In a small town in southern Brazil, outside Porto Alegre, there is a small and very old synagogue, which has difficulty getting a minyan (prayer quorum of 10) together. “The older generation now understands that they were mistaken. They shouldn’t have excluded the intermarried couples who wanted to teach their children Jewish values. Because of them there are no longer any Jews here,” said the director of the synagogue, when I visited with a representative of the United Jewish Appeal.
Interesting, I thought. Assimilation and the disappearance of the local community took place just because of the insistence on the purity of the Jewish race. People whose only sin was to fall in love with a non-Jewish man/woman couldn’t come with their children to welcome the Shabbat, celebrate the Jewish holidays and learn to read the holy tongue or study the history of the Jewish people.
It’s interesting that it is actually the Reform community, which is maligned by Conservative Jews, that is preserving Judaism more than the ultra-Orthodox. It’s interesting that the State of Israel accepts immigrants with only a Jewish father (who, according to halakha, traditional Jewish law, are not considered Jews), and they can enlist in the Israel Defense Forces and pay taxes in the Jewish state – but if they want to get married, they will have to undergo a proper Orthodox conversion. In other words, do everything, just don’t multiply.
I recalled my visit to Brazil in 2011 when I saw the headline about the wedding of Israeli Arab broadcaster Lucy Aharish and her Jewish boyfriend, actor Tzachi Halevy. My heart went out to them when I read about her relatives crying out that she was harming the family honor – an excuse for murdering women (!) among certain populations. I recalled a former friend, who, only long after we broke up, revealed to me that his mother isn’t even Jewish and he can’t get married (in Israel). He was born in Eastern Europe, and his family left for Israel when they opened the doors for Jews – because of his father.
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I thought, how hard it must have been for him to keep this secret, not to talk about his true identity. To study in a Jewish school, to enlist in the army, with nobody aware that in his home they didn’t celebrate holidays like other Jews. I wondered what it was like to be in his shoes, and to be involved in relationships without revealing to his girlfriends that he couldn’t get married in the rabbinate, for fear that they would leave him when they discovered the truth.
I recalled a friend of my father’s, a senior lecturer at Columbia University in New York. When he married his non-Jewish girlfriend, his parents sat shivah for him. They caused everyone years of pain and suffering, and in the end they broke down when they realized that they had a grandson they had never met. So much pain and drama. Over nothing.
I also recalled my own family – the decision made by my parents 45 years ago in order to avoid dealing with questions like: Will we pay a high price for our love? Will we be ostracized? Will we be able to manage on our own? In order to consummate their marriage and love, they used a false witness who claimed that my father had studied at a yeshiva with him. In doing so, they thought, they had solved the problem.
Until I was 10 years old I thought my family was normal. I was in the United States, surrounded by people from varied backgrounds: blacks, Asians, mixed-race children – in short, a miscellany. I knew that I was Jewish, and Judaism was the only religion in our home. We even recited kiddush on Friday night.
But I also knew that my father’s family were Catholics, and that he had chosen to be Jewish for my mother’s sake. Sending a Merry Christmas card to my grandparents and getting a Happy Hanukkah in return was routine. Until the death of my grandfather – a World War II hero who had bombed the Nazis with the U.S. forces and fallen into German captivity – I would call him from Israel to wish him a happy holiday every December 25.
My uncle, who had studied and played with American-Israeli basketball star Lou Silver in college, told me that at his wedding my father turned to the priest and asked him to give him the traditional Communion, because he had married a Jewish woman and was raising Jewish children. And that except for some drama and gossip surrounding the wedding, it never bothered anyone that my father had married a Jewish woman.
The last time I saw my Irish-American grandmother, she looked at me and my little brother and said that we had received the best of both worlds. Only that it was a shame that my mother’s world was physically so far from New York.
When we came to Israel I realized that this tolerance, this coexistence, this unconditional love – don’t really exist. Suddenly I’m a half goy. Suddenly I’m not allowed to tell the truth (or to laugh in their faces) when people stop me in the street and say that they remember that my father came to Israel to participate in the Maccabiah. Suddenly I have to lie – for my parents’ sake. To everyone. To family, friends, colleagues, and every time they interviewed me in the media. Not to tell the truth. Not to be defiant. Not to come out against the status quo. Not to damage my family’s honor.
It had always seemed strange to me that an Israeli hero, who helped put us on the map, and it wasn’t just in the realm of sport, who did reserve duty from the moment he became a citizen, had to hide. The only difference between him and other foreigners who married Israelis is his white skin. After all, if to this day people cast doubt on the Jewishness of the Ethiopian community, it’s clear that no rabbinical court judge would have believed that a black basketball player from New York is a former yeshiva student.
Sean Dawson, the son of former basketball player Joe Dawson, who married an Israeli woman and stayed in Israel, didn’t have the privilege of concealing his father’s real roots, and he was a victim of considerable racism because of that, although his mother is a "kosher" Jew.
I refused to internalize the message of my parents and their generation: to lie when you’re afraid that you won’t be accepted as you are. And perhaps because of that I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for Lucy, ever since first meeting her, outside the house of Maccabi basketball team manager Moni Fanan, when a group of sports people made racist remarks to her, when she had only come to do her job. A decade later she is still fighting for her place in Israeli society, which is still preoccupied with “us” versus “them,” and doesn’t always distinguish between being the victim and being the victimizers.
I always find the discussion of the eternal question “Who is a Jew?” funny. Funny, because the world isn’t as black and white as most of the most outspoken participants in this discussion choose to believe. For example, my younger brother, the son of a non-Jewish man, who was born in the United States, did combat duty in Gaza and was wounded in Rafah, and is raising the next generation of Jewish Griffins in Israel. Mixed marriages don’t necessarily create assimilation. If anything, they usually create closeness.
Lucy’s decision to confront everything and everyone, her strength in not apologizing for what she is and for the person she fell in love with – two things that are not under her control – should serve as a model for the new Israeliness, which challenges the status quo for the benefit of all of us, and does not surrender to the dictates of people who preach racial purity.
She and Tzachi Halevy, because they are famous people, did not have the option that my parents had of deciding whether to conceal everything, but they did have the ability to choose to be together, despite the difficulties. And for that we should thank them: for the model of coexistence to which we as Israelis are supposed to aspire.
Becky Griffin is a media personality and a strategic adviser.