Under the Huppah With a Shikse Goddess: The Performance of Jewish Rituals in Non-Halakhic Situations

BY: Yaelle Frohlich

In many ways it was the true American love story: teenage friends, Stanford University buddies and young professional lovebirds. Chelsea Clinton, non-Jewish American political princess, and Marc Mezvinsky, Jewish Democrat, tied the knot on July 31 – under a huppah and in front of a framed ketubbah, the bridegroom wrapped in his tallit and sporting a black yarmulke. If Chelsea were not Methodist, one of Bill and Hillary’s devotees might have listed the affair on OnlySimchas.com.

In addition to reigniting the impending-doom style debate about Jewish intermarriage in America, the wedding sparked an interesting question among Jewish internet commentators: what should we make of the use of Jewish rituals in an exogamous marriage ceremony, which was co-officiated by a Reform rabbi and a Christian minister?

Jerusalem Post Opinions contributor Michael Freund expressed incredulity at the warm welcome that the union received from some Jewish journalists and spectators.[i] “To begin with, this was an intermarriage, for God’s sake!” wrote Freund. “Never mind that both sides are long-standing Democrats. After 3,000 years of loyally marrying within the fold, a young Jewish man has tossed aside his family’s – and our people’s chain of tradition and married outside the faith.” Drawing attention to Mezvinsky and Clinton’s Jewish wedding rituals, Freund continued pointedly, “And [Mezvinsky] did so by appropriating the ultimate symbols of Jewish fidelity – a yarmulke, a tallit, a huppa – even as he trampled on everything which those symbols represent.”

Conversely, Los Angeles blogger Ilana Angel did not vociferously oppose the intermarriage (“[l]ove is elusive”), despite admitting that part of her feels sad when a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman because their children will not be Jewish.[ii] However, Angel did explicitly express uncertainty at the conspicuous inclusion of Jewish elements in the Clinton-Mezvinsky intermarriage ceremony. “I think it’s a little odd to wear a tallit and kippah, sign a ketubah, and recite the 7 blessings, when you are marrying a person who is not Jewish,” wrote Angel. She continued:

“Why bother?  If he can have his children not be Jewish, does it not seem like a bit of a farce that he would have such important Jewish traditions in his wedding? I also find it interesting that in the group of released pictures, they included some of the couple with the ketubah, under the huppah, and him in his tallit.  Why the need to publicize the Jewish aspects of the wedding?  It’s lovely, and she looks beautiful, but she did not convert, so why push all the Jew ‘ish’ stuff?”

Angel may not realize it, but her questions – and underlying attitude toward intermarriage – in her post are at the heart of a very deep, and very old, Jewish identity conflict, an inner and individual war that is yet tied – frustratingly, inextricably – to the traditional interpretation of Jewish law.

Although Marc Mezvinsky may now be one of the better-known Jews to have stood under the huppah with a non-Jewish bride, he certainly is not one of the first. It took me a few weeks to recall where I had seen the scenario before. Then, suddenly, it hit me like a Cossack in the kishkes: the 2004 Adam Sandler movie, “50 First Dates.

Apparently, I was not the only one to notice. The incredibly short scene, in which Sandler marries Drew Barrymore, an amnesiac who can only remember one day at a time, also struck The Forward’s Opinions editor, Daniel Treiman.[iii] As Treiman noted, in the movie there is absolutely nothing Jewish about Sandler’s character apart from his name, Henry Roth, until the end of the movie, when Sandler whips out a huppah, tallit and yarmulke from seemingly nowhere. Partially based on this typically-Sandler, token Jewish addition, Treiman humbly crowned Sandler “the most important living Jewish commentator.” “The sudden appearance of a traditional Jewish wedding canopy and ritual garb is treated with utter nonchalance,” wrote Treiman. He continued:

“Now, some might find this jarring, but I would counter that it brilliantly reflects the zeitgeist. To be an American Jew today is to be, like Sandler, a part of the mainstream, not apart from it. In our daily lives, most of us are not so different from our non-Jewish neighbors […] At the same time, we’re not abashed when it comes to expressing our Jewishness. Getting hitched under a huppa is no longer so exotic. That’s why […] 50 First Dates may very well be the single most accurate cinematic depiction of contemporary American-Jewish identity.”

However, that nonchalant “Jewish identity” that Treiman describes, no matter how an individual or a denomination may try to reinterpret or alter the Torah, will always, inevitably, even if unconsciously, be forced to come into contact with and, possibly, confront the traditional interpretation – the tradition that has passed from generation to generation, outlasted numerous sects and false messiahs and still serves to inspire, guide, challenge, and guilt Jews of all stripes.

Intermarriage is one such instance in which “contemporary American-Jewish identity” may clash with the application of Jewish law. The ban on exogamy stems from Deuteronomy 7:3: “Ve-Lo tithatten bam; bittekha lo titten li-beno u-bitto lo tikkah li-benekha,” “And you shall not intermarry with them; do not give your daughter to his son, and do not take his daughter for your son.” As such, according to Jewish law, kiddushin (the act of Jewish marriage consecration) between a Jew and non-Jew does not take effect (Kiddushin 68b, Yevamot 45a); the marriage has no valid halakhic status whatsoever.

Yet, paradoxically, many of today’s intermarrying Jews incorporate important legal elements of kiddushin – elements discussed in the same Talmud tractate as the ban on intermarriage, such as the huppah – into their halakhically inconsecrable wedding ceremonies. For, ultimately, just when everyone thinks that pop-culture Jewishness, with its Yiddishisms, Flushing accents and obsession with Chinese food, is as immemorial as daily religion need be, a good life cycle event is all it takes to bring the self-identifying Jew (of any denomination) back to the realization that Jewish identity is tied to Jewish ritual – its yarmulkes and tallitot, huppot and ketubbot – ancient specifications and all. Interpersonal mitsvot (mitsvot bein adam la-havero) are also of paramount importance to Jews of all affiliations, but the mitsvot identified with personal milestones are almost exclusively ritualistic, and hence the rituals, whether or not they are halakhically applied, become a vehicle for the positive assertion of Jewish identity.

When Jewish rituals are incorporated into a non-halakhic situation, a Jewish identity conflict (or, at its mildest, a consciousness or consideration) always ensues . Even if the individual choosing the paradox remains unconflicted, the paradox will be considered, analyzed, possibly even written about by spectators of the event.

Although Daniel Treiman may be right about a new, accepted nonchalance among Jews and non-Jews when it comes to Judaism in the public sphere, the phenomenon of paradoxical Jewish observance is hardly new to Jewish society. The Talmud Yerushalmi relates a case in which Jacob of Kephar Naborayya was asked whether the son of a non-Jewish mother could be circumcized on Shabbat (Yevamot 2:6).[iv] This implies a situation that might surprise some: a Jewish man had a child with a non-Jewish woman and subsequently wanted to circumcise his non-Jewish son – essentially to bring into the Covenant of Abraham a child not even counted as a Jew.

Even in America, the concept of applying halakhic ritual to non-halakhic situations came around long before Marc Mezvinsky and Adam Sandler, though exogamy among Jews was far less common prior to World War II.[v] In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1790s, a Jewish man, Moses Nathans, had a baby boy with his non-Jewish mistress and asked that his synagogue’s cantor give the Gentile child a circumcision (in 1794, Nathans was successful in petitioning for his mistress’s Orthodox conversion, and the two were subsequently married at his Orthodox shul).[vi] In another scandal, Mordecai M. Mordecai was accused in 1785 of conductinng a Jewish marriage ceremony for his niece, who had previously had a Christian ceremony with her non-Jewish husband Matthew Pettigrew.[vii] “The most Pettigrew might have done,” wrote Gurock, noting that Pettigrew seems to have had no interest in converting to Judaism, “was ‘to affirm in what is stated therein’ in the Jewish marriage contract regarding his obligations to his wife under Jewish law.”[viii] Mordecai was forced to face a congregational trial but denied the allegations that he conducted the intermarriage ceremony.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are quite a few other areas of Jewish observance impacted by the popular habit of selecting which Jewish practices to keep and which to ignore. In his professional capacity, long-time Hillel education director and columnist Richard Israel encountered queries inherently full of contradictions regarding Jewish law. In 1994, he published a collection of such anecdotes consisting of “questions the Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law, never even thought about […] questions I have come to think of as Kosher Pigs.”[ix] (“Kosher Pigs” also happens to be part of the book’s title.) For example, one man wanted to know whether there were any local kosher-for-Passover restaurants he could patronize for a business lunch on the first day of Passover – even though work (including driving to the restaurant) on that day is forbidden.[x] Israel was once even asked by a non-Jewish woman whether it was against the law for the Jewish man she was having an affair with to sleep with her during menstruation.[xi]

No matter how open one’s mind may be, no matter how live-and-let-live one’s attitude toward observance, the combination of observance and non-observance is not simple to negotiate emotionally or justify intellectually. How individuals choose to acknowledge and express their Jewish identity – and how onlookers perceive that expression – remains a fascinating and, possibly, disturbing part of the modern Jewish experience.

Yaelle Frohlich (SCW ’10) is a first-semester M.A. student at BRGS majoring in Modern Jewish History.

[i] Michael Freund, “Will Bill Clinton’s Grandchildren be Jewish?” The Jerusalem Post. August 8, 2010, available at: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=184453.

[ii] Ilana Angel, “Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky Tie a Jew ‘Ish’ Knot,” Keeping the Faith: A Blog by Ilana Angel, July 31, 2010, available at: http://www.jewishjournal.com/keepingthefaith/item/chelsea_clinton_and_marc_mezvinsky_tie_the_knot_20100731.

[iii] Daniel Treiman, “Adam Sandler, Jewish sociologist,” New Jersey Jewish News, July 3, 2008, available at: http://njjewishnews.com/njjn.com/070308/opAdamSandler.html.

[iv] Found in Jacob Neusner, The Talmud of the Land of Israel, vol. 21 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 82-83. Jacob of Kephar Naborayya was later lashed, willingly, by R. Haggai for this mistake. As only the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, only the circumcision of a Jewish male, who must be circumcised, would justify breaking Shabbat. See also Baruch Litvin, Jewish Identity: Modern Responsa and Opinions on the Registration of Children of Mixed Marriages (New York: Feldheim, 1965), p. 22.

[v] This is from a personal interview with Jeffrey Gurock, Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University, from April 21, 2010, conducted for my senior Honors thesis at Stern College for Women. See Yaelle Frohlich, “Jewish Identity and Interfaith Relationships in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud,” April 2010, locatable in the Stern College library.

[vi] Jeffrey Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009), p. 36.

[vii] Ibid. 38.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Richard Israel, The Kosher Pig: And Other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life (Los Angeles: Aleph Design Group, 1994), p. 4.

[x] Ibid., p. 5.

[xi] Ibid., p. 6.