The A-Z of Intermarriage, By Rabbi Denise Handlarski (New Jewish Press, 2020)
By DAVID ROYTENBERG
This new volume tackles the fraught subject of Jewish intermarriage in a hopeful, good-humoured, occasionally pugnacious and humane fashion. The core idea is that intermarriage is not nearly as much of a threat to Jewish continuity as are unwelcoming Jewish communities who treat those who are different with fear and suspicion.
In response to this characterization, the author is uncompromising in her advocacy of courage, compassion and kindness, both on the part of intermarried couples and of the families and communities that nurture them. She also expresses a deep-seated optimism that conditions are changing for the better, which augurs well, she believes, both for intermarried couples and for the Jewish future.
The book offers advice to already intermarried couples on how to make the most of their marriages, as well as to parents and family members on how to take a loving and supportive approach to the choices made by their loved ones.
It also expounds a robustly optimistic faith in individual freedom and the importance and possibility of finding personal fulfillment in all the activities of life.
Until last month, Denise Handlarski was rabbi at Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. In an article for Kveller in which she announced her departure, she confessed that she “found it impossible to juggle the responsibilities of my job alongside caring for my children during COVID – the strain had become untenable.”
Her former congregants are adherents of secular Humanist Judaism, a movement of those who value their identity as Jews but don’t hold to traditional Jewish religious beliefs. Rabbi Handlarski herself is intermarried and she writes freely about creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children in an intermarried family. Everywhere in the book she makes the argument for seeing intermarriage as an opportunity rather than a problem – for the couple, but also for their families and communities.
The volume is structured as a reference book, organized alphabetically by topic, from A for “Acceptance” to Z for “Zygote.” But it can be comfortably read in order from cover to cover. Rabbi Handlarski’s idea of what constitutes Judaism differs from that of this reviewer and will differ from that of many readers, but her attachment and commitment to Jewish community and Jewish identity radiates from every page.
The key ideas are worked out in longer sections, such as the one on Assimilation, in which she argues that an exclusionary attitude to intermarriage has backfired. Rather than preserving Jewish continuity, she claims, community restrictions on intermarriage have driven away people who might otherwise have remained engaged and raised their children in a Jewish community.
Rabbi Handlarski argues for a glass-half-full reading of statistics on intermarriage, which show that most intermarried couples raise their children with some form of Jewish identity. She sees this as a direct result of many Jewish communities becoming more accepting of intermarriage.
In the section on Marriage, she begins by asserting that all marriages are intermarriages, in that for all people have in common, there are always differences to be negotiated. She sees differences over values as potentially more challenging than those over religious beliefs and traditions. Every marriage must manage and resolve such differences if it is to be successful. She argues that a successful marriage requires “struggle, grit and perseverance,” whether the partners come from the same religious or ethnic background or not.
In the section on Parents, the author makes a passionate case for respecting the choices of your children. After first acknowledging that parenting is difficult, she goes on to cite all the reasons the children that you love deserve your support.
“Your kid is in love, is independent enough to make their own choices and is choosing to include you in their lives. Celebrate!” Rabbi Handlarski advises. “Your kid made a choice you wouldn’t have made and that’s hard for you? It’s their job to decide who they are and what they believe. If they are able to do that, you did a good job of parenting.”
In the section on Tradition, she explains that in her branch of Judaism, tradition gets a vote but not a veto. She remains attached to traditions that bring meaning to her life. Shabbat is an example. She is a strong advocate for bringing joy and celebration to as much of life as possible. Jewish tradition is a way of doing this for her, but working hard for joy and meaning is the core value. She discusses various traditions (thanking God that you are not a woman) that don’t, in her view, bring joy, and these she abandons. Tradition is only meaningful if it is congruent with contemporary values.
If you are intermarried, have a family member or friend who is, or are interested in how intermarriage affects Jewish communities, this book has something to offer to you. The author’s optimism, good humour and belief in each person’s capacity to find fulfillment will charm any reader willing to approach its important subject with an open mind.
David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa. He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.