When I was growing up in the Northeast in the 1950s and 1960s, the first question asked when anyone in our Jewish community got engaged was, “Are they Jewish?” The question itself was never questioned. It was assumed we would marry within our “tribe.”

In Judaism, the word “tribe” refers to the twelve Tribes of Israel, founded by the sons of ancient patriarch Jacob. In modernity, it often connotes an ingroup-over-outgroup bias that, according to neuroscientists, evolved for humanity’s survival.

The mandate to marry within our tribe typically meant ensuring the Jewish people survived perennial persecution. Some said we must replace the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust.

My parents were first-generation Americans whose parents fled the antisemitic pogroms of Eastern Europe decades before the Holocaust. Yet they raised us as secular Jews, in embracing our Jewish heritage without necessitating religious belief. We celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Chanukah with special feasts. But we also celebrated Christmas with visits to Rockefeller Center’s tree, New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” and Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular. Christmas was for everyone. We assimilated ourselves into mainstream American culture – to some extent: We could have our Rosh Hashanah honey cake and eat our apple pie, too.

So when I brought home David Chandler Bellows, a Protestant whose 17th-century English ancestor sailed to Massachusetts, my parents welcomed him wholeheartedly. My maternal grandfather said he’d “sit shiva” (meaning I was dead to him), to which my mother replied, “Well, Pop, I have a daughter; if you don’t have a granddaughter, that’s your problem.” Thereafter, he embraced our marriage.

Fast-forward 45 years to a conversation with a relative who’s a generation younger than me. I perceived her to be on the liberal, secular end of Judaism, and so she surprised me when she said she wouldn’t sit shiva if her children married non-Jews. Wait, what? She even contemplated that? I thought that variation on the Jewish grief ritual (in being for a living person who married outside the tribe) died with my grandfather’s generation.


I asked my relative why she’d be devastated if her children married non-Jews. She said they needed a spouse “with a similar background and values.” Besides, she wanted Jewish grandchildren. Jewish ethnicity took sole priority. But in assuming Jews share a background and values, she was mistaken.

Consider the compelling argument that Black people shouldn’t be seen as a de-individualized monolith. So too with Jewish people. Surely my relative wouldn’t want her children to marry a Jewish person like me, who chose not to procreate.

Instead of asking, “Is he Jewish?” my parents cared only whether David loved me and would make me happy. Their wish was granted: David has helped me advance my career-driven goals, shares my interests in art and travel, and matches my liberal sociocultural or political values. Our ethnic backgrounds didn’t matter; our views about a life worth living did.

How might my relative cope if any of her children turned out to be gay, or decided not to marry, or didn’t want children? I also wondered how she might react if given the hypothetical dilemma in which she could choose for a child’s spouse either a non-Jew who shared their (and her) liberal politics and secularism or an ultraconservative Jew who defended what I personally consider Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s war crimes against a great many innocent Palestinians in Gaza. To keep peace, I didn’t ask.

Even in these times of heightened white supremacist tribalism in America, I don’t see “circling the wagons” as the answer for any minority group, as understandable as that may be. After all, more extremes forms of us-versus-them mentalities aren’t conducive to the democracy that’s now threatened by Donald Trump and his supporters.

Celebrating one’s ethnicity is one thing. Insisting that ethnicity take top priority in anyone’s self-identity and life choices is another. To a white supremacist, I’m nothing but a Jew. Yet I don’t have to define myself in that monolithic way.

Learning how we do and/or don’t fit our tribe’s traditions can be tough for anyone. But that’s especially true when loved ones make us choose between loyalty to our tribe and loyalty to ourselves, should those diverge.

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