A Better Strategy

History never precisely repeats itself. I was cleaning up after dinner the other evening when I heard my daughter, Samantha, now nearly 17, on the phone; she was talking with a guy named Vinnie.

“Vinnie?” I said, as she hung up. “I think we should be focusing on Jewish guys now, don’t you?”

“He’s a friend, Mom,” said Samantha.

And to my surprise, I let it go at that because I wasn’t sure what else to do.

I had had my own Vinnie when I was just about Samantha’s age: an Elvis look-alike, down to the huge, dark pompadour over his forehead. I thought he was earthy and exotic, exciting, if not dangerous. He worked in the gas station across the street from the bakery where I did the afternoon shift. I could see him, and his black leather jacket with the turned-up collar, through the window, as he washed windshields and pumped fuel. It made the hours fly by.

Vinnie was a secret. I told him never to call me at home. I knew that a trial awaited me if Vinnie’s existence was revealed. Yes, a trial, literally speaking. Our dinner table would convene as night court. I would present my own lawyerly defense of Vinnie, citing my rights as a free woman in America to explore the vast terrain of good-looking guys before I settled down with a nice Jewish man. But the court would not be moved, and, eventually, I would burst into angry tears. Before I could finish presenting my logic and my evidence, my parents would invoke the name of my grandfather, who, they promised, would sit shiva for me if I married “out.” Truly, I was lost.

Now that I’m a mother myself, I understand my parents’ concern. I, too, hope that my daughter will marry a Jewish man, and for most of the same reasons. The best of those reasons remains that it is easier for a husband and wife to get along in the storm-tossed seas of marriage if their values, beliefs and rituals are similar. Though opposites do attract, intermarriage remains a hard business, at times requiring the suppressing of spiritual growth of both parties. A parent can argue, without a trace of ethnocentrism or paranoia, that a marriage and a home life organized around Judaism’s ethical principles, its calendar, Shabbat, and its love and concern for family harmony has a wonderful future going for it.

And, yet, I don’t want to guilt-trip my daughter, either, since that would certainly backfire.

What to do?

Just a few days after the call from Vinnie, I saw a newspaper advertisement paid for by the New York branch of the Conservative movement. The ad was selling, of all things, the benefits of Jews marrying Jews. And the ad’s tone was, with but one exception, so balanced, so smart, that it can only help those who, like me, are struggling for the right strategy on this ticklish issue.

“When You Tie the Knot, Don’t Break the Chain,” the ad’s headline read. And then it went on to make the common-sense argument that marrying a Jew is good for you. Here’s a line or two that I liked:

“If you were born Jewish, the rich and remarkable heritage that is Judaism is yours. All that is wonderful, all that is joyful, all that is sacred in Judaism belongs to you and to those who come after you.”

This ad is quite a distance from the “your grandfather will sit shiva” approach of a generation ago. In fact, the ad succeeds, I believe, because it captures the way many of us — especially those who are now parents — regard Jewish life today: “wonderful,” “joyful” and “sacred.” We are committed to community, to raising Jewish children, and to providing the spiritual and educational experiences that will be of lasting value in our children’s lives.

Yet, strangely enough, though we are much more fully engaged in Judaism than we ever expected to be when we got married, many of us parents are still “laid back,” hesitant to force Judaism upon our children where their own future marriages are concerned. We want them to choose it naturally, as we did.

But maybe saying nothing is as bad as saying too much. Maybe our children need to know what is expected of them, and that we’re looking to them to keep the faith, indeed.

To be candid, I’m not thrilled with the ad’s declaration that “interfaith marriage dilutes Jewish identity and removes future generations from the Jewish fold” — since this is not provable and disregards the great contribution of Jews by Choice toward the very renewal so many of us are enjoying. I think the attack on intermarriage is ill-considered and wrong.

Nevertheless, with that exception, it’s a relief to hear the other words, which break the ice and encourage parents and children to discuss marriage and Jewish family life in a new and thoughtful way.

“Don’t be a weak link in a chain that has proven unbreakable for more than 5,000 years,” says the ad. “Marriage within the faith. It really does matter.” That’s the point, indeed.

Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior editor of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her “Conversations” guest will be Los Angeles historian Mike Davis. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com>