LA JOLLA, Calif. — Back in Washington, Republicans and Democrats sound more hateful toward each other than ever. But on a personal level, Americans are increasingly tolerant of their differences. A rising number of marriages across racial and religious lines, and between same-sex couples, are changing the complexion of American families.
We've been touring the country recently to talk about our new book, "Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families." Haggadahs are narratives used at a Seder, a ritual meal marking the Jewish holiday of Passover (coming up on April 18) that celebrates the liberation of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. The holiday will have a special meaning this year, and we've been joking that our new press agent, Hosni Mubarak, has done a good job of reminding the world that this ancient story still resonates today.
We've been in a mixed marriage for almost 45 years (Cokie is Catholic, Steve Jewish), and the message of our little book is a simple one: Inclusion is better than exclusion. Respecting and even embracing each other's traditions is the key to any enduring union.
That message has been warmly received at many Jewish institutions, such as the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture here in La Jolla, for one reason: reality. Every study shows that at least half of all young Jews are "marrying out" and in the West, the rate is much higher.
We can look out at an audience and know that almost every Jew listening to us has a close relative or family friend in an interfaith marriage. As The Forward, a liberal Jewish newspaper published in New York, wrote recently, intermarriage "is fast becoming the new normal."
Marriage is a highly emotional moment in any family. When children choose a spouse, that decision defines who those young people have become — and who their parents' grandchildren will be. It's totally understandable for those parents to feel rejected and fearful when their child picks a mate who looks and cooks differently from them.
But people don't marry an abstraction or a stereotype. They marry a real person, a living, loving person. And in many cases (including ours), the non-Jewish partner is more devoted to the rituals and traditions of the faith. Cokie has long been known as "the best Jew" in the Roberts family, although she's quick to point out there's not a lot of competition for the title. The first Seder Steve's mother ever attended was organized by her Catholic daughter-in-law.
This rise of intermarriage among young Jews is actually a sign of success. Anti-Semitism has dropped sharply in America. Jews are now welcome in virtually every institution and neighborhood. So they are free to meet, and marry, partners of every conceivable background.
This trend was highlighted last summer when Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky, a Jewish man whose grandfather was a grocer in Iowa. The Forward called the wedding "a milestone of sorts, a measure of social acceptance, a sign that we've arrived."
That "social acceptance" of diversity extends far beyond interfaith marriages. For the first time this month, the Washington Post/ABC News poll reported that a majority of Americans, 53 percent, now support gay marriage. That is up from 36 percent only five years ago, and the trend is certain to accelerate. Two out of three young people under 30 back same-sex unions (twice the rate of Americans over 65).
This rising level of tolerance flows from the same experience that fuels the acceptance of interfaith marriage. Most Americans now have friends or relatives who are openly gay, and they see that same-sex couples bring the same devotion to their relationships — and face the same challenges — as any straight couple.
The same pattern holds true when it comes to race. According to the Pew Research Center, one of every seven marriages in 2008 crossed racial or ethnic lines. One out of three Americans has a family member in such a marriage, and the result — again — is a sharp rise in tolerance, especially among the young. Nine out of ten Americans under 30 tell Pew "they would be fine" if a relative chose a mate of a different race.
We don't advocate any particular path. The whole point is that each couple gets to make its own choices. But as many young Americans enter relationships that defy traditional prejudices, the rising rate of acceptance is a healthy and heartening trend. Politicians in public life could learn an important lesson from the tolerance that private Americans practice every day.