In Which We Devote Far Too Much Space To Analyzing A Really Strange Essay
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In Which We Devote Far Too Much Space To Analyzing A Really Strange Essay

I don’t know how Elizabeth Cohen’s bizarre and disturbing piece in Tablet about a group of intermarried Jewish women who “gather for Shabbat but pack away their identities” escaped my notice, but thanks to InterfaithFamily.com’s Ed Case for directing my attention to it.

There is something kind of odd and overwrought about the essay, which, to judge by the comments it’s attracting, some readers are interpreting as a cautionary tale about the perils of intermarriage.

While the author acknowledges that not all intermarriages look like this, the main gist is these women’s gentile husbands aren’t interested in Jewish activities. The husbands don’t “object to the keeping of Shabbat; they just don’t care about it.”

Later she describes the men as “Semitic-neutral, or perhaps Semitic-bored.” I’m not sure why this is such a big deal. That the men are not clamoring to lead a seder or build a sukkah or watch Holocaust-themed movies is hardly surprising or tragic. And it’s not a problem unique to goyische hubbies. [Many of those who commented on my last post insist that “goy” is not at all derogatory. I remain unconvinced, but figure I can get away with using it ironically.] After all, “Semitic-neutral” and “Semitic-bored” could easily describe half the Jewish men (and women) in America!

But the Tablet piece, which is written in a somewhat confusing and indirect style, depicts the husbands’ apathy as almost sinister, making the women’s Shabbat dinner feel “a little sneaky, like a backroom poker game":

Nobody to see us, nobody to witness, just us women, our offspring, a loaf of challah, and some wine, marking the holiday as we … cannot do or do not do in the presence of our non-Jewish husbands.

OK, first of all, there’s a big difference between feeling unable to celebrate Shabbat in the presence of your husband and not choosing to, so carelessly lumping those together feels odd.

The author goes on to describe how all the women keep special, quasi-secret troves of Judaica implying that their husbands don’t allow them to display them or that they are some kind of modern-day conversos. She even subtly conjures up images of the Holocaust: “We all blushed at our Shabbat gathering with the deep recognition that a heritage in hiding echoes a people in hiding.”

Perhaps the strangest and most confusing aspect of this essay comes when the author reveals that the women share a “willingness to let our own Judaism be marginalized” and an “unwillingness for that to be the case in our children’s lives.”

The essay explains that all these families have mezuzot on their doors and send the kids to Jewish day schools. (I assume the dads have agreed to all this and are helping pay the not insignificant tuition bill, even if they apparently find the family Kiddush cup is too kitschy to display in the “designer kitchen.”)

Are the husbands really standing in the way of these women’s Jewish self-actualization? It’s not clear to me what exactly they want or expect from their husbands or why, if they are free to participate in whatever Jewish activities they like and to educate their children Jewishly, they feel that their Judaism has been “marginalized.” Must life and marriage be so all or nothing that spouses must share all interests and passions fully? I can’t help but wonder if the women are somehow using the husbands as excuses for not pursuing Jewish life more on their own.

So, I don’t want to invalidate these women’s experiences, but I feel like there is something misleading and dishonest about the essay, and, like Ed Case, I can’t help but wonder if some of the emotions and issues she describes have more to do with specific personality issues and communication problems than with intermarriage.

I’d be curious to hear what Mr. Elizabeth Cohen (whose last name presumably is not Cohen) has to say.

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