The November Dilemma: How Personal Is the Political?

Keren R. McGinity
December 27, 2012
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While December is often a month fraught with religious tension for some interfaith couples, November can actually be even more contentious for politically mixed couples. The notorious “December Dilemma” signifies the manifold tensions and decision-making intermarried couples face regarding reconciling two different faiths at a particular time of the year. The phrase seems to have been first conceived by Rachel and the late Paul Cowan, a Jewish man and a Unitarian-turned-Jew-by-choice woman, who in 1987 co-authored the advice book Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage. The “dilemma” refers specifically to the quandaries faced by individuals and families involved in interfaith relationships about how to celebrate Chanukah and/or Christmas. Do they combine observances within the home, lighting a menorah alongside the electrified tree, or does doing so risk religious syncretism? Do they keep a Jewish home, devoid of anything related to the celebration marking the birth of Jesus, perhaps visiting the Christian in-laws’ home outfitted for that holiday? Then there are the cookies mixed in with the gelt: red and green sprinkles, or blue and white? When the two holidays overlap on the Gregorian calendar, there can be more tension; when they do not, there may be less. For some people involved in interfaith relationships, however, politics trumps religion.

Social movements transform Jewish life by influencing the political decisions we make as Jews. The suffrage movement that sought the right to vote for women and the “second wave” feminist movement that gave birth to the slogan “the personal is political” loomed large for me this fall as Election Day approached, came, and went. As a liberal trans-denominational formerly intermarried Jew living in Massachusetts, the candidates I chose for President and Senator were perhaps obvious: Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren. I panicked when I learned that my ex-husband, a white Christian, planned to vote for Mitt Romney and Scott Brown. Was there nothing I could do to prevent our votes from cancelling each other out? In September I hastily proposed a deal that I thought was reminiscent of the pre-marital negotiation about raising a Jewish child in exchange for taking his Irish surname; I would vote for Brown if he would vote for Obama. A smart man, he readily accepted. Then the November Dilemma hit me. When the polls confirmed that Obama was sure to win Massachusetts with or without our two votes, I knew I had made a mistake in giving away my vote for the best candidate who would become the first woman senator in Massachusetts’ history. Fortunately, I came to my senses in time and told my ex-spouse that Warren deserved and needed my vote more than Obama needed his. I then threw myself into both campaigns, canvassing locally in my own neighborhood for Warren and in New Hampshire for Obama, committed to doing everything in my limited power to help ensure a positive outcome for both. Now that the election is behind us, it occurs to me that the political differences between this Jew and a non-Jew far outweigh our religious differences this year. My realization depicts a pattern established five decades ago by my intermarried predecessors.

Sharing a political worldview with their life partners was as important to Jewish women who intermarried in the last decades of the twentieth century as it was to those who married non-Jews during the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Karla Matzman, who had been living in New Hampshire when she met her future husband in 1986, was convinced that their common social values were a stronger factor than their religious differences: “I remember thinking: ‘Oh my gosh, he’s a Democrat!’” Her pleasure at his political affiliation and immediate attraction suggests that the man’s vote for Mondale and vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a national party ticket, held romantic appeal for the liberal-minded Jewish woman. Some opined that while interfaith marriages were “Odd Couples,” compatible political attitudes, hobbies, or career interests that usually first brought them together also helped sustain their relationship. “My religion is liberal politics!” another woman who participated in my first study of intermarriage commented. When interfaith couples do not have common politics, their differences can generate tension rivaling anything that the December Dilemma presents.

A Democrat paired with a Republican, a Liberal with a Conservative, or a single-issue voter who is Pro-Choice married to someone who is Pro-Life can generate political fireworks that threaten shalom bayit—especially in a presidential election year. The differences in opinion challenge interfaith couples that may or may not also be grappling with how to honor their respective religious traditions, especially if they have decided to raise Jewish children. In the case of Charles Revkin, a born Jew who married a Catholic woman in 1997 and participated in my study of men, being on opposite sides of the abortion issue was very difficult especially when Obama first ran in 2008. Charles supported Planned Parenthood and described. “I’ve always been very pro-choice.” His wife, on the other hand, was “strongly anti-choice.” He summarized: “that, in and of itself, has been a harder issue than the religion.” Whereas he had grown up among Jewish liberals in New York, she hailed from Wisconsin and from a family whose response to the rhetorical question “What is a Democrat?” was: “It’s a kind of insect.” This couple illustrates that the November Dilemma is a real phenomenon for some inter-politic marriages.

The gender differential regarding personal politics is what will influence the extent to which social movements continue to influence Jewish life in the future. Jewish Liberalism changes over time, as historian Deborah Dash Moore eloquently described to a full audience at the Boston JCC on November 19, 2012; the meaning for Jews with partners espousing different politics, however, remains constant. The political was, is, and always will be highly personal. Not all Jews are Democrats, of course, as Sheldon Adelson and the 31 percent of Jews who voted for Mitt Romney made abundantly clear. Yet one would be hard pressed to find an interfaith couple in which the political views of the Jew in the equation leaned less to the left than the views of the non-Jew. It is, after all, partly due to their open mindedness that enables Jews to intermarry in the first place. Although the Jewish vote for Obama in 2012 was smaller than in 2008, the vast majority of Jews stuck by the Democratic Party. Jewish women, who are more liberal than Jewish men, will need to be mobilized, appointed to more positions of power, and paid higher wages in order for Jewish Liberalism to continue to thrive in the future. Let us hope that it does.

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Keren R. McGinity is an internationally recognized gender historian who specializes in American Jews and intermarriage. Dr. McGinity is currently a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Prior to joining the HBI, she was an Associate Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, also at Brandeis University. Before coming to Brandeis, Dr. McGinity was the inaugural Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. She currently serves on the Academic Advisory Council of the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. Her pioneering book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America (published by NYU Press), was selected as a finalist for the 2009 National Jewish Book Award and positively reviewed in the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, Moment and Lilith magazines, as well as in many online publications and scholarly journals. Dr. McGinity’s current book project is titled Unexpected Partners: Intermarriage and Jewish Fatherhood (Indiana University Press, under contract). Dr. McGinity is the founding director of Love & Tradition (www.loveandtradition.com), an Internet based project dedicated to shedding new light on intermarriage in America.

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