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One Couple, Many Roots

A Traveling Jewish Theatre

"You left with nothing, right? You got on a ship and you went. And maybe all you had was what you were wearing. Maybe you gave birth on a ship, and maybe you lost a daughter, or a son on the way. Maybe you buried them at sea. Maybe you arrived and there was no one there to meet you, but you went, and you found your community."

Intermarriage is an opportunity to think again about what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be Christian. Where does all this leave the intermarried couple? Where is their community? How do couples decide what to pass on to the next generation? What are we saying to these children? You stand at the confluence of an historical development. This is whence you came and here are the traditions. Here is a tree of life. Here is the bread of life, broken for you. Take it.

"When our son was born, we realized we had no one to turn to. We didn't want to be isolated and we wanted to affiliate ourselves to something. We went to a Christian church just down the street, and both of us immediately felt comfortable. We have attended that church ever since. Despite the difficulties, we want our children to have a sense of community. We don't want to mix two religions. It's easier to have one."

When we first started working on our play, we had the idea that the Mennonite character would go into the Jewish heritage and learn about it and perhaps bring back a story, and the Jewish partner would go into the Mennonite's heritage and learn about that. And through that there would be a reconciliation. What we discovered in actually being on our feet, improvising, and going through the lives of the characters and embodying them, was that that is not how it happens. Only when the Mennonite character went more deeply into her own Christian roots, honored, understood, and took them on, instead of running from them, and only when the Jewish character went more deeply into his roots, that they reached, somewhere underneath, this common stream, this very deep place of understanding.

"Choice is something you can do freely when you have a deep sense of who you are and that you are entitled to be who you are. I think my daughter has to, in some sense, choose to be both. To go back to one of our religions made no sense. We could not have raised the kids Catholic or Jewish. The next best thing for us was to create a personal kind of religion, the kind they don't have a passport for. As long as they feel secure within the family, they have that identity."

This is a profound change. It used to be that the boundary between different peoplehoods or cultures or communities was like a fence or a wall. Now it is more like a fringe, what comes on the edge of a piece of cloth and says, "I'm cloth and not cloth at the same time." Given that the boundaries are unclear, we are in the position to say, "Good fences don't make good neighbors, good fringes make good neighbors."

"There is something powerful about staying linked to our ancestors. I now know the name of the town in Lithuania where my grandparents came from. If I don't pass even that to my children, it's over. The sounds and smells don't exist. It's a world that dies, not just one town or one people. We are losing songs. We are losing stories. I don't know how you weigh that, but it is something about losing our humanity. Intermarriage forces you to deal with the question. What are we going to do with our child? What will they know? How will we pass this on? What stories will they be told? What are their stories? What are the songs and the rituals that are going to be incorporated into their life?"

Intermarriage opens a door to maintaining one's roots and, at the same time, reaching out and saying, "We are part of each other. We are part of the common humanity."

Joseph: Let's stop with this roots nonsense. I've had enough chicken soup to last me a lifetime.

Lydia: You're in a state of denial.

Joseph: It's not denial.

Lydia: It is denial. You deny everything. You didn't like your mother's cooking.

Joseph: Well you don't either.

Lydia: Your aunt was too loud. So you ran off to New York to become an "artist." You went through eight years of therapy. You really know who you are, don't you? But when it comes to being a Jew, you're still thirteen years old, complaining about your Bar Mitzvah.

Joseph: Mennonites don't translate poetry. Shtetl Jews don't run around with a camera trying to get photo exhibits. If I had a long beard and a yamulke, would we be married? You want to keep a kosher house? Keep a kosher house and you can forget about having a career!

This collage is from an hour-long tape, entitled "An Open Gate," produced for public radio by A Traveling Jewish Theatre. Personal stories of intermarried couples are woven together with excerpts from ATJT’s play, "Heart of the World." It was this tape that the Plum Village community listened to last year during their Christmas celebration. For a copy of the tape, please send $11 to A Traveling Jewish Theatre, P.O. Box 421985, San Francisco, CA 94142.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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