When I was very young, I fell in love with a Jew. We eloped in the aftermath of September 11—a terror marriage, according to various magazines—and five years later, had a Jewish son, requiring initially a bris and now Hebrew school. Somewhere in the middle of all these decisions and accidents, the half-noticed flurry of quotidian life, I have acquired a pseudo-identity, one that is both nebulous and omnipresent: I am a goy.
My wife is a Jew. My son is a Jew. I am not. Nearly all of my closest friends live in various states of mixed marriages, and if you know any Jews—any urban-dwelling non-Orthodox Jews, that is—it’s nearly impossible that you don’t know at least a few mixed couples. My mother-in-law can recall going to classes in her small-town Ontario synagogue in the 1950s where “Intermarriage is the Second Holocaust” was written on the chalkboard. The attempt to prevent Jewish intermarriage may be the most epically failed social-engineering experiment of all time. The most recent National Jewish Population Survey set the mixed-marriage rate for Jewish newlyweds in North America at 47 percent, but that was 2002, and the rate was accelerating. It is likely that more than half of Jewish newlyweds in North America today are marrying non-Jews. The response from institutional Judaism varies from outright horror to sighing acceptance, but the sighs and the horror don’t matter. Fearing intermarriage is like fearing weather, equally pointless and silly. It is much better to prepare. We are seeing the emergence of a category of gentile that is historically unique: millions of non-Jews who are attached to Jews but not affiliated with Jews. The emergence of a large group of these attached goys (goyim, to be precise) is a highly significant social development, an unprecedented development even, and it raises obvious questions: Who are the goys? What do we mean? And, of course, are we good for the Jews?
I am not going to pretend that I can give a precise definition of a goy. In biblical Hebrew, the word means “nation,” and in Yiddish it is simply “gentile.” Even if the term does have a faint pejorative sense, we don’t have to go very far to reclaim “goy.” It’s a word that Jews use to describe non-Jews, and that’s the sense I mean: non-Jews in a Jewish context. Converts don’t count, obviously. I have resisted conversion because I cannot say that I believe in God, but several atheistic friends have converted without this quibble of mine, spurred by the robust atheism of many Jews who dutifully attend synagogue. A rabbi I once knew told me that Catholics make the best converts to Judaism: They are already used to lighting candles for reasons they only dimly understand. But the converts have put their money where their mouths are, and who am I to doubt their full inclusion among the Chosen People?
Goyishness may at first seem like a variety of philo-Semitism, but it isn’t really. You occasionally meet goys who fall in love with everything Jewish, particularly early in their relationships with Jews. I myself definitely fell into this category, reading Rashi and Pirkei Avot, going to klezmer concerts, and so on. But it soon passed. A certain brand of clichéd philo-Semitism is well-established in North America, of course: Woody Allen and matzo-ball soup and mother-in-law jokes and the rest of it. Pop culture revels in these stereotypes. Political and religious leaders indulge them. Among literary types, they’re commonplace. The clichés are mostly harmless, if sometimes strikingly inaccurate. (Anyone with a Jamaican, Chinese, WASP, or Italian mother can attest that Jewish mothers have no monopoly on the deployment of guilt, for example.) But philo-Semitism can be dangerous, too, particularly in Europeans. Philo-Semites tend to believe that Jews, because of their unique history, are better or should be better than other people, which is a hideous idea; it explains why Israel is held to a completely different standard of conduct than any other country in the world. (Even as a write this, I realize how much it reveals the peculiar position I am in as a goy: I consider myself so intertwined with the Jews, though I am not in any way Jewish, that I distrust Jew-lovers.)
Goyishness is a kind of belonging, with separation—actually a rather pleasant position to be in. Goys are a hyphenated identity in a world of hyphenated identities, pioneers of epiphyte culture. In my son’s kindergarten at a good public school in a nice area of Toronto, almost every kid is half-something; if his class is anything to go by, the world is filling up with black girls with green eyes and blonde hair and rambunctious half-Korean, half-Italian boys. Jews are at the forefront of this hyphenation. There’s a tendency, in the wider discussion of intermarriage, to assume that the phenomenon is something that has happened or is happening to Judaism, an outside force requiring evasive maneuvers. The truth is that the rise of goys in Jewish life over the past 50 years has emerged out of realities within Judaism and not outside them. Partly, the Jewish tendency to exogamy has emerged naturally from the cosmopolitanism of people who have made their homes in the biggest, and most mixed, cities of the late 20th and early 21st century. The institutional incoherency of Judaism has also done its bit. Goys fall between the cracks, and Judaism is full of cracks (“that’s how the light gets in,” according to Leonard Cohen). In Rome, in the year 1555, Pope Paul IV decreed that the Jews of the city could have only one synagogue. Instead of banding together under the impetus of the political nightmare and coming to a theological compromise, the Jews of Rome set up six different spaces for worship within the same synagogue. That magnificent fractiousness means that the disapproval of any given rabbi is more or less irrelevant; if you want a rabbi who approves, just walk a little farther down the counter. When my mother-in-law heard “Intermarriage is the Second Holocaust,” the message failed to sink in, at least in part, because the rabbi who wrote it down was not an authority the way, say, a Catholic priest is a conduit to God.
My experience of rabbis has been like my experience of priests of all types and kinds: I find their presumption of spiritual and moral authority hilarious and somewhat grotesque. Most rabbis—not all—have tended to look at me, when we’re introduced, rather the way a vegetarian looks at a fat man eating a bacon double-cheeseburger—with a mixture of beleaguered tolerance and suppressed abjection. There have been several who have spoken to my wife and not to me. But who cares? Where intermarriage is concerned, they don’t matter anyway. If they mattered, would the majority of Jews be marrying non-Jews? No. For day-to-day affairs, Jewish society is run by the bubbes. And while the rabbis disapprove of intermarriage, for the most part the bubbes have made peace with it. And they are who matter.
The lack of institutional structure—the cracks in the system that have allowed intermarriage to blossom—have another consequence for the lives of goys; our households necessarily work idiosyncratically. This may seem like a minor point, but its consequences are vast. In general the idiosyncrasy of the contemporary marriage is one of the least understood and most powerful forces shaping the future. The fact that your family doesn’t have to be like other people’s families, that in a sense you can’t be like other people, is transforming private life, and for everybody, not just those of us in mixed marriages. The plethora of magazine and newspaper articles about trends in family life doesn’t establish any pattern other than the constant shifting of the patterns—family life has become an always-turning kaleidoscope. The mixed Jewish family is at the center of that transformation: We are among the clearest examples of how identity has become a choice, rather than an irreducible substance.
When my son’s Sunday school classes are finished, we go out and eat bacon for lunch—my son and I but not my wife. When my wife and son go out for Yom Kippur services, I stay home to bake the lasagnas for the break fast. (This is a side benefit to having a goy around.) We have decided, for reasons that are more or less unrelated to Judaism, to have a digital Shabbat in our house—no screens of any kind for one day a week. And when we decided to take this step we chose to block off Friday night to Saturday night for the holiday, without giving it much thought. We even do 25 hours, not 24, following the principle of building a fence around the law. We build a fence around the law, which we violate simply by the existence of our family.
I know that some will find these choices distasteful—shallow playacting, reducing religious matters to mere lifestyle questions. Perhaps so. My point is that when I look around the mixed households that I know, I am amazed not by the evidence of the dissolution of Judaism but by the way Jewish practices continue to exert themselves in the lives of people whom they should properly exclude. Goys necessarily have a fluid relationship to ethnic identity. Like Barack Obama, they are going to choose who they are, whom they belong to, and who belongs to them. One consequence of the destabilization of ethnic identity is that some Jews will decide to have nothing to do with Judaism. Another consequence is that some non-Jews will decide to act like Jews. The bris for my son was the most moving event of my life. Because the man who holds the baby for the ceremony has to be a Jew, my dad couldn’t do it, so we got my wife’s grandfather’s friend, a Holocaust survivor. The ceremony combined the nonsensical with the eminently reasonable: The circumcision itself a relic from Middle Eastern shepherds dead for 5,000 years contained within a small party eight days after the birth to recognize and to celebrate the existence of a new human being. I was just happy my son was alive and that there were people around who cared.
The traditional way of viewing mixed marriage is as a threat to Jewish life, akin to the explosion of ultra-Orthodox births or the continued existential crisis of Israel. I’m not sure this view is altogether healthy. Some of us are good friends to have. Chelsea Clinton’s a goy. Mark Kelly’s one. In my experience, and I admit my evidence is entirely anecdotal, goys are much more hawkish than their partners on the question of Israel. I remember returning home from a summer job working at a children’s camp one year, and an ancient relative asked me, entirely unselfconsciously, “So, I heard last summer you were working for Jews.” Every time Israel comes on the news I hear again that tone of casual anti-Semitism she assumed we shared. Even in multicultural, boring, agreeable Toronto, the Hebrew school has security guards and computerized entry passes. Somebody wants to blow the children up. Goys know that this is not normal.
Goys, it seems obvious to me, are potentially an immense strength. They are exactly the kind of people you want for friends. God agrees with me, or at least the Torah does. It’s always Ruth who gets the attention in the wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews; “Your God will be my God, your people my people” is the Corinthians 1:13 of mixed marriages. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, a goy, never gets her due. She saves his life when, in a confusing twist, God briefly decides to kill him on his way home to Egypt out of Midian; she saves him by circumcising their sons Gershom and Eliezer and placing the foreskins at his feet. Later when Aaron and Miriam complain that Moses has married a non-Jew, God punishes them by giving Miriam leprosy. Why shouldn’t contemporary goys, as invested as Zipporah, not be just as useful?
Recently, my wife and I were toying with the idea of having another baby, contemplating different kids’ names. For a boy, I suggested Simcha, which I absolutely love; it means “joy.” “A kid deserves a name his father can pronounce,” my wife countered. After Sunday school the other day, my son described the rules of building a sukkah to me. “You have to be able to see three stars through the roof,” he said. I had that feeling I so often have when new facts about Judaism are communicated to me: That is crazy and beautiful.
When my son started attending Sunday school, at first I didn’t want to go to the parent meetings and school holiday celebrations. I didn’t want that goy-meets-a-rabbi feeling. But one day, around Hanukkah, I went to pick him up and saw my folly. I realized instantly, looking over the classroom, that there’s not much difference between his Jewish class and his regular kindergarten class. My son’s best friend there is a kid whose dad is a 6-foot-6 Indonesian engineer. Another dad is a professional DJ with shoulder-length dreads. My son’s experience of learning about Judaism will not be homogenous. This is the future: a kid with ice-blue eyes and blonde hair makes friends with a couple of black sisters, and they’re all Jews.
I had another reaction, too, looking over that room of the mixed and the mixed-up. These are my people, I thought. It’s like what Bernard Malamud said at the end of “Angel Levine:” “There are Jews everywhere.” There are goys everywhere, too.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a columnist for Esquire. His latest book, How Shakespeare Changed Everything, will be published this spring. Follow him on Twitter @StephenMarche.