So, I wanted to write a piece about a trope about Jewish characters I’ve seen a lot in the media (and specifically, in original fiction and fanfiction, as well from many asks on here.) that has been leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. The trope in question is: Jews marrying out. The thing is, that I need to put a pretty big disclaimer first.
1. I am an ashki Orthodox Jew-ess. White passing, from London. (My matrilineal side is displaced Lebanese, but being Orthodox, I believe I get my tribe from my patrilineal side, which makes me ashkenazi. I’m happy to talk to people about having displaced mena/Lebanese culture though. Just know that it’s part of my history, but not part of my identity).
2. Interfaith marriages are totally legit, not at all something that should be looked down on, and in fact need representation! Like, interfaith families are super important. So many Jews - even Orthodox ones - I know are from interfaith backgrounds, and they need representation and need to be made to feel as if they are loved. Nothing here should be taken as an attack on actual interfaith marriages and couples.
-So, you might be asking, what’s the problem?
The problem is that any old representation is not always good representation. There are a number of problems with this trope, but the first & more glaringly obvious one being: it’s super common for gentiles to write about Jews marrying out.
(This may be applicable for other minorities too btw, but I see it for Jews all the time.)
You’ve all seen it. The two star crossed lovers: Julia McEnglish & Aaron Jewson. Aaron’s Jewish parents don’t like that he’s dating a goy, Julia can’t imagine giving up Christmas, but they just love each other anyway. Nearly always the minority character’s (although, sometimes it’s both characters as minorities) entire culture is eroticised and Orientalised. It’s their culture that throws up boundaries and difficulties to the relationship. And the tensions and upheaval of the stories are all found in the Jew’s culture being in the way.
Now, does Judaism get in the way of interfaith marriages? Well, yes. Sometimes. Definitely in the Orthodox community. Do I think that this needs to be written about ad nausea? No, and definitely not by non-Jews.
Other reasons why this trope should be put to rest is that it lies close to two other tropes: (1) the Jew marrying their oppressor & (2) Jewish men being repulsed by Jewish women trope.
(1) That first trope is a sliding scale, I’m sure many of these stories aren’t actually about Jews marrying their oppressor. Not every British person represents the dominant Christian society that oppressed Jews, denied them the ability to work, or obtain justice & periodically expelled them. The point is, that when you start putting your stories in vague sort-of history settings (fantasy or not) Jews reading it start feeling a bit uncomfortable.
“Like sure… that Ottoman-esque empire definitely would be best friends with our Jewish coded minority character, everything looks totally legit here.”
“Hah - like, it’s 15th Century venice, but not. Super romantic, artistic, and beautiful. And the Jews are definitely not living in a ghetto.“
Jew’s have a long memory of their relationship with non-Jew’s throughout history, it is very easy to fall into this trope. (If I need to explain to you why this trope is bad, something has gone seriously wrong. Just don’t do it. It’s not even a new idea, it’s been done many times before.)
(2) This is an intra-Jewish issue, and something many Jewish women are speaking about in their own communities, but Jewish misogyny often manifests itself in Jewish men artists (writers, actors, producers, you name it) portraying Jewish women as the negative stereotypes hurled at us by antisemites. There’s a long narrative on this, one that I don’t think is appropriate for this audience. But the point is, even if you’re using what you think are Jewish sources to justify your men-marrying-the-pretty-non-jew story, it probably reeks of sexist antisemitism.
So what should you be writing?
Well, the first thing is: let Jews fall in love with other Jews! What’s wrong with that? We’re great, we’re multifaceted, we deserve to get happy endings. Romance stories are wonderful, and although there definitely need to be more stories with female leads that don’t involve a romance plot (or even subplot) writing romance can be incredibly fulfilling to read. It’d be super awesome therefore if you let us Jews actually feel valued and represented in it, and not make us feel like our culture is something to be fetishised for non-Jews. Or worse, that if you’re a Jew that is interesting/pretty/charismatic/worthy of someone falling in love with: then you’re not going to some lowly Jew to marry. “No-no, you’ve been elevated to non-Jew worthy!” (You get the idea?)
You can even have some exciting Jewish based tension: ashkenazi verses sefardi practices over pesach: “You made RICE for my OMA!?” “What? I checked every grain!” Or, “In my family we daven Nusach Ari.” “I didn’t know you were chabadniks, we use the artscroll siddur in shul, but we have koren at home.” “Oh phew, I worried you were going to say you read from the Birnbaum.” “Hey! We may be Baal Teshuvas, but we’re not stupid!” See, the drama is endless. Jews literally love to crack open their practices and find out how what they do is significantly different.
But what if you really want some interfaith representation?
Now, maybe you’re Jewish and from an interfaith background. Maybe you’re just itching to use some fun creative interfaith holidays for two communities to celebrate. Well, sure, I’m not banning you from writing it. (Although really, you should check yourself a little bit if you’re a non-Jew. Just why is this so important to you?) There are some one ways you can do it:
Make the interfaith relationship already established, this will work best if it’s instead the parents of the main character, but it can work either way. (Extra kudos is said child of interfaith couple gets to marry a Jew.)
Slice off all that creepy fetishisation, and show a loving & already thriving interfaith relationship, over coming hurdles and hardships from the outside world, succeeding because of the strength of their interfaith relationship.
Try to keep in-law drama to a minimum (especially if it’s only the Jew mother in law who is the problem. Don’t do that, it’s awful) and instead show that Judaism in a beautiful and intricate ethno-religious identity, that can survive and exist in an interfaith relationship.
Maybe write a story where there are other Jews also having adventures, and falling in love, but this time with another Jew! So the interfaith relationship doesn’t dominate the story, or make it seem like this is the only way Jews get to be romantic, or happy, in fiction.
One last thing: people, please write more Orthodox Jews. We love adventures too, and there’s so little Orthodox representation in media, that people don’t even know the difference between Orthodox, Haredi & Hassidic. All Jews are great though, y'all the best.
It’s not just our women who are supposed to be undesirable, it’s also our men. There are more books out there than I’d like that pair our women with, and I am regrettably not exaggerating, literal Nazi officers. So obviously: don’t do this, but I think at least part of the reason it happens is that gentiles think our men are all Woody Allen or something. They’re not. As I’m fond of pointing out every time this comes up, slash fanfiction became a mass movement in fandom as a result of two of our men, Shatner and Nimoy, being too conventionally attractive to ignore. Natalie seems to have run into more of the other way around than I have, whereas I’ve see more of Jewish women with gentile men, but either way, the point stands.
Again, none of this is meant to say interfaith relationships shouldn’t be represented–heck, I’m in one since mine never went through with conversion and is a "Jewish-adjacent atheist” now–but when they’re all over the place to the point where we start feeling like gentile authors think all our genders are racing as fast as they can to avoid partnering up with another Jew, something is off kilter.
Remember, there are many scenarios that there is nothing wrong with in a vacuum because they exist IRL but when they’re overrepresented in writing by outsiders, they start to twist.