The Mixed Marriage
Lise Funderburg, a journalist, interviewed Yael Ben-Zion, a photographer raised in Israel, about her new book, “Intermarried,” published by Kehrer, which features families from the Washington Heights neighborhood where she lives with her French husband and 5-year-old twins.
Q. What inspired this project?
A. I saw an Israeli television campaign that showed faces on trees and bus stops, like missing children ads. A voice-over said, “Have you seen these people? Fifty percent of young Jewish people outside of Israel marry non-Jews. We are losing them.” I happen to be married to a person who is not Jewish. And, so for me it was, “Aah, they’re losing me.” I’m not religious, but this campaign made me wonder more generally why people choose to live with someone who is not from their immediate social group, and what challenges they face.
Q. How did you establish your taxonomy for what qualified as mixed?
A. I wasn’t going to go in the street and ask couples if they were mixed. I didn’t grow up here; I didn’t even know what terminology to use. But I live in a very diverse Manhattan community that has an online parent list with more than 2,000 families on it. I put up an ad saying I was looking for couples that define themselves as mixed. I said it could be different religion, ethnicity or social background. I didn’t use the word race, because I wasn’t sure how politically correct that was. All the couples who responded are either interfaith or interracial or both, but my goal from the beginning wasn’t to create some statistical visual document. For example, I have hardly any Asian people, and I don’t think there are any Muslims, and the reason is that they didn’t approach me.
Q. Can you talk about how you chose to communicate the intermarriage experience?
A. I could have done straight portraiture of people sitting on the couch who either had or did not have different skin color. For me, that would have been less engaging. When I create work, I look for something more complex: it’s not the obvious Christmas tree next to the Hanukkah menorah. I didn’t want to make it too easy.
Objects and spaces can say a lot about their inhabitants. I don’t know if this is clichéd, but in the end, for me, this book is about love. I wanted to describe the way these people live and I wanted to have things they struggle with hinted at but not necessarily in your face.
Q. In what ways is your own marriage an intermarriage?
A. The obvious thing would be that I’m Jewish and he’s not. He does not define himself as Christian, but we celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday. We had a Christmas tree. If you’d asked me before the boys were born if I’d ever have a Christmas tree in my home, as a good Jew I’d have said no.
On paper, we cannot be more different. We come from different countries, religions and professional backgrounds, but there are many things that connect us. This is something that was repeated in my conversations with a lot of couples: When you have a relationship with someone not from your own group or where you expect there might be difficulties, you think of the difficult questions in advance. If there weren’t values that were important to us both, we wouldn’t have been together to begin with.
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I speak to my kids only in Hebrew and Ugo speaks to them only in French. I understand that they’re not going to be Israelis unless they grow up in Israel, the same way they’re not going to be French. They are probably going to be New Yorkers. But it’s still important to me not only that they speak Hebrew but that they read and write it.
In both Israel and France, if they aren’t completely proficient in the language, they will be treated as outsiders and will have difficulties talking to families and friends. It’s another challenge to deal with.
Q. Do you have an agenda or hope for how viewers experience the project?
A. I don’t want to convince people of anything. I’m not saying intermarriage is the right thing in every context. People make their own choices. You walk up the street in my neighborhood, and most people are intermarried in one way or another, but I would never feel comfortable to talk to them about this just out of the blue. When I show the work, though, I always end up in conversations I wouldn’t have had any other way. I showed it in Santa Fe and this guy came over and told me he’s a Jewish person married to a Native American and they had the first bris in Santa Fe Indian Hospital. The project creates an opportunity to talk about personal issues that are important, that are out there, and that people are dealing with.