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Growing Up Orthodox and Coming to Terms with Interfaith Dating

I was riding the train with my friend Catherine a few weeks ago, returning to Long Island from a day in Manhattan. Her boyfriend Josh had just broken up with her the day before. The two had started dating while we were still in college, a few weeks before summer break, and she thought things were going well. Catherine had felt optimistic about it going into the summer and was happy about the relationship’s prospects.

But Josh broke up with her because he was returning home for the summer and realized that he couldn’t be part of the Orthodox community he was raised and felt comfortable in while dating Catherine.

“I just don’t understand it,” she said. “He’s taking the easy way out; choosing to conform to his community instead of following what he feels.”

If you get into a discussion with someone who was raised religiously, you may find that you reach an impasse very quickly. Stubborn and unyielding, on this issue perhaps more than any other, even the most modern of Jews can sometimes bring to mind images of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” shouting “on the other hand… THERE IS NO OTHER HAND!!!” when forced to choose whether or not to accept his daughter’s interfaith marriage.

I should know; I was raised in an Orthodox community and my father is a rabbi. I would like to share my own experiences, without passing judgment on anyone on any side of the interdating issue.

I vividly recall being taught once in junior high school about the evils of interfaith marriage. Our rabbi told us the story of a man living in Germany in the 1920s who married someone who wasn’t Jewish, and how his wife gave him up to the Nazis after Hitler came to power. Interfaith marriage was frequently compared to the Holocaust; we were always taught that it meant the end of the Jewish people in the near future. On top of those direct attacks on interfaith relationships, a contrary emphasis was always placed on raising a Jewish family. A common theme is the Norman Rockwell-like image of the father saying the blessing over the wine on Shabbat (the Sabbath) while the mother, wearing a shawl on her head, covers her eyes and blesses the candles. Family is the foundation of many of the Jewish traditions and religion is seen as central to marriage.

Josh was not choosing between the Orthodox community and Catherine; he was ending the relationship so he would not have to make that choice.

I struggled to get all this across to Catherine in half an hour on the train. I was not defending Josh; I just wanted to explain to her where he’s coming from: 14 years of day school and a year in a yeshiva (Jewish school) in Israel, a lifetime of weekly synagogue services and daily prayers in school. Suddenly being thrown into the diverse “real world” of college created culture shock for Josh.

As a friend of Josh’s, I know the “religion thing” had troubled him from the very start of his relationship. I understand that, although I may feel differently. I also know how impossible it is for anyone on the outside to understand. Even though I think he was wrong for acting the way he did, I understand it.

The situation between Josh and Catherine is hardly an isolated case. “I met the most amazing guy, but he’s Catholic…” my friend Sarah said to me on Instant Messenger. “I can’t date him; it would kill my whole family. I can’t do that for one guy.” Another friend, raised Conservative, is feeling guilty because of her family’s opposition to her dating someone who isn’t Jewish. In fact, although I go to a predominantly Jewish college, I’m hard-pressed to think of any examples of my close friends dating within their faith.

I’m not sure how I feel about it myself. I told my mother about Josh’s situation when he and Catherine first began dating, and she said “Oh . . . you discouraged him, right?” That made me uncomfortable. I see myself as progressive and pluralistic, maybe bordering on anarchic total subjectivism at times. I know I don’t feel opposed to interfaith relationships and certainly was not about to sabotage someone else’s personal decision to engage in one. But the only definitive conclusion I have come to–despite reading books on the issue, despite spending hours talking to friends about it, despite sitting and thinking for hours–is that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to sort out feelings, rational thoughts and ingrained values; and it’s even harder to express them to someone from a different background.

In my personal experience, there’s a lot for everyone to gain from better interfaith relations (whether or not individuals choose interfaith relationships). Jews can learn from Christians without fear of losing their identity and vice versa. Exposing yourself to different beliefs and cultures may cause conflicts, but can have powerful positive effects on people’s lives. I think there is some real irony in Josh’s choice to end the relationship: Catherine is now expressing a genuine interest in learning more about Judaism–even after the breakup. The pluralist world of interfaith dating is here and it’s a bigger force than I ever imagined, coming as I do from the sheltered yeshiva world. I think the time is inevitably coming when the world where I’ve come from is going to have to come to terms with it in at least a constructive, if unenthusiastic, way. And who knows–maybe we’ll all be the richer for it.

Yoni Samlan

Yoni Samlan attended Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is a Justice Louis D. Brandeis and National Merit Scholar.


Author: Yoni Samlan