals once flourished under their names. They will be exposed to their inheritance–even, I hope, to that part of their inheritance that I have let fall into disuse. And they will decide.
       These may sound like liberal views, but in a sense they are as conservative as can be: I only want to raise my offspring as I myself was raised. It just so happens that I was raised with great latitude–to preserve, discard, combine, and create. My parents knew the danger of such a course. The danger was that I would never look back. But I do. I do, constantly. I learned a lesson they may not even have meant to teach: that freedom, well nurtured, can grow to fidelity. And so I, too, will pass something on: language, food, customs, and most importantly, trust.
       I admit, Elliott, that the voice in which I write about intermarriage now is very much that of the child: the child of immigrants, the child who believes in self-invention, the child preoccupied with the present and the future. And I suspect that this voice of mine will change when I become a father. I suspect that I will see more wisdom in your words, that I will feel the necessity, the urgency, of continuity with an ancient past.
       For now, though, I can only tell you what I feel. You call my views “very modern and very American.” I plead guilty to both charges.