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Lady Sinderby and Maintaining Jewish Community in a Time of Interfaith Marriage

03/10/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Despite its button-lip image of British aristocracy, Downton Abbey doesn't shy away from controversy. The latest is Jewish intermarriage and anti-semitism. The two are intertwined. For those of you who are not Downton Abbey aficionados, here is a summary of the latest plot developments.

Lady Rose, the niece of Lord and Lady Grantham, marries Ephraim Atticus Aldridge, the son of Lord and Lady Sinderby, who simply goes by Atticus. Two generations since Atticus' grandfather escaped the pogroms in Russia and arrived penniless in England, the family has amassed a fortune, the trappings of the aristocracy, and become pillars of the English Jewish community.

Lord and Lady Grantham have no objections to the marriage; after all, Lady Cora Grantham's father was Jewish. While Cora was brought up as an Episcopalian, her father never took the step of concealing his Jewish roots by changing his name. Cora may not be Jewish by religion or upbringing, but she has certainly experienced anti-semitism by association, and thus knows how to use wit and timing to counteract anti-semitic comments from her upper-class wedding guests-- a skill anyone connected to the Jewish community through marriage needs to learn.

However, the parents of the prospective couple are not quite thrilled with their children's decisions. While Rose's father is sympathetic and supportive, her mother disapproves out of bigotry and fear that her daughter will be degraded if she is associated with the Jewish community. Lord Sinderby is also vehemently against the match. He wants his son to marry a Jew, and tries to convince him not to marry Lady Rose. "Your children will not be Jewish!" he yells. "Don't you understand that!" Lady Sinderby takes a different approach. As Rose explains, "It's not that [she] thinks that [religion] is unimportant, it's just that she thinks her son's happiness is more important."

The other characters equate Lord Sinderby's disapproval with Rose's mother's anti-semitic prejudice-- to quote Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, "Hurrah for intolerance on both sides!" Downton has confronted us Jews with an excellent portrayal of how Christians and many Jews today view Jewish objections to intermarriage.This contrasts sharply others in the Jewish community view themselves as protecting the cultural diversity of an endangered people.

Lord Sinderby's words sound clannish, prejudiced, and all too familiar to young Jewish Americans. However, he and the broader Jewish community are attempting to maintain their identity. He is speaking as a preservationist, trying to protect a robust culture that is enriching for all humanity.

Like her husband, Lady Sinderby is trying to protect the future. While she says that her son's happiness matters most of all, Lady Sinderby is also concerned about something more important and long-lasting than ephemeral happiness. She is worried about the future of her family and retaining the affection of her son. Lady Sinderby believes that welcoming Rose makes her and Atticus more likely to remain a part of the Sinderby family and community. These two views mirror another clash of cultures-- the different methods American Jews today use to deal with intermarriage.

Lord Sinderby's views come from the shtetl, where the Jewish community was everything, the family was the whole mishpacha (aunts, uncles, cousins), and there were no alternatives. Everyone lived within walking distance and could take care of one another. Lady Sinderby's views are based on the reality of her more assimilated life in England, and are more representative of the majority of the American Jewish community today. Many Jews go to shul a couple of times a year and do not feel close to their synagogues. The family is the nuclear family-- that's who you depend on, not the synagogue. It is no wonder parents want to keep their families together. We need each other-- at the beginning of life, the end of life, and all the crises in between-- and the Jewish community does not always function to give that support to everyone.

Rose and Atticus are part of a new generation, and they don't see a problem with raising their children with a multiplicity of religions. Lady Rose shows her willingness to learn about Judaism and embrace Jewish customs by offering to be blessed in both the church and the synagogue. She declares she will do everything in her power to make things work. Lord Sinderby informs Rose that because she is not a Jew, a blessing in the synagogue is not an option. Her attempts at reconciliation butt against talmudic law. While Lord Sinderby thinks he is merely adhering to what he sees as strict rules, Lady Rose feels rebuffed.

Similarly, many contemporary American rabbis will tell intended interfaith couples that they cannot marry them, but that they hope they will learn about Judaism and bring up their children as Jews. They mean to be welcoming, but the message the young people receive is one of exclusivity and rigidity, just as Lord Sinderby's attempts to protect his community come off as intolerant. Exclusivity worked in the shtetl, but today we need to maintain our customs and knowledge while embracing our greater community. Though Atticus may have celebrated his first Christmas, most American Jews have gone to a "holiday" office party with tree and trimmings, and interfaith families are becoming more and more common.

The American Jewish community, like the Sinderbys, has a choice: we can cast our children aside because they dare to embrace some non-Jewish customs, or we can make a place for our children who want to both practice Judaism and honor the faith of their spouse.

Lord and Lady Sinderby reflect our struggles. Making parents choose between their demographic identity and their children is a losing strategy for Jews. If we choose to welcome newcomers, we must commit ourselves to teaching our ways and respecting the traditions of others, and that requires learning for all of us. We need community to take care of families, but we need families to build community.