When we were growing up, my mother would play a little brainwashing game with us. Funny, semi-ridiculous, it had a serious, explicit goal -- to train us against marrying out.
"There are only two men left on the planet, and you have to marry one of them," Ma would say. The first guy's name was always Christopher. He was handsome, wealthy, crazy about me and treated me like a queen. The second guy was not particularly good-looking, poor, just as in love with me, but couldn't afford nice presents, and Jewish. "So who do you pick?"
An obvious set-up, half a joke, half not. The Game had only one right answer. Ma wouldn't let it end until we picked the Jew. Imagine floating on the yacht with Christopher, crystal blue waters twinkling in the sun... Imagine life with the Jewish guy, drab green living room and no place to go...
They returned from summer camp asking Daddy if he was Satan.
Arguments for conversion would be countered with real-life scare-stories of insincere conversions gone awry. Our cousin's friend, whose wife converted to marry him, then shortly after the man died, had all the kids baptized. The family friend whose non-Jewish wife became a Jesus freak and sent the kids to an evangelical summer camp from which they returned asking Daddy if he was Satan.
We would point out happily married, normal couples we knew where one spouse had converted to Judaism, but the basic message was clear: We were expected to marry a Jew, or someone who had converted out of a sincere desire to be Jewish.
Aside from the decidedly un-PC Game, we were brought up to believe that people of all races and religions are unique and important.
Still, our heads would be buzzing with visions of gorgeous, rich Christopher or supermodel Christina. To heighten the drama, my brothers and I would make the Jewish candidate extra-unattractive. "And the Jewish guy has a congenital drooling problem, right?"
We were testing Ma to see under what conditions she would finally cave in and say, "Okay, fine, you can marry the non-Jew." Instead, Ma would laugh at us and insist that, of course, we shouldn't be embarrassed or turned off by our spouses. The point was to consider and then overcome superficial, less important temptations. While Christopher and Christina could provide as much love, respect and companionship as a Jewish spouse, they could never give the home a strong enough sense of Jewishness to pass onto the next generation.
This was all cute and theoretical until my brothers and I began attending university. Opportunities with real-life Christophers and Christinas abounded. One brother seriously dated a non-Jew for five years and considered marriage against our parents' wishes.
As for me, I was midstream American, doing everything a non-Jew would do... except marry one. And this seemed to be a real contradiction.
I decided I had to seriously look into what being Jewish meant to me. Why is it important to maintain Jews into future generations? Why is my participation essential rather than elective? And why does that mean that otherwise nice, liberal Jewish girls have to practice a form of 'discrimination' in their personal lives?
I found a Jewish learning program where I was free to ask my questions, however sacrilegious. The young mentors there made an impact on me. Here were people my age I could relate to, approachable and normal, taking Judaism seriously, with an attitude of joy. I was impressed by their commitment to refinement through mitzvot, integrating spirituality into physical life. Although it was Jewish culture and not religion that Ma had in mind in terms of continuity, I was interested in exploring the original source of the kitch and sentimentality.
The bashert concept was attractive: one predestined soul mate, announced in heaven before birth to be meant just for me. But his necessarily being Jewish sounded suspiciously familiar...
If Christopher makes me happy, why stand in the way of that?
Because when being a link in a chain 2,000 years old is weighed against a personal desire for romance with whoever you want, it seems like a big old drag. If me and Christopher make each other happy, what's worth standing in the way of that?
Um, 2,000 years of history and culture, maybe? A niggling feeling that would never go away, that I'd be walking a plank and ending the Jewish people at me?
But is that just cliché Jewish guilt? Did I even have the ability to consciously choose my own values, or had I been hopelessly brainwashed by the Game?
When existential questioning approaches the Woody Allen level, I stop to appreciate how Jewish I really am.
Into the Future
Ultimately, it came down to valuing my Jewish identity so much that I knew it had to factor into life's most important decision, who to marry. If I were out strictly for my own self, I could easily be the end of the Jewish line. And I could not live with that.
In Ma's Game, marrying the Jew was the conciliatory decision, made out of obligation and not desire. When the Game became relevant in real life and I was forced to decide what my values were, my thinking underwent a switch. After the smoke cloud of heartbreak over Christopher cleared, there was left standing a woman proud of the responsibility to carry Jews on into the future.
Why is it so important to have a vital Jewish people? For Ma, it's about perpetuating a special people; all her parents' family was wiped out in the Holocaust, so she feels an urgent responsibility to keep the line going.
If we're the oldest extant people on the planet, what for?
But these days, luckily, we don't feel that urgency. So, I ask, what's our raison d'etre? And how is it that we shine so out of proportion to our numbers (one example: of the 25 billionaires in New York, 19 are Jewish)?
It must be because of what happened to us at Sinai, that mountain in the desert 3,000 years back. So if we've got the magic, then it's my responsibility to keep it real -- to perpetuate and strengthen the line of whatever the Jewish people can nobly contribute to this world.
With this understanding, saying 'no' to Christopher became not a limitation but the most important opportunity in my life, freeing me up to find the guy who is everything I want -- including Jewish.
Luckily there weren't only two guys left in the world to marry -- just one, the Jewish guy, the man who was meant for me.