The Biden-Harris victory Saturday ushered in several historical firsts: President-elect Joe Biden, who will turn 78 on November 20, is the oldest man ever to become President of the United States; Kamala Harris will be both the first woman and the first person of color to become Vice President; and Harris’s husband of six years, Douglas Emhoff, will be both the first American to earn the title “Second Gentleman,” and the first Jewish person in that role.
Mind you, for the time being, the Harrises won’t be living in the White House, but in Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the vice president of the United States, on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. And it stands to reason that over the next few months we’ll get over the newness of having a woman of color standing a heartbeat away from the presidency. Also, to be sure, we’ll get over our initial annoyance with the fact that the VP is married to a Jewish man.
That last one is probably tragic, as it represents the wide acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in American society. Only a few decades ago, intermarriage was causing great anxiety and a rift that tore up our communities. Now it’s been reduced to a factoid. No big deal. Mr. Emhoff’s mother, Barbara, when asked about her son’s religious upbringing, said: “He was bar mitzvahed in New Jersey, I can tell you that.”
He then married film producer Kerstin Emhoff, a woman of mainly Swedish descent from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They were married for 16 years and had two children. After their divorce, her ex-husband married Kamala Harris in 2014. According to Harris, she and Kerstin are close friends. See? No fuss, no muss. Being a Jew who’s been married twice to non-Jewish women is just not such a big deal.
Irene Katz Connelly on Friday confirmed the above notion in the Forward (Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff made history for interfaith families. All Jews should celebrate that): “According to a 2013 Pew survey, the rate of interfaith marriages among non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the majority of the American Jewish population, is 71%. So it’s more likely than not that the first Jewish couple to land in the highest echelons of the executive branch would be an interfaith one.”
But wait, there’s a wrinkle. Because Katz Connelly is clearly in pain over her own familial status and the fact that some of us are still alarmed by the disappearance of 71% of America’s Jews.
She wrote: “If, like me, you’re a Jew with a non-Jewish parent, you probably weren’t totally surprised when Israeli education minister Rafi Peretz compared intermarriage to a ‘second Holocaust.’ While we decorate Christmas trees with Jewish stars, while we teach our non-Jewish relatives the difference between bar and bat mitzvah, while our non-Jewish parents drill us on our Torah portions and gamely erect sukkahs in the backyard, we get to read mournful think pieces lamenting our existence as a ‘disheartening’ trend that threatens ‘Jewish-peoplehood power’ and inevitably leads to the creation of non-Jewish families. We are presented with the opportunity to join youth organizations that, until 2014, called on teenage leaders to ‘refrain’ from dating non-Jews. And we can take sponsored trips to Israel whose tacit purpose is to prevent us from repeating the errors of our elders.”
She argues: “Claims that interfaith marriage is a threat to Jewish survival rely on a belief that only children with traditional Jewish upbringings are Jewish ‘enough;’ such arguments disregard data suggesting that 60% of interfaith couples raise their children in partially or culturally Jewish homes.”
And that, dear reader, is the new norm in Jewish American society. It’s not news to you or me, but the sudden epic change in Washington, DC, has brought it home in as powerful a way as can be imagined. Katz Connelly celebrates the victory of intermarriage over Jewish marriage: “I’m looking forward to Christmas stockings stuffed with chocolate gelt and Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremonies during which Harris fulfills the time-honored interfaith tradition of mumble-mouthing her way through the prayers.”
“Public acceptance of the Harris-Emhoff clan could help more interfaith families venture into Jewish life, ultimately strengthening and broadening the Jewish community,” she writes, adding that “the duo, with all their ‘firsts,’ represent a choice for American Jews.”
Yes, they do.