Intermarriage / St. Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

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This week’s recipe: St. Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

Unlike a lot of Jewish kids, I don’t remember my parents putting a lot of emphasis on the evils of intermarriage. They framed it in a positive way—they loved Judaism, we loved Judaism, so it would only make sense for us to find partners and raise children that also loved Judaism. The Jewish summer camp I attended took a different tack. Every summer starting at age 14 featured a special Shabbat called “Shabbat ‘Don’t Intermarry,’” where we’d learn things like statistics on relative divorce rate for inmarried versus intermarried couples. It was subtle.

I don’t know whose approach was more effective, but neither I nor my sisters have ever been in a serious relationship with a non-Jew. This is pretty impressive, demographically speaking, for a household with three millennials who were raised in the Conservative movement. (For those who don’t know, the Conservative movement in Judaism is not that conservative; the most religiously conservative movement is called Orthodox, and the liberal movement is called Reform. The capital-c Conservative movement is somewhere in between. Confusing, I know.) Something like 60 percent of Jews are intermarried, and that percentage gets even higher for younger people. My mother’s siblings are both intermarried; it’s looking like all of my cousins will end up married to non-Jews as well (although two out of the four of them aren’t Jewish themselves so that’s not really relevant). So despite the best efforts of “Shabbat ‘Don’t Intermarry,’” the horse has clearly left the barn on this one. But Conservative rabbis are not allowed to perform intermarriages. This has caused a lot of agita at our synagogue, as young people who grew up in the congregation are now getting (inter)engaged, approaching the rabbis about performing the ceremony, and getting turned away.

That’s what happened to someone I grew up with, Saul. Saul was in my Hebrew school class; we went to kids’ services together, performed in Purim plays together, and once we got older, led family services on the High Holidays together. His family is very involved in the synagogue and he cares a lot about the community and his Judaism, but he fell in love with a non-Jewish girl and they got engaged a few months ago. He told his story on Wednesday night at an event the synagogue hosted, where six members gave speeches on their experiences with and views on intermarriage. All of the speakers were excellent, but it seemed like everyone in the audience found Saul’s to be the most resonant.

One point he made in particular really stuck with me: as a community, we welcome couples who are already intermarried, but we push away those in the process of intermarrying. This is really dangerous for our community’s long-term sustainability. Part of our problem, which is a problem many synagogues are having, is that people in their 20s and 30s are a lot less likely to join or be actively involved with synagogue until they start having kids. A young couple coming to a rabbi and asking him or her to perform their marriage is an important inflection point. Do we take that opportunity to engage them and draw them back into the community, or do we reject them so that they are much less likely to raise their kids Jewish?

I have found that almost everyone’s opinion on this subject, my own included, is informed by anecdotes and experience rather than data or Jewish law. Personal experiences are profoundly powerful, and the emotions around this topic are intense and raw. It’s tied up in much bigger questions about the value of openness versus the value of boundaries; about the identity and survival of the Jewish people, not to mention the Conservative movement; about the synagogue’s self-perception as a welcoming and progressive place; and more.

Personally, I don’t know what to think anymore. My gut impulse is to be opposed, but I desperately want to be talked out of it, and I think I’m on my way, in large part because of stories like Saul’s or my friend Alexandra’s. Alexandra and I met on a summer trip to Israel (actually, in a weird coincidence, we had met the summer before in a teen writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa, but we didn’t become friends until the Israel trip). She was deeply involved with her university’s Hillel, worked for a number of Jewish organizations after college, lived in Israel for a year while she was getting her master’s degree, and was just accepted to rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College. She is also the daughter of a woman who was raised Catholic and never converted, so according to the Conservative movement’s interpretation of Jewish law, which traces Judaism through matrilineal descent, she’s not Jewish (she is Reform and they believe in patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent, so it’s not a problem). That is, on its face, ridiculous, and frankly a little racist. I went to grade school with dozens of “full” Jews who went to synagogue maybe twice a year, who had a 10-minute bar mitzvah service as an excuse to throw a $50,000 party, who were not raised with the values of charity, community service, Jewish learning, or any of the other aspects that I find so integral to Jewish identity. In 2017, are we really relying on the medieval notion that there’s some sort of magic blood that makes you Jewish? Why should someone like Alexandra have to prove herself in order to have a Jewish wedding when a “full” Jewish couple who will serve shrimp puffs at their reception and will not set foot in a synagogue again until it’s time for their kid to have his bar mitzvah doesn’t have to pass any sort of test?

The reality is that everyone has different levels of observance, even when both partners are Jewish. Mark wouldn’t keep a kosher home or have Shabbat dinners every Friday night if he didn’t live with me, and my mom probably wouldn’t go to synagogue on a weekly or even a sporadic basis if she wasn’t married to my dad. Everyone is on their own religious journey—on Wednesday, a woman named Kay spoke about having been married to a Jewish man for about two decades before she decided to convert—and while it’s definitely easier when both partners are on roughly the same page religiously, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have a Jewish home or raise a Jewish family. But as Kay said, her marriage didn’t cause the Jewish community to lose her husband or her children, and in fact we gained her. And as Saul said, if interfaith families are made to feel welcome, they may drift away from Judaism, but if they’re not made to feel welcome, they almost definitely will.

Making people feel welcome is a priority for our congregation, which has always been very liberal and progressive. Apart from the thorny question of whether or not the rabbis should perform intermarriages, I thought we were doing a good job, but now I’m not sure. Prior to Wednesday’s event, they held smaller “salon” discussions in synagogue members’ apartments. At my salon, I said something about how I felt that the congregation was welcoming to interfaith couples, to the point where I didn’t even know who was intermarried and who wasn’t. Certainly in my role as a children’s services leader, I am 100 percent certain that there are intermarried parents who bring their kids to my service, but I have no idea who they are and I don’t care. One of the other participants in the conversation, Scott, spoke up and said that he was a convert, that he hadn’t converted until eight years after he and his wife got married, and that he hadn’t felt welcomed during that time. He said that it wasn’t anything specific that anyone said or did; it was simply a feeling of not belonging. After Wednesday night’s event, I understood what he meant. As I listened to the speakers, I found myself having a visceral reaction to the ones that were opposed to intermarriage. Even though I actually agreed with a lot of those speakers’ points, I cringed in the knowledge that they were saying was hurtful and offensive to so many people in the room. I imagined how I’d feel if Mark weren’t Jewish and members of my community were treating our relationship as a threat, and I felt some small, vicarious portion of the pain that interfaith couples must feel all the time. The very fact that we are having this conversation, important as it is, is evidence that non-Jews in our community are seen on some level as a problem, a stain, an impurity. No wonder that they’ll never feel like they fully belong.

Which isn’t to say that anyone dislikes them personally. Nobody is hateful. Nobody is trying to cause anyone else any pain. Everybody wants to be welcoming. But—to finally get to the arguments against intermarriage—Judaism is a very tribal religion, with a long and sorrowful history that makes survival and continuity paramount values. We persisted in maintaining our identity through centuries of oppression and persecution—are we going to water down our standards now because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings? And since the main question the synagogue has been exploring has been whether or not the rabbis should perform intermarriages, certain practical issues arise. If the laws of Moses and Israel mean nothing to you, then signing a marriage contract stating that you are being married in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel means nothing. I don’t take communion when I go to a Catholic church; is it wrong to say that there should be certain privileges that are reserved only for members of the community, whether they’re members by birth or by choice?

Some would say that yes, it is wrong, or at least arbitrary. Our synagogue and the Conservative movement ordain women as rabbis. We perform gay marriages. Why draw the line here? To that, I say that you can convert to Judaism—you can’t convert to maleness or straightness. People’s reasons for not converting are varied and legitimate, and it’s not fair that one half of a couple should have to negate their identity, family, and life history to marry the other half. But, as they say, life isn’t fair. There are a million reasons why otherwise wonderful relationships don’t lead to marriage: distance, career commitments, incompatibility with one or both partners’ family, and so on. Because we are assimilated into a secular society, a lot of people see it as ridiculous that ancient religious ties should be one of those reasons. But I don’t. To me, Judaism is such an important part of my life that it’s like having a child. If you have a child and you enter a new relationship, you tell your partner that they have to accept you child, no matter what, even though it’s not and will never be their child. But, leaving the metaphor, what form does that acceptance have to take? For me, it would require a wholehearted commitment: conversion. But others will disagree. These days, I’m thinking that it’s a little like gay marriage: I wouldn’t have one, but the fact that they’re allowed to exist in no way weakens or cheapens my own experience.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of practicality. Intermarriage is a fait accompli; what matters is how we respond to it. You can’t go backwards, only forwards, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t have to worry about intermarriage when you live in a ghetto walled off from the wider world. But once you’re free, you realize that there’s a lot of world out there. Jews are going to meet, socialize with, befriend, and fall in love with non-Jews, and we should be grateful that we’re sufficiently accepted in this society that that scenario is even possible. See, there’s a silver lining to everything!

So anyway, here are some cupcakes. Speaking of the intermingling of cultures, I made these Guinness and Bailey’s cupcakes for St. Patrick’s Day. As a Midtown East office worker who often likes to venture west during her lunch break, St. Patrick’s Day is one of my least favorite days of the year. Actually, scratch that, as a normal, sober human who does not like encounters with drunk morons at 9 a.m., St. Patrick’s Day is one of my least favorite days of the year. 80 percent of you are not Irish, you’re not fooling anybody with that shamrock temporary tattoo on your cheek. Still, even as a confirmed St. Patrick’s Day grump, I think we can all thank Irish culture for giving us the gift of these tasty cupcakes, whose recipe I am sure was authentically created by Patrick Pearse, St .Brigid, James Joyce, and Bono. They came to me by way of JessBeeCreates.com, where they are in cake form. I halved the cake recipe, which made a dozen cupcakes, but made all of the frosting. Super yummy, and the frosting did not suffer from the fact that we only had off-brand Bailey’s. Happy St. Patrick’s Day and Shabbat Shalom, everybody.

St. Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

Adapted from JessBeeCreates.com

Ingredients

Cupcakes:

  • 1 cup Guinness beer
  • 1 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

Icing:

  • 8 ounces butter
  • 1 pound powdered sugar
  • 1 – 4 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream

Directions

Preheat oven to 350. Add beer and butter to a saucepan and heat until butter is melted. Remove from heat and thoroughly whisk in the cocoa powder. Set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, combine eggs and sour cream. Add in the beer mixture, thoroughly mixing with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pour the beer mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing again with your electric mixer. Pour the batter into a cupcake pan and bake for about 20 minutes.

Make your Bailey’s buttercream icing by combining the butter, powdered sugar, and Bailey’s (start with just one tablespoon, adding additional tablespoons as needed so your icing isn’t too thin). Use the electric mixer to combine thoroughly, blending for about 10 minutes. Wait until your cupcake has cooled completely before adding the icing.

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