A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine, as part of an issue devoted primarily to money and wealth, ran a piece, written by Zev Chafets, about the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. The article included considerable discussion of the community's affluence, but its main focus was what Chafets called the Edict -- a community-wide policy, apparently dating to 1935, that not only excludes from the community anyone who intermarries but refuses to recognize converts to Judaism and thus treats marriage to a convert as the equivalent of intermarriage.
Chareidi iconoclast Marvin Schick didn't like the article. In his regular paid column in last week's Jewish Week, Schick attacks both Chafets for writing it and the Times magazine for publishing it. Schick takes Chafets to task for some inaccuracies in the article, like reporting as fact the community's exaggerated claim of 75,000 members and accepting uncritically the inaccurate assertion that community members in good standing receive free day school education and other services for their children. Schick also criticizes Chafets for including a brief account of the financial and other shenanigans of Eddie Antar (a/k/a Crazy Eddie), one of the community's best known members, nearly two and a half decades ago. In addition, Schick questions the article's failure to explore in depth whether the community's reputation for affluence is accurate and ponders whether "the magazine's editors decide[d] that they could not publish a money issue without an article on Jews."
Some of Schick's complaints about the article's biases are valid, but some are overstated. Crazy Eddie was not a major focus of the article, but it would have been difficult to write a comprehensive article examining the Syrian community's history over the course of decades without mentioning him at all. As to the Syrian community's storied affluence, Chafets does attempt to temper the mythology with some realism, quoting one of his informants as saying that only about 50 Syrian Jewish families are "very successful" while another 20 to 30 percent of the community is "what you could call upper middle class."
These issues are probably not Schick's main concern, however, and they certainly weren't Chafets's. Schick correctly points out that "the main story" in Chafets's article "is the [Syrian] community's strong opposition to intermarriage." He notes that Chafets himself is intermarried and suggests, quite reasonably, that Chafets's own intermarriage could have interfered with his objectivity and thus should have been disclosed in the article. Recalling the pro-intermarriage piece by Noah Feldman that was published in the New York Times Magazine over the summer, moreover, Schick also ponders whether "the Times or the editors of the magazine are on a pro-intermarriage crusade."
Maybe they are, but that's really beside the point. Whether the Times magazine's publication of two pieces sympathetic to intermarriage in such close proximity is a product of design or happenstance, these articles underscore the undeniable reality that, in twenty-first century America, traditional Judaism's condemnation of intermarriage is substantially countercultural. It was not all that long ago that adamant opposition to intermarriage could be taken for granted among strongly identified Jews, even those far removed from traditional observance. Today, however, the corrosive effect of the larger society's pro-intermarriage bias often creates ambivalence even among strongly committed Jews.
One of the three letters that the Times magazine's editors published in last week's magazine in response to the Chafets piece clearly exemplifies that ambivalence. While insisting that she "absolutely" wants her children to marry other Jews, the letter writer criticizes the Syrian Jews for being "more fearful of their place in that society than they are of severing their relationships with their children." She sarcastically comments that she "must have missed the day in Hebrew school when you were taught to turn away from your children and grandchildren because they made a choice you don't agree with."
That last phrase says it all. When I was growing up in the 1960's -- not all that long ago, historically speaking -- most committed Jews saw the prospect of their child's intermarriage as a betrayal of a fundamental parental and communal value. Today, increasingly, it is seen merely as "a choice you don't agree with."
How did this happen? To a large extent, this change in attitude is the natural result of the attenuation of residual Jewish identity over time. For those of my parents' generation, who grew up as the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in the old immigrant neighborhoods, there was an ingrained Jewish loyalty from which they couldn't easily be severed. However limited their religious practice, they were still Jews, first and foremost -- a sense of identity that was further strengthened by the two "epoch-making" (to borrow Emil Fackenheim's phrase) events that occurred during their lifetimes -- the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel.
It was inevitable that the children and grandchildren of these Jews, lacking the formative experiences that shaped their parents' identity, would not necessarily share the previous generation's instinctive aversion to intermarriage. Growing up not in the Jewishly saturated immigrant neighborhoods of old but in the ethnically mixed and quintessentially American suburbs and quasi-suburbs to which so many American Jews flocked during the baby boom years, the baby boomers and those who followed them could be expected to value finding a Jewish mate only to the extent that active expressions of their Jewishness played a major role in their lives. Fackenheim's famous "614th" commandment -- "thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory" -- helped for a little while, but it was inevitable that this post-Holocaust imperative would lose strength over time as the survivors died out and the historical memory of that era faded.
But whether we like it or not, there's also an ideological component to the destigmatization of intermarriage in recent decades. American society -- and much of the rest of the world as well -- has become obsessed with racism as the quintessential evil. Those Jews whose religious practice is a substantial feature of their lives may sometimes receive a pass, but for the rest, insistence on endogamy is seen by many in the larger society as a manifestation of racism. And since most American Jews inhabit the left side of the political spectrum, where the obsession with racism is most endemic, all too many Jews seem to have internalized this attitude.
In the context of this societal reality, the Syrian community's hard line against intermarriage is emphatically countercultural. By rejecting conversion entirely -- one of the most surprising vignettes in Chafets's article was the community's rejection of a personal appeal from Rav Ovadia Yosef, probably the most widely respected Sephardic rabbi in the world, to accept a conversion that he had performed -- the Syrian Jewish community provides further support for those who claim that opposition to intermarriage is fundamentally racist. If your aim is to put OPPOSITION to intermarriage in a bad light, focusing on the Syrian Jewish community's manner of dealing with it would seem to be an effective strategy. I have no inside knowledge, but it's hard not to wonder whether that's one of the reasons that Chafets wrote the article.
Regardless of what motivated Chafets to write his article or the Times magazine to publish it, the difficulty of fighting against intermarriage in the context of contemporary American society is an unavoidable reality. One of the most impressive aspects of the Syrian community's position, at least as Chafets described it, is its sturdy indifference to how its policies are perceived by the world outside. I'm certainly not recommending that the Jewish community at large adopt the Syrian approach to the problem in its entirety -- I do seem to recall that there's a halakhic prohibition against rejecting sincere converts -- but that community's willingness to ignore the opinions of the outside world is worth admiring, and emulating.