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“American Birthright” Misses the Mark 

Becky Tahel Ben David’s documentary American Birthright, which centers around interfaith marriage, has been making the rounds at Jewish film festivals and generating a lot of buzz.  

The documentary opens with Israeli-born, culturally Jewish Becky questioning her younger sister Gal’s upcoming wedding to Justin, who is Christian. She begins by exploring her feelings toward interfaith marriage, and ultimately poses the question, “Why be Jewish?”  

We learn about Becky’s early childhood in Israel, her move to the United States—including dropping her Hebrew name Tahel in favor of the American “Becky”—and we meet her sister, mother and grandmother (a Holocaust survivor) along the way.  

Unfortunately, while Becky asks some genuinely insightful questions, she also perpetuates harmful stereotypes about interfaith marriage. And personally, I can’t imagine my sibling being so concerned about my choice in partner that they consult a rabbi for me. That they launch a documentary around my life choices. Talk about chutzpah (audacity).  

We see Becky’s many conversations with rabbis, sociologists and other researchers who are all in the same camp: They tell her that interfaith marriages will be the downfall of the Jewish people. One rabbi tells us interfaith marriage is a “time bomb,” while another says that blending cultures means Jewish people will disappear.  

One rabbi from Grenada, Spain, likens Gal’s decision to marry someone who isn’t Jewish to jumping into oncoming traffic.

As someone who was raised in an observant Jewish home where Jewish culture, synagogue and Jewish continuity filled every corner of my life, I imagine Becky and I might have a lot in common.  

In fact, I think the questions she asks are valid. What does interfaith marriage mean for the Jewish people? Why should we bother being Jewish? Whether that’s culturally Jewish, religiously Jewish or something in between. Unfortunately, I wholeheartedly disagree with the sources she has consulted to answer her questions about interfaith marriage.   

I did find a glimmer of light, though, when Becky consulted Rabbi Keara Stein with her questions about interfaith marriage. Rabbi Stein was an 18Doors staff member at the time of the filming, and she counseled Gal, Justin and Becky.  

Rabbi Stein understands the beauty of an interfaith marriage, and also understands the challenges that can pop up in a Jewish/Jewish relationship.  

Eventually, Becky’s quest to better understand her feelings about interfaith marriage leads her to Jerusalem, where she spends months immersing herself in study and faith exploration so she can examine her own views on these topics: God, modesty, prayer, Torah and halachah (Jewish law), Shabbat and the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), and marriage. Becky was able to have an experience that seems to have nourished her Jewish identity and helped her decide what she truly values. 

I wish she had read our article about the headlines that the Pew Study “Jewish Americans in 2020” missed. She’d have learned that the majority of Jews married to people of a different background actually do raise their children to be Jewish. And that two-thirds of Jews over age 65 believe rabbis should officiate at interfaith weddings.  

I wish she had spoken to more couples in interfaith marriages who are living rich Jewish lives or professionals who work with them who could have helped dispel some of the most hurtful myths about interfaith marriage.  

Instead, she spent her time with Steven Cohen, a harsh critic of interfaith marriage and disgraced sociologist who has been accused of sexual harassment in the workplace. These accusations led to his resignation as a professor at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in 2018, where he admitted his misconduct. Some activists and academics have discredited his contributions to Jewish thought.  

For those of us who spend our careers working against this hurtful narrative that our interfaith marriages are going to be the downfall of a people, watching Becky take Cohen’s opinion as fact was deeply disturbing. 

While Becky discovers her own Jewish identity in Jerusalem, she says she doesn’t like how she feels boxed in to an “either/or” situation when people ask if she keeps kosher, or if she is shomer Shabbat (keeps the Sabbath). She just wants to be able to be Jewish the way that works for her, without judgement.  

Becky, I feel the same way. I want to be able to honor my Jewish identity and my passion for my culture and heritage without having to choose “either/or.” Either I have a husband who supports me, who learns alongside me, and who happens to not be Jewish, OR I let down Jews around the world? That doesn’t seem fair to me. Either Gal and Justin have a healthy relationship where they push each other, support one another and grow together or they disappoint the Jewish community? Who says it has to be “either/or,” anyway? Only you can know what’s truly best for you. 

I’m so sick of hearing about people’s concerns regarding interfaith marriages, from weakening ties to Judaism, to cutting chains and disappointing elders. One rabbi Becky spoke with even said her sister Gal will be limiting her potential by marrying Justin. 

I would argue a Jewish leader or community with that view has cut off Gal’s potential before she even had the choice herself. By turning interfaith couples away, Jewish institutions are deliberately closing the door to many Jews who love someone from a different faith background—whether it’s preventing us from holding board positions in synagogues, prohibiting our family rabbis from officiating at our weddings or holding us back from attending rabbinical school.   

This documentary gives us a lot to think about. What do we value? Whose opinions are we most concerned with? How do we live Jewishly? Why be Jewish at all? Becky closes the documentary by saying she’s Jewy in exactly the way she’s meant to be—and so am I, with my husband who isn’t Jewish. And if Gal and Justin ever need support, 18Doors is here to help.  

Molly Kazin Marshall

Molly is the Boston Community Director at 18Doors