Descendants of Immigrants Now Quicker to Intermarry
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Klezmer music cued Sunanda Ghosh’s entrance. She walked down the aisle in a white organza gown, arm in arm with her parents. Her mother, Krishna, wore a sari. In deference to the occasion, her father, Avijit, wore a black yarmulke atop his head.
Greeting her in front of the chuppah, the canopy that traditionally frames Jewish weddings, was her husband-to-be, Michael Poulshock.
Their wedding would unfold under the lace-fringed cloth woven by a family that had perished in the Holocaust, a reminder of the atrocity that raised alarms for Jews over their survival as a people. Now, intermarriage itself was raising alarms.
Michael, the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria, stole a short, quick breath. He smiled at his bride, the daughter of Hindu immigrants from India, and pressed her hand into his.
Unions such as theirs have become so common, a word has been invented to describe them: “Hinjew.” They signal a novel landscape of love and marriage for newcomers to this country. It no longer takes generations, as it did for turn-of-the-century immigrants, to marry into America.
Under the chuppah a week ago, two people, two traditions, two families joined in a deep reinvention that also contained elements of loss.
“Welcome to Mike and Su’s wedding,” Reconstructionist Rabbi Rebecca Alpert said to guests at the Top of the Towers, the 50th floor of a Center City conference center. She had agreed to marry the couple even though Sunanda is not Jewish. Most rabbis would not.
On one side of the chuppah stood Krishna and Avijit Ghosh, who themselves broke with custom to marry for love three decades ago in Calcutta.
They were delighted with Michael, 28, and could not wait to show him off to their relatives at a second ceremony, a Hindu one in their homeland.
On the other side stood Joe and Sally Poulshock. They, too, were beaming. Still, they could not help but wish they were now accepting Sunanda, 29, at their synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill.
“We know the policy,” Joe Poulshock, once a vice president at the Conservative synagogue, had said. “There’s no way we can celebrate this marriage there. It’s a little sad for us, because we can’t share this with [our congregation].”
Michael had wanted a Jewish wedding, even though he is not religious. He was doing it for his parents – and for himself.
“It’s to honor that [Judaism] is a part of my life experience,” he had said.
Some traditions were important to him. The wedding was taking place after sunset, so as not to violate the Sabbath. And the couple would drink wine from a kiddush cup.
There had been no “aufruf” at their synagogue, a ceremony on the Sabbath before the wedding to publicly recognize the union. And there would be no “ketubah,” or marriage contract.
Never mind, the Poulshocks had said.
“We could look at them and see they were happy,” Sally had said. “So, you know, you accept. You more than accept. You share the joy with them. . . . It’s some indescribable feeling walking your kid down the aisle.”
For a time, Michael had wondered whether the biggest gesture to the past that his parents wanted from him was the choice of a Jewish wife.
When he was in his early teens, his mother had left on his nightstand an article, clipped from a Jewish weekly. Intermarriage, he remembered it concluding, was responsible for the dwindling American Jewish population. As Michael began dating, his parents “would ask not: ‘What’s she like? Is she nice to you?’ but ‘Is she Jewish?’ ”
Nearly half of American Jews who have married between 1996 and 2001 have married non-Jews, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
About 1970 – nearly a century after significant numbers of Jews arrived here – “is when the numbers really increased, and with that the communal hand-wringing,” said Beth Wenger, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
By contrast, it took only one generation of living in America for the most recent immigrants to intermarry at a high rate. About 30 percent of the U.S.-born children of Asian and Latino immigrants have married outside their ethnic group.
Some attribute the speed of that assimilation to the background of the immigrants and the timing of their arrival. Many were professionals able to bypass ethnic enclaves. And they came after 1965, when the country was being transformed by the civil-rights movement.
“One’s choice to marry and . . . have children is really the most intimate of human choices,” said Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation. “The ability to do this with people of different traditions shows we’ve reached a certain level of tolerance that was unimaginable 50 years ago.”
But some see a loss.
“We know that American Jews can survive under persecution, but there has not been a test of whether they can in a free and open society,” said sociologist Rela Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.
“Freedom is the freedom to leave: to go into the mainstream,” she said. “There is the sense with intermarriages, ‘Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.’ ”
Michael pulled his left hand out of his pocket to slip a platinum band on Sunanda’s finger.
“Ani le dodi ve dodi le,” Michael said in Hebrew. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”
Sunanda repeated the couplet from the Song of Songs.
“Ani le dodi ve dodi le.”
She had been nervous about the Hebrew. “I’m going to totally mess it up,” she thought.
She had been nervous about the whole ceremony, really. For a week, she had been bolting up at 5 a.m. Her mind would race with things to do: Call the florist; call the bakery; tally the lamb vindaloo and salmon dinners among the RSVPs. That morning, a last-minute hunt for stockings had precipitated tears in the middle of Lord & Taylor.
Then, as now, it was Michael who steadied her.
“Blessed, blessed, blessed is the sacred joy of lovers,” Rabbi Alpert declared, “now one with each other.”
Although the two grew up only 13 miles from each other in South Jersey, their backgrounds had kept them apart.
Michael, a Cherry Hill East graduate, went to Hebrew school until sophomore year.
Sunanda prayed before silver statuettes of the god Ganesh, now on an altar in a closet of the Ghoshes’ home.
He spent his summers at camp. She spent them in Calcutta, becoming fluent in Bengali, becoming close to relatives there and learning the elegant postures of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form.
As a teenager in Medford, Sunanda had been taunted: “Hindu, Hindu.”
“It made me want to be more Hindu,” she said.
Her boyfriends, for the most part, had not been Indian. They had not been white, either. They were outsiders like herself.
As for Michael, only one of his girlfriends was Jewish.
He and Sunanda met three years ago at the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, both drawn by a shared commitment to peace and social justice.
“It was really interesting to me that I was falling in love with a white, Jewish man,” she said.
Before Michael’s grandparents died last year, they sat him down. Think hard before becoming committed to someone who is not Jewish, they said.
“I always thought, and maybe it comes from watching too many Hollywood movies, that I would just fall in love with whomever I fell in love,” he said. “I just had a romantic belief there was a soul mate out there, and why would she necessarily be Jewish?”
If Sunanda had wanted a Hindu husband, her father could have turned to the age-old tradition of arranged marriage.
“Let’s say she didn’t find Michael, and she was having a tough time finding the right person,” Avijit Ghosh said. “I wouldn’t brush it off as archaic. . . . Parents sometimes can be a better judge.”
Some Americans with roots in India return to find for their son or daughter a suitable match based on caste, educational background, and astrological chart. Others turn to “matrimonial ads” in newspapers such as India Abroad.
An array of ethnic “spouse markets” has cropped up in reaction to intermarriage. Web sites such as indianmatchmaker.com allow singles to arrange their own matches. A dating service called “Mera Pyar” – Hindi for “my love” – arranges speed dates for Indian Americans. And a college dance-party circuit, pumped up by hip-hop hits from Bombay musicals, hooks up young people from similar backgrounds.
But Avijit Ghosh does not believe in resisting change.
“There are some Indians who have lived here for 40 years and they still can’t get over the fact that they’re not in the same world. I decided that’s one thing I wasn’t going to be in life.”
“We can bend, we’re flexible,” his wife, Krishna, said.
Anyway, this would not be the end of their daughter’s relationship with India, the Ghoshes knew. Michael and Sunanda had traveled the Himalayan foothills together. And next month, they would all go – the Poulshocks and the Ghoshes – for the second ceremony.
Michael, dressed in a kurta – tunic and pants – would arrive on horseback with his entourage during a part of the ceremony called the “Baraat.” Then he and Sunanda, his kurta tied to her red sari, would circle a consecrated bonfire to seal their union once again.
At the Top of the Towers, it was time for the finale. Both Michael and Sunanda stomped on the glass wrapped in a white cloth. Their guests cheered the explosion of sound.
Then, the DJ cued up the supercharged song “Baraat” from the movie Monsoon Wedding.
“Is it a Jewish ceremony or is it not? Is it a traditional ceremony or not?” Michael asked. “Who’s to tell me when I’m a Jew or not a Jew? Who’s to say when tradition can or can’t be reinvented?”
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