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A Conversation With Hila Ratzabi

A Conversation With Hila Ratzabi

Twenty-eight-year-old poet Hila Ratzabi has the kind of credentials Jewish leaders like to tout as the surefire antidote to intermarriage: 12 years of Jewish day school followed by four years in the Jewish Theological Seminary/Barnard College undergraduate double-degree program.

The daughter of an Israeli father and American Jewish mom, Ratzabi always assumed she would marry a Jewish man. But in the year and a half since she met her Mexican-American (Baptist-raised) atheist boyfriend José, a grad student in chemistry, Ratzabi, who has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College, has been questioning her long-held assumptions about intermarriage and eagerly reading stories of how other people have negotiated interfaith relationships.

For the past few months, the two of us have been in touch and playing Lexulous together via Facebook. Last week, we finally caught up with each other by phone to chat about her work-in-progress: an anthology of essays by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. While she has an agent for the project, she is waiting until the entire book is compiled before seeking a publisher.

Q: So are you and José engaged?
A: We’re very serious, but not engaged. We now live together [in Brooklyn] and often discuss what getting married might mean. I constantly talk about the Jewish stuff and what I want, and how we would negotiate certain things. I’ve been talking about that since the beginning.

Q: How have your parents reacted to your relationship?
A: They weren’t happy, but it’s getting better. My mom’s better than my dad about it. My dad’s mother came from Yugoslavia [to Israel] and all her family died in the Holocaust. So he has very strong feelings related to this topic. I understand completely where he’s coming from, but we’re coming from really different worlds. It’s been a very slow process of having José be more included and welcome.

Q: And what about his family? How do they feel about you?
A: His family is very excited about me, but they’re all in California, so I haven’t met them yet. But they have no issue at all [with me being Jewish].

Q: How are you adjusting to living together?
A: So far, I’ve found it to be quite easy. Early on I was really nervous [about incorporating Jewish rituals with a non-Jewish partner]. I keep Passover fairly strictly — not with separate dishes, but I put away all the chametz and we kept Passover together in the house this year. In the beginning he was like, “I can’t eat tortillas during Passover in the house?” but we did it. We do all the holidays; sometimes a Shabbat dinner. The fears I had in the beginning had so much to do with what people were saying in the Jewish community about intermarriage. But when you start to actually look at real people’s lives, it’s much more nuanced. The complexity of individual people’s lives is so much more interesting than statistics.

Q: What inspired you to create this anthology?
A: I had never been in an interfaith relationship. I was totally lost.
All I knew was of course there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted my children to be Jewish … I realized there are other people out there like me that are very Jewish, not assimilated, who care about being Jewish and are still intermarried. That’s when I realized, it’s OK, I can do this. And once I had it on my radar, I noticed people were writing about this. I wanted to collect these stories one place, I wanted it to be a book, because it’s something I’d want to read. It helps people to hear each other’s stories and how they negotiate these things.

Q: Why is the anthology limited to women writers? Why not Jewish women and men, rather than all-women, Jewish and non-Jewish?
A: I felt this is very much a women’s issue. I had read some essays by men and talked to men too, but it just felt like a different issue. So much pressure is placed on Jewish women to be the ones that create the Jewish home and marry a Jewish man … from what I’ve read, I feel like women are the ones that are really doing this work, that are really initiating these discussions…And when I found out there are these amazing non-Jewish women [who are actively raising their children as Jews], I really admire them for being willing to do that.

Q: What kinds of essays are you looking for?
A: I’m trying to get a lot of different kinds of stories. Right now I have more Jewish women’s stories than non-Jewish women’s stories. I am aiming for it to be 50-50 Jewish and non-Jewish … I’m also looking for well-crafted pieces, and that’s hard because not everyone’s a writer.

Q: Do all the essays have to be by people choosing to have a Jewish household?
A: No. I’m really interested in all the different possibilities that are out there. I’m not trying to promote what I think is good for myself … I did collect one essay by a Catholic woman who in the end chose to raise her kids Catholic: through negotiation, the couple realized the wife cared more about her religion than her husband cared about his. … I want a diverse array of voices and experiences … Ultimately I just hope people [who read the anthology] will have more compassion for intermarried families.

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