The Women Speak

Dana Katz, 24, head resident at Smith College; currently with a Jewish boyfriend.

I’ve had Jewish and non- Jewish boyfriends, though now I’m dating Danny, a Jew, very seriously. I used to think, “It’s not that something is MISSING with a non- Jew—ifs that something is ADDED with a Jew.” But now, for the record, I believe that something IS missing with a non-Jew.

I had this non-Jewish boyfriend who once good-naturedly said to me, while I was in his arms, “How did you get such a cute nose?” He had just been hanging out with a Jewish friend of his who has a big nose. We had it out immediately. After that, I began to ask myself, ‘If I looked more Jewish—’too’ Jewish—would the boyfriend be repelled?’ Increasingly I worried that I was too Jewish… all this Hebrew and Yiddish would slip out. Would he make another inadvertent comment about my being a Jew, and upset me?

My parents never restricted my dating, which was smart on their part. I was raised in a non-Jewish town, but every summer I went to Hobonim camp and I’d “hook up” there—which would “keep” me through the year until the next summer. I could be with a Jewish guy there, at Habonim, because it was a very positive framing of being Jewish.

What clicks with Danny—I mean, I wouldn’t feel a bond with a yeshiva bocher or a frat Jew—is that we have very similar upbringings, though he’s from Vancouver and I’m from Maryland. He has one European-born parent, like me; he spent chunks of time in Israel, like me, and grew up in Habonim camps. Both his grandparents and mine lived in the same town, Kiryat Chaim, in Israel; we con talk about the Burger Ranch there and it makes sense. A foundation has been laid with basic questions of identity already answered—not just Christian vs. Jewish, but sub-types of Jewishness. This doesn’t mean conversations between us are boring. Being able to love another Jew is also an expression of self-love.

We share an interest in Israel and in critiquing Israel. As Jews, we’re sensitive to issues of feminism and homophobia; Danny had a gay counselor who meant a lot to him; I had, in a Jewish context, positive lesbian role models. I consider these Jewish values, and important.

It felt good to meet Danny’s mother. For Pesach she and I put feminist seder together. I felt proud being able to establish a bond with Lucy that we have partially through the fact that we are both Jewish women.

There is a comfort with Danny that is specific. When I speak in my most natural way, Yiddish and Hebrew words will come out; my inflections become more “Jewish,” and it’s wonderful that Danny joins me in that.

During my training here at Smith to become a head resident, we had this “Wellness” test. One part was intended to gauge your open-mindedness. The question was, “Would you dote someone outside your religion/ethnicity/culture?” I scored lower on the whole test because of my answer to this question. It’s so interesting—why is Jews being with Jews a negative? Multiculturalism being a goal that Smith (and I) strive for puts Jews in an awkward position where it becomes a negative issue of exclusivity instead of positive value of identification.

Yehuda Amichai has a poem that goes, “Advice for good love: don’t love a woman from far away. Choose one from nearby the way a sensible house will choose local stones that have frozen in the same cold and basked in the same scalding sun.”

Eve Ostriker, 29, astrophysicist; married to a man who’s 51% Jewish.

Jewish men, in my experience, seem to have a greater appreciation of women like myself—that is, women who value their own independence, ideas and intellect. I generally feel that Jewish couples keep their feelings undisguised, don’t care about superficial appearances, have a kind of relaxed, “real” style of sodal relations.

My husband is half Jewish, but we decided that our daughter, now 4 months old, would be Jewish. We gave her a Jewish name, Abigail, and that’s important to both of us. My husband’s background—half Jewish, half Quaker—has given him some trouble, some identity confusion. Through seeing what he’s struggled with, I think it’s easier to make a religious choice—like telling Abigail that she’s Jewish right off the bat—and stay with it. I didn’t realize how intact my Jewish identity was until I saw how complicated my husband’s was.

For me Judaism means you have a people, history, Torah, stories, that you have a tradition that values thinking about meanings, reading, discussing. For me Judaism is like my womanhood—I just have it, it’s something that backs me up.

Justyn Lezin, 22, AIDS advocate; currently unpartnered.

My fear is that I won’t be with a Jewish partner. My former (and only serious) partner, Becky, wasn’t Jewish—I realized I spent a lot of time fantasizing about what it would be like to be with someone who was “organically” Jewish. When I first met Becky, I was so sure she was Jewish—she looked Jewish; we were able to talk in a familiar way that I thought was Jewish, and that was real attractive to me.

So I was surprised and a tiny bit disappointed to find out that Becky wasn’t Jewish. She was Catholic. But Becky loved that I was Jewish. She was attracted to all things Jewish (and this wasn’t about a Gentile eroticizing a Semite as exotic). She would say, “My Jewish girlfriend”— she was proud of that; it would throw me. Becky used to say about herself, “I feel I’m not ethnic enough.” I was stunned—compared to her I was glaringly ethnic. That had an impact on my identity. Being with Becky for three years, and being at a college where there were only 4% Jews, helped me articulate my Jewish identity.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that positively identifying as a Jew (which I’ve done since I was really small) means that you want to share that identity with a partner. With Becky, I wasn’t at that evolutionary place yet. But now I feel what a tremendous luxury it would be—to be with someone who is unconflicted about her Judaism.

One thing that possibly kept me with Becky so long was her complicated relationship to Judaism—her grandfather was a Hungarian Jew, married to a Catholic woman. He was murdered in a concentration camp, and Becky’s father was raised in hiding, as a Catholic (although her grandmother actually hated the Church). Becky’s grandmother thought that the more connected her son was to the Church, the less the chance that he would be taken from his mother. So with this as her background, Becky is searching.

I’m solid in my lesbian identity, grounded, and so was Becky, and that was wonderful. It would be great to be at this same grounded level Jewishly with another Jew. I don’t want to constantly explain and educate my partner about this big part of me. I don’t just want to be with a Jewish person; I want to be with a Jew who is untroubled and positive about being a Jew.

It’s a given to me that I wont to have children, though it’s scary to me (as a lesbian) to think how this will unfold. Through teaching Hebrew School, I’m stunned to see how deep the confusion is in interfaith families. Their religious ambivalence percolates through each member of the family. As a lesbian parent, I feel like I’m going to have a lot of struggles, and I’m prepared to go through them—I’ll have rewards too. But I’m not prepared to go through an interfaith conflict. I want an organic Jewish household; not one that’s self-consciously constructed.

Now, actually, Becky’s converting. I’m of two minds. One part of me thinks, “Why?” I feel critical; for me, being Jewish is cultural, and you can’t really religiously convert into it. But the other part of me acknowledges that that’s really attractive. Like, “Call me in 20 years, and we’ll talk. When it’s not something new—when you’re no longer struggling.”

Amy Trachtenberg, 41, clinical social worker; married to a Jewish man.

My aging played a role in my choosing a Jewish husband. If I had gotten married earlier in my life (I was 36 when I first met my husband), I don’t know that I would have chosen a Jew. I certainly didn’t have a Jewish background. My two brothers have each had two wives—none of them Jewish.

I had gotten more religiously involved in my early 30’s specifically because I was single, alone, looking to make connections. The first Jewish thing I did was sign up for this Saturday morning class in Torah study—I did this just because I had nothing else to do Saturday a.m. at 9. I was also doing regular single’s stuff: dances, dinners. I love to dance. I took a chamber music class at the YWCA. I actually did bowl once. But the Torah class hooked me in strongly. I attended for three years, and then started going to services and learning Hebrew.

Deciding to marry someone Jewish, when I was 35, actually made my social life much easier. I started to date differently; I was more focused in how to meet someone, and where to go. I just went to the Jewish singles events. I had a good life; I didn’t need to date just to date. I wasn’t lonely, but I wanted to be in the right place at the right time.

So my strategy was I would make myself go to any Jewish singles event for an hour. I wouldn’t say, “this is my evening,” “this is my life”—but “this is what I have to do.” From Princeton, I went to Philadelphia, put ads and answered them in the Jewish Exponent.

Having a Jewish home is wonderful; I didn’t have this as a single person. It’s different to light the candles with my family (we have a 2 1/2 year old, Philip), and it’s different having Philip and my husband saying the blessings than it is saying them by myself. I don’t know that my attachment to Judaism would even have happened if I had married earlier in my life.

Jill Schulman, 31, production manager for a pharmaceutical company; engaged to a Jewish man.

I grew up in a Conservative Jewish family, but my boyfriend for four years at college was Chris, a non-Jew. By the end of that relationship, I made a conscious decision that I would only date Jews.

After college, I had a hard time meeting Jewish men. I had to really make a special effort. By the time I turned 30, a good friend of mine tried to convince me to date this wonderful, non-Jewish guy. “What if you never meet a wonderful Jewish guy?” It was hard—there were years when I didn’t have a close relationship.

My two brothers are married to Jews, and I see their children’s family life. It’s close, traditional—like my family was when I was growing up. Their families celebrate like mine did when I was a kid. Their children are learning about Judaism like I did. I look at them and I realize I want that. I didn’t want to have to give up on that.

With Chris I was naive—I thought it was easy; he’d convert;; it would work. But it’s a very very big step to ask someone to convert. With Eric, my fiancé, we shore the traditions in our home, holidays, our knowledge and feelings about the Holocaust; we saw “Schindler’s List” together. With Eric I have all these things that I want. In college, I compromised on that vision. I didn’t realize until I was older how important Judaism was to me.

Julia Nourock, 37, publisher of The Writing Self; married to a Jewish man.

I came from a very Jewishly assimilated home, and when I first met Scot, my husband, I worried that he was too Jewish. I also worried that I wasn’t Jewish enough for Scot. I guess I wasn’t comfortable with being Jewish at that time.

We met in a writing group; I actually met his story before I met him. I thought, ‘I wonder if this guy is as nice as his story is.’ On our first date we both had the sense that we had known each other forever, and all we had to do now is get the details.

Passover at Scot’s family gave me a very mixed feeling. I had the unsettling sense that I was leaving my family and joining his, but it also was a way for me to get my identity back.

I have hopes that my infant daughter, Danielle, will be comfortable being female, and comfortable being Jewish. Scot and I both struggle with wanting to have more confidence and self-esteem. It’s important for us to help Danielle have that, and her “self” is that she is female and that she is Jewish. We want her to value those two things.

Lisa Gold, 22, student at Brown University; currently with a Jewish partner.

I feel no imperative from my family to marry a Jew, but ultimately I think I would rather. My parents—Jewish, and divorced from each other—both remarried non- Jews. So I have both the intermarriage and the Jewish-Jewish models. (I was raised in a moderately Jewish family and had a bat mitzvah.) I’ve spent most of my romantic life with Jews, though I can’t say I specifically went out looking for Jewish partners.

With another Jew, I feel a familiarity that I find attractive, a shared orientation in the world, a shared verbal style. With Ben, my current partner, we share a past of Jewish “forced” exposure—we joke about our Hebrew school truancy, rabbis who fell asleep. In the past, Passover has been really nice to “share” with Jewish partners—regardless of how disparate our Jewish pasts—as opposed to “showing” Jewish practice, as I have done in the past, to non-Jewish partners.

I know it’s flawed and essentialist to claim there’s a Jewish “way”—but I do feel a common language with some Jews; a mutual starting place. In terms of imagining my future children’s religious education, it’s more of a comfort to ask, ‘Would I put my kids through that specific Jewish choice?’ than ask, ‘Will I educate my children Jewishly atoll?’

I have a close Jewish friend in her forties, married to a non-Jew, whose kids go through weird, double- religious stuff—High Holidays, Christmas, Unitarian camp, no Hebrew School. It’s a significant issue for her. It’s loaded.

When I’ve gone to meet the families of Jewish partners, the fact that I’m Jewish is a real “opening.” With non-Jews, I’m aware of being “the Jewish girlfriend”—it comes up all the time. I had one previous WASP boyfriend, and the differences between us always come down to me being Jewish and him being WASPy, even though often this was just implicit. I was the ethnic one, talkative, more outgoing. His family was formal, old money, blue blood.

Even on a physical level, with non-Jewish families of past partners, my appearance felt like an issue to me—I felt conscious of my ethnicity, my body hair, my dark coloring. I felt swarthier.

With Ben, we talk the same way—it’s faster, “talky,” savvy, witty. With non-Jewish partners, I’ve experienced talkers, too, but it’s different. This is ridiculous, because there are tons of witty non-Jews. But, what can I say, there’s still a hard-to-name Jewish overlay that’s appealing to me; I seem to have a specific “Jewish standard.”

Karen Prager, 24, graduate student in clinical psychology; engaged to a Jewish man.

I was brought up in an Orthodox home, and I was 18 when I met my first boyfriend, Greg. He was from Ohio—a real middle-America-Lutheranblond- hair-blue-eyes guy. He had wrestled in high school, and he actually dropped the g’s off his gerunds—walkin’, talkin’. He lived across the hall from me in our freshman dorm at Harvard, and by the end of October he was my boyfriend—the first “real” one I’d ever had.

I told him I could never marry him. I told my mother, who had raised me with tales of her first and tragic love. Bill Howell (his name will always epitomize non-Jewishness to me), that I had a boyfriend. Who wasn’t Jewish. She told me not to tell my father.

After we had been going out for four months, Greg told me he wanted to marry me. I told him that while I couldn’t be sure that my husband would be Jewish (I couldn’t believe I was actually saying that), I absolutely would raise my children as Jews. We talked “around” the question of conversion. Despite being Lutheran, Greg had gone to Catholic high school and was in the midst of a crisis of faith and identity. He didn’t know if he could convert, and I knew that I couldn’t give him an ultimatum. I felt it was too much to ask someone to give up their religion.

Greg started coming with me to Reform services at Hillel on Friday nights. I had been going to the Conservative egalitarian minyan, but as those services were conducted in Hebrew, we began going to Reform (some English, some Hebrew) together. Greg enjoyed the services, began to learn some of the songs, and told me that he thought Judaism would be a wonderful religion to raise children in.

Not that we were without our conflicts. On one disastrous night he told me that his father’s family was from Germany. He related with pride stories of the German meat-packing plant that bore his own name, telling me that when his dad’s family got together they all longed for a good Dresden ham, mode according to the secret family recipe. Listening on the bottom bunk of his tiny bedroom, I burst into tears. How could I stay with him, I told him, when his grandparents might well hove been Nazis during the Holocaust? I was inconsolable until he called his father, who assured us that the last of his family left Germany in the 1840s.

And so we were together. My mother eventually told my father what I was doing. While Greg sent me love letters, my father sent me letters enumerating the ways in which I was going against the Torah, my family and myself.

I tried not to think about the future, but I couldn’t help wondering how I would pay my tuition if I got disowned. I wondered what it would be like to get married in a judge’s chambers without my family. But because my parents were so against my relationship with Greg, I myself didn’t have to think about the tremendous conflicts we would have if we got married. Sometimes, though, unexpected friction would arise out of nothing. One day Greg and I walked past an Israel flag. “Look,” I pointed, “there’s the Jewish flag.” “It’s not the Jewish flag,” he responded, a bit too quickly, “it’s the Israeli flag. “Same thing,” I said. He didn’t think so.

Greg and I had fundamental differences in our world views, particularly about Israel and Zionism. To him, the United Nations’ ‘Zionism-isracism’ resolution proved that Zionism was indeed racism. To me, it proved that the U.N. was anti- Semitic. I couldn’t believe his naivete—I bad been raised to believe that seemingly benign political powers could and would turn against the Jews; he bad been raised with the idea that the U.N. was by definition just and good, as were the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court.

Greg and I broke up after he went to find himself in England on a junior year abroad. The religion issue was not at the forefront of our breakup, but it served as an undercurrent of unanswered questions and doubts about our future, becoming more problematic and demanding more attention the longer we stayed together. I left that relationship feeling certain that I would never date a non-Jew again—it just wasn’t worth the pain I experienced with my parents and family.

Now I’m engaged to a man who is Jewish, but who was raised in a very assimilated, even anti-religious household. He was never given a Hebrew name. He didn’t know that lobster wasn’t kosher until he got to college, despite the fact that be grew up in a very Orthodox neighborhood in New York. And yet, he is accepted by my family. At times I still resent the arbitrariness of it—that Mark is allowed in my parents’ house because of a seemingly meaningless pedigree. After all, I used to think, bow different is he from Greg?

Very different, I have come to see. Mark was raised in a home where Yiddish was spoken, and, like me, has a Russian-born grandmother who calls jamvarenya. (True, his aunt bought ham for a picnic when we visited, but she served it on challah.) And Mark continues to surprise me. Once, at the zoo, he pointed to the goats, and said, “Look, a veisse tzigeleh“—Yiddish for white goat. I didn’t even know that.

Mark has also started coming to shul with me on Friday nights. At first he was terrified, but he is beginning to feel more at home there. He has asked me to teach him Shabbos songs and Pesach songs so that when we spend holidays with my family he can join in. We have agreed that we will send our children to Jewish schools, at least through junior high. Mark has chosen a Hebrew name for himself, and sometimes we practice reciting the Shabbos blessings for wine and challah. It comes easily to him, because, somehow, he already knows the first few words—the phrase “Barukh atah Adonai” seems to be hardwired into his brain. I don’t know where the “Barukh atah Adonai” came from, but it makes all the difference to me that it’s there.

Some Jewish questions for a woman to ask herself before falling in love
by Susan Schnur

1) What are my best Jewish memories? What do I recoil about Jewish aspects of my childhood, my grandparents, Jewish history?

2) When I say “I’m a Jew,” what feelings are evoked in me? Do I feel centered? Proud? Embarrassed? Ashamed?

3) How was Jewish life viewed by my family when I was growing up? In what way do I think this effects my self-identity—and my Jewish identity—now?

4) To what groups or communities do I look for a sense of affiliation, roots, connection? Where do I think I’ll be looking ten or fifteen years from now?

5) What are the causes that matter to me most? What motivates me to involve myself this way (for example, in women’s issues, Zionism, gay rights, health, religious freedom, multicultural or environmental work, etc.)? Do I see my charity and volunteer involvement as expressions of Jewish values?

6) How much influence does the value system of a person I am close to have on my own? Are there strongly held points of view, opinions, attitudes that I would have a hard time appreciating or living by? When I’m getting to know a potential partner, is there anything in that person’s beliefs or values that makes me cringe? Do I try to ignore these differences?

7) If I could shelve my parents’ opinions, would my choices be different? In what ways are my values similar to those of my parents? In what ways different? In what way have I been influenced by my parents in a choice of mote?

8) If I’m someone who is just entering adult life, do I think of myself as “unfinished?” What might “finishing” entail?

9) Am I clear now about my ambitions and dreams and choices about future family life? What steps am I taking to put these into my life?

10) On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it to me to identify myself or be known as a Jew? Does this influence who I hang around with? In what way?

11) What do I imagine myself—and those dear to me— doing ten years from now on Passover? Or even on Christmas?

12) What’s it like to go to a Holocaust movie or to a Holocaust museum with the person I’m currently involved with? How does he/she react to an anti-Semitic joke at a party?

13) If the current object of my affections is a non-Jew, is his or her “differentness” attractive to me? If I project myself ten years into the future (maybe including kids), will this difference still be attractive?

14) When I go to a wedding, funeral, or birth ceremony, does it feel emotionally different to me if it’s Jewish or not? How? When I plan my own family life, what Jewish elements feel important to me to incorporate? How will I present these to my children? Can I imagine raising children in a religion different from my own?

15) In what way has my level of Jewish knowledge made it easier—or harder—to imagine myself with a Jewish partner? If I knew more—or less—would that make a difference?

16) When I imagine the future, do I see myself as more assertive or less assertive than I am now about my own Jewish values, needs and dreams?