Yay for J.!

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Part of my job is trawling through Jewish newspapers for stories of interest to interfaith families and those who work with them. Most papers have items of interest every few weeks, but there is one paper that seems to always have intermarriage on its mind: the J., San Francisco’s Jewish paper. (It’s full and proper name is a doozy: J., the Jewish news weekly of northern California (formerly the JEWISH BULLETIN of Northern California)).

Part of this has to do with the community it serves. While San Francisco’s intermarriage rate is actually lower than the national average, it is high for an established Jewish community of its size (228,000, according to a 2004 population survey, which makes it one of the 10 largest in the U.S.). But unlike some other cities with high intermarriage rates, San Francisco doesn’t close its doors to interfaith families; indeed, the Bay Area is on the cutting-edge of outreach, and is home to numerous terrific outreach programs, including Building Jewish Bridges in Oakland and Interfaith Connection in San Francisco. This might partly explain why that same 2004 population study showed that interfaith families in the San Francisco area were more Jewishly engaged than interfaith families elsewhere.

Part of it also has to do with who works for the J.: Joanne Catz Hartman, a columnist, is intermarried; Dan Pine, an editor and writer, used to be married to a non-Jew; Rachel Sarah, a columnist and correspondent, is the child of an interfaith relationship; and Rachel Freedenberg, a copy writer, is in an interfaith relationship (which she blogs about for us).

Whatever the reasons for the J.’s continued focus on interfaith families, I would like to say “Mazel tov!” Jewish papers are a low-intensity way that interfaith families can explore Jewish identity; giving them stories they can relate to, and letting them know they’re not alone, can help them on their Jewish journey. Keep up the good work.

This week’s issue of the J. continues the trend.

There is a story on Rabbi David Booth, the new rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, who credits his non-Jewish college girlfriend (now his Jewish wife) for his decision to become a rabbi. His then-Presbyterian girlfriend’s spirituality sparked his interest in his own religion, which was never high as a child. “My dad would sometimes drag me to shul, and I’d go only to please my dad, not to pray–God forbid,” he says. “The comfort and meaning I derive from my faith in God is a gift from [my wife].”

Pine also wrote an interesting but flawed column about how he used to play down his Jewishness–act like John Q. Public, he says–around his ex-wife’s born-again Christian in-laws. During barbecues in “places like Indianapolis and Yuma,” he would talk about the weather or football. “In all those years, no one ever said anything rude to me,” he says, but he says, “I imagine my in-laws saw me as some sort of freaky Jewish space alien.” He finally gets his confirmation when he hears a secondhand account of a conversation between a relative and his former father-in-law: “‘That Dan,’ said the relative, ‘he’s pretty nice for a Jew.’ Replied my father-in-law, ‘Well, you can’t have everything.'”

Pine says he was “stunned, hurt and mad them… It didn’t matter how bland, boring and invisible I tried to make my Jewishness, the in-laws still saw me as a hell-bound Christ-killer.”

I find his reaction very interesting, because I’m not sure there’s anything anti-Semitic about what his father-in-law said (the unnamed relative is another story). Just like we don’t consider it anti-Christian for a Jewish parent to want his child to marry a fellow Jew, it’s not anti-Jewish for a Christian parent to want his child to marry a Christian. In most parts of the Jewish community, the attitude of “Well, you can’t have everything” is actually considered a tolerant response to a child’s intermarriage. I’m not quite sure where Pine picked up the idea that expressing disappointment in one’s child’s marriage to someone of another faith is the same as seeing the child’s partner as “a hell-bound Christ-killer.”

But, to his credit, Pine ends the story with how his former father-in-law came to his Jewish grandchild’s bar mitzvah and sat in the front row, humming along to “the strange tunes of the Amidah, the Aleynu and the Chatzi Kaddish.” To my mind, that action speaks a lot louder than the father-in-law’s overheard, whispered word.

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