I have spent the better part of the last four years convincing my parents that I don't need to marry a Jewish girl. Turns out, I was wrong. It's not the first time that's happened, though it may be the first time I'm admitting it to them.
Every Jew of my generation grew up with the irrefutable truth that we had to marry Jewish, or all Jews would die out and everyone who was already Jewish would spontaneously convert.
We were told that with the current rate of intermarriage, Jews would die out in three generations. That was a lot to put on my lanky shoulders. While you're at it, why don't you tell me I'm really Neo and offer to unplug me from the Matrix. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the ship in the "Matrix" is called "Zion."
As a 14-year-old, I was repeatedly instructed that my destiny was to help repopulate the planet with Jews. That's hard to grasp at that age. Back then, I'd only found one girl in the entire city willing to kiss me. If I was going to save my religion, I'd have to get moving.
I lived in a predominantly Latino, Indian and Asian neighborhood, but was exposed to plenty of Jewish girls. I was an active member of United Synagogue Youth, worked at Camp Ramah, and even my high school and college had large populations of Jews (thank you, New York City). Every girl I dated in high school was Jewish, although I can't fully take credit for that choice. A lanky, bespectacled bookworm might do well at a Shabbaton, but that's not exactly the look that most WASPs go for.
Looking for Love in All Kinds of Places
By the time I was graduating college, I'd traded lanky for lean and bookworm for well-read. For the first time in my dating life, I had options, though I did hold on to the irrational belief that if I didn't marry a Jewish girl, Kirk Cameron would win.
I dated a non-Jewish girl senior year, who was convinced that the reason I broke it off was because she wasn't Jewish. Actually, I broke it off because she never made me laugh. Maybe if she was Jewish, she'd have had a better sense of humor. But when she told people I dumped her because of her religion, I began to feel prejudiced.
Haven't Jews always said that people should not be persecuted for their beliefs? So why shouldn't I marry someone wonderful — who just happens to pray while kneeling?
The more I traveled, the more wonderful non-Jews I met. I tried dating all the Jewish women in Alabama, North Dakota and West Virginia, but I wasn't attracted to her.
I ended up with a few non-Jewish girlfriends in a row, even buying a Christmas tree for one of them. That led to the statement most Jewish men of my background have said to their mothers at one time or another.
"Mom, I'm full."
What I said was: "Isn't how she treats people more important than her religion?"
After a few hours of reminding me of everyone from Moses to Sandy Koufax, my mother had to concede that she'd rather I end up with a sweet, loving Christian than a mean, uncaring woman whose mother happened to be born Jewish. And thus, she had to admit that, logically, religion was not her No. 1 priority.
I was off the hook, sort of. I had logically browbeaten my mother into submission, into reluctant permission to marry a non-Jew. But something strange happened. As I grew up and began looking for "the one," I started looking for her to be Jewish.
What dozens of youth leaders and camp counselors had failed to explain to me was the one point I took away from my debate with my mother — that marrying a Jewish woman is simply better for me. It's not about my kids or the future of our entire people. It's about chemistry, and finding someone that's passionate about what I love. And one thing that I love is being Jewish.
I love kibbitzing during kiddish, without having to explain either of those words. I love knowing which baseball players are Jewish, and rooting for them a bit more because of it. I love eating buttered matzah the first morning of Passover (though by the eighth, my passion has dimmed).
I finally realized that I don't have to be Judah Maccabee; I just have to be me. And it's a lot more rewarding to share your life with someone who truly understands it.
I reactivated the J-Date profile my mother had encouraged me to post in college. On day one, I e-mailed Sara. On day two, we met. On day five, we were exclusive. On day 51, I asked her to marry me.
Did I fall in love with Sara because she's Jewish? Without performing a series of bizarre and potentially illegal experiments, I'll never know for sure. But I do know that I enjoyed going to services with her on the High Holidays. I enjoyed eating with her in my brother's sukkah. And I enjoyed looking at pictures of her Bat Mitzvah, knowing she grew up just as lanky and bookwormish as I had.
So when you tell your kids that you want them to find a nice Jewish girl or boy, I suggest that you tell them why. They're not looking for someone Jewish because it's important to you. They're looking for someone Jewish because it's important to them.
I love you, Sara. And I look forward to teaching our kids to marry Jewish, too.
Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been on VH1, ESPN and Comedy Central.