A Jewish businessman warned his son against marrying his non-Jewish girlfriend. The son explained that she’s converting to Judaism. "It doesn't matter," the father said. "A shiksa will cause problems." They married anyway and, sometime after the wedding, the father noticed the son no longer came to work on Saturdays, the busiest day at their family store. "My wife doesn’t want me working on Shabbos," protested the son. "See," said the father said. "I told you not to marry a shiksa!”
Last week, most of America was obsessed with the wedding of Chelsea Clinton to Marc Mezvinsky. Dubbed by some as America’s “Royal Wedding,” it was a $3 million affair (including $600,000 for tents) held at the former estate of John Jacob Astor IV in Rhinebeck NY, about two hours north of Manhattan. The mansion was built in 1902, and has an indoor tennis court and a white marble swimming pool. The current owner is Kathleen Hammer, a contributor to Hillary Clinton's presidential and Senate bids, though it’s not clear that she herself was on the guest list.
That list is among the most secret and coveted in recent memory. There were so many rumors about who was invited and who wasn’t. Dozens of celebrities, prominent politicians and captains of industry checked their mailboxes daily and saved the date on their calendars, yet most were snubbed. The wedding remained a relatively intimate affair with about 500 guests.
To most of the American Jewish community, the big deal was that not only were “we” included in this illustrious celebration, we were co-stars. Moreover, we proudly sought to identify the trappings of yiddeshkeit that would render the simcha at least “kosher-light.” Chelsea is a vegan, so almost all the food (with the exception of one organic beef dish) was vegetarian. Marc wore a kippa and tallit, the couple signed a ketubah, read the seven blessings and were married under a chupah, albeit on Shabbat. The ceremony was co-officiated by Rabbi James Ponet, a Reform rabbi who serves as Yale University’s Jewish chaplain, and the Reverend William Shillady.
Neither Al Gore, nor his estranged wife Tipper, was invited. President Obama and the First Lady were, but could not attend. And then I thought about their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and how their lives might evolve over the course of their father’s presidency and thereafter.
The enemy of my enemy is my son-in-law?
The comparison between their current situation and Chelsea’s tour of duty in the White House is interesting. Malia, the older daughter, is 12, the age Chelsea was when her father was first elected. Both Malia and Sasha attend the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, the same school Chelsea attended. Their pet is Bo, a Portuguese Water Dog. Chelsea had Buddy, a Labrador Retriever.
Chelsea enjoyed many fine meals at the White House but never had a Seder. The Obama girls have already had two. In fact, their father is the first president to hold these affairs and apparently takes them seriously. The event includes readings from the Haggadah, and Sasha and Malia asked the four questions and also found the afikomen.
We can only imagine what they wished for. I suspect that, at 12 and 9, they are still too young to be thinking about future husbands. However, in a decade or two, what is the likelihood that, like Chelsea, they’ll also marry Jews? Bill and Hillary have always seemed to have many Jewish friends. As president, Bill Clinton had five and a half Jewish cabinet ministers: Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Dan Glickman, Robert Reich, Mickey Kantor and Madeline Albright. Timothy Geithner, President Obama’s Treasury Secretary, is Jewish, as are his Budget Director, Peter Orszag, and Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, both of whom have cabinet member status. George W. Bush didn’t appoint any Jews to his cabinet when elected president and, not surprisingly, his daughter Jenna married a gentile.
Whatever romantic fate awaits them, it seems clear that the Obama girls will enjoy and/or endure celebrity status comparable to that which has attended Chelsea for nearly twenty years. To their credit, the Clintons managed to shield Chelsea from their tumultuous, Machiavellian marriage, and she has always enhanced the family’s image. At her request, Bill lost nearly 20 pounds in advance of the big day, and he fought back tears as he walked his daughter down the aisle. One can only wonder what sacrifices Barack Obama will make as he hands his girls off to their lucky suitors.
Endgame for endogamy
According to the Jewish Federation’s National Jewish Population Survey, intermarriage rates in the US have sky-rocketed in the past 60 years. In 1950, fewer than 6% of Jews who married were choosing partners outside the faith. By 1970, that number more than doubled, to 13%. In the 1980s, it nearly tripled, as 38% of Jews were marrying non-Jews. The number rose to 47% by the mid-1990s and is now over 50%. It should be noted that Jews are not entirely to “blame” for this trend. Fifty years ago, it would be challenging for any Jew to find an American gentile (then overwhelmingly Christian) willing to marry them. Now, very few seem to care.
As we lament the erosion of the Jewish community in America, we can take small comfort that this phenomenon is not unique to our people. According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey, twenty years ago fewer than 25% of American couples did not share the same religion. As of a decade ago, that number rose to 31%. In 2008 it reached 37% and is likely to increase as the country becomes increasingly color-blind and welcoming of other faiths.
As a result of this persistent demographic pattern, extended over half a century, the number of Jews in the United States is steadily declining. Therefore, if Malia and Sasha attend Stanford or any other prestigious college ten years from now, there are likely to be fewer Jews on campus than there were over ten years ago when Chelsea and Marc met. If they want to follow in Chelsea’s footsteps, they had better hurry.
Lyon (Lenny) Roth is a senior executive at an international wealth management firm and a member of Ben Gurion University's Board of Governors.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 8, 2010
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010