Book Review: The A-Z of Intermarriage, By Rabbi Denise Handlarski

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.

The A-Z of Intermarriage

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.”

Rabbi Denise Handlarski
Rabbi Denise Handlarski

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
David Roytenberg

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.

You Can Respond to Hate with Hate or Convert it to a Teaching Moment. We Chose the Latter.

Green Party Leadership Candidate Annamie Paul, and her sons, speak on the racism and antisemitism they face

July 27, 2020 – By ANNAMIE PAUL

One of the most significant moments of my life was the day I converted to Judaism. I spent my childhood growing up with Jewish friends, and my mother had always encouraged her children to find their own spiritual path. When my partner, who is Jewish, and I met in law school and decided to get married, I knew that I wanted to live a Jewish life and to raise a Jewish family. I converted over 20 years ago while studying for my Masters at Princeton University. The late Rabbi Jim Diamond – may his memory be a blessing – director of the campus Hillel and a fellow Canadian, supervised my conversion.

As a Black woman, I realized that converting would expose me to further discrimination. The history of my partner’s family – survivors of the Shoah – is a daily reminder of this fact. Nevertheless, the universal humanistic values of Judaism spoke to me and I was ready to take this step.

It has been a joy raising two Jewish sons and watching them celebrate their bar mitzvahs. My husband and I have told them of the solidarity between Black and Jewish communities during the civil rights movement and the allyship based on a common experience of persecution. It is never easy to sit your children down to explain why they will be targets of hate simply for being who they are. Nevertheless, it was our duty prepare them and to never let it weaken their pride.

Black and Jewish peoples need to decide early: Will racism and antisemitism embitter us, or will we work for positive change? I have encouraged my sons to opt for positive change and to model that to them in daily life. We are willing to educate any person who is open, even slightly, to understanding. However, where the heart and mind are closed, I want my kids to refuse to stay silent and to actively resist.

Last week, these principles were put to the test. As a candidate for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada, I was participating in a virtual regional debate. Not long into introductions, the word “N*IGGER” popped up, as did the phrase “f*cking jew.” I cannot know for certain whether these were intended for me – another candidate was named in the Jewish comment – but as I am the only Jew and the only Black candidate in the race, I naturally felt targeted. In any case, it was an unexpected shock. The perpetrators were removed, a reminder of the Green Party Code of Conduct was given, and the debate proceeded.

While this was the first occurrence in an online event, I have been subjected to months of antisemitic attacks. The moment it became known that I was Jewish, I was bombarded with questions about my positions on Israel, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, and the proposed annexation of West Bank territories. Despite having posted public statements on these matters, questions persist. My loyalty to Canada has also been called into question, and I have been accused of taking bribes from Israel, leading a Zionist take-over of the Green Party of Canada and of spreading hasbarah.

My children were watching the debate when the hate speech happened. You are never fully prepared to receive to see such worry in your sons’ eyes. As a family, we faced a choice: Respond to hate with hate, or convert it to a teaching moment. We chose the latter.

My sons helped me craft a tweet that we hoped would draw attention to the hateful incident and provoke a public discussion about racism and antisemitism. The post has been viewed more than 164,000 times and there has been an outpouring of solidarity.

There are clearly many people unwilling to allow hate to go unchallenged. These voices, when combined, can help to change minds and to drown out racism and antisemitism. The Green Party of Canada (GPC) is working to identify the perpetrators and has made it clear that if members were involved, they will be expelled. There is no place for such people in our party. The GPC will need to go further and actively root out discriminatory views, as well as monitor social media more proactively.

Winning the leadership of the Green Party of Canada would send a powerful message to those seeking to spread hate that their time is up. As the first Jewish woman to lead a national party, I would be a strong voice for education on antisemitism where possible, and resistance when necessary – values that I have passed onto my sons, whose voices follow.

Jonas Daniel, age 16:

Last week was the first time I had seen the words “f*cking jew.” The comment named another candidate, but it hit home. Every day, I see my Mom fight for a better future for me and all people in Canada. Whether or not you agree with her politics, you must respect her passion to fight for what she believes is right.

Were she to win, she would be the first Black person and first Jewish woman to lead a major federal party in Canada. That’s important to note, too, because it seems like the more my mother leads, the more resentful people become of her identities. 


Malachai Daniel, age 20:

I grew up embracing the Jewish values of generosity, kindness, and respect for others. I have always felt grateful to have been born into a community that has done so much for the betterment of our world. Since day one, I was taught to carry my Jewish identity not as a burden but as a gift.

Despite my upbringing, no amount of preparation readies you for the scale of the antisemitism we have experienced since my mother entered politics. Daily dog whistles and claims of dual loyalty are taxing our wellbeing. Somehow, being Jewish trumps all my mother is doing to help others and gives some people free rein to question her loyalties based on her religion.

I do my best to shield her, as she did for me growing up, but keeping the antisemitism at bay has proved impossible. This has been an awakening for me. There is so much work to be done, and it is why I wholeheartedly believe we need to break the silence.


Annamie Paul is a leadership candidate for the Green Party of Canada.