As studies continue to report on the growing phenomenon of intermarriage and the decline of the Jewish population, a new Spanish translation of a book chronicling one rabbi's correspondence with a soon-to-be intermarried Catholic is causing a stir in South America.

Those who read the book's English edition, which hit stores last year, hailed Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her? as an invaluable tool in conveying the dangers of intermarriage. It was that response that prompted the book's author, Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, to commission the new translation.

"I didn't really set out to write a book on intermarriage," said Shemtov, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Uruguay. "The book is a result of correspondence that was generated in answer to an e-mail I received from a Catholic boy who wondered why the parents of his Jewish girlfriend rejected him just because he wasn't Jewish."

Shemtov, who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., but has served Uruguay's Jewish community since 1985, first posted the edited e-mail exchanges on the Web site. Hundreds of people posted comments on his back-and-forth with the young man, leading Shemtov to repackage them in dialogue form.

The result was an easy-to-read digest of Judaism's take on intermarriage. Its deeply personal subject matter also gives way to an evolving friendship between the author and his subject, who at the same time begins to rethink his relationship with his Jewish girlfriend.

Its pages don't burst with facts and figures, but instead discuss the basis of the Torah prohibition on intermarriage, the nature of Jewish identity, the seriousness of marriage, and the effects of a lack of Jewish education on rising rates of assimilation.

Though Shemtov conveys his religious perspective in an uncompromising manner, he continues to gain the respect of his correspondent, rather than frighten him away.

"Shemtov doesn't seem so obstinately radical as he does when he begins to discuss the topic," wrote Jose Gallo in his review of the book for Uruguay's Galeria Magazine. "From a firm posture, sometimes painful but not at all discriminatory, Shemtov defends with mastery … his absolute identification with the commandments of the Torah, and, based on them, the impossibility of mixed marriages."

The Spanish translation of Dear Rabbi, Why Can’t I Marry Her? The new title translates to “impossible love.”
The Spanish translation of Dear Rabbi, Why Can’t I Marry Her? The new title translates to “impossible love.”
Rabbi Elie Estrin, co-director of the Chabad House serving the University of Washington in Seattle, appreciated Shemtov's candid and atypical approach.

"It touches on extremely sensitive topics without skirting the issues, and rarely misses a chance to look at the issues from various perspectives," said Estrin. "I think that its true uniqueness is in its sensitivity to the raw emotions of someone who is going through this difficult experience."

The format of Dear Rabbi has its foundation in the question-and-answer style, but goes beyond, as both correspondents delve into emotionally and politically heated issues. But as the conversations progress, each begins to sign their e-mails with "a hug."

"Having lived through a similar scenario, and now watching as a sister struggles with her decisions," said one reader, who wished to remain anonymous, "I assure you that this will provide an objective and non-confrontational launching point for a much overdue family conversation."

Although the book's Spanish version has only recently hit the market, it is already attracting attention. Besides generating articles in the local press, the book has been discussed on radio talk shows. Now, Shemtov is working on Russian and Portuguese translations of the book, and is inquiring about the possibility of publishing it in French and Hebrew.

Though they are not Shemtov's focus, the facts about intermarriage are alarming, he said. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2001, the rate of intermarriage among American Jews increased dramatically over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Before 1970, the rate of intermarriage among American Jews was 13 percent, but by 2001, had climbed to 47 percent. Further studies have echoed that trend and documented a decreasing Jewish population, as well.

"Intermarriage is the most serious challenge today to Jewish survival," said Shemtov. "It is probably not so much the cause, as a symptom of Jewish ignorance and lack of Jewish education."

Robert Leiter, literary editor at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, wrote in his review of the book that Shemtov's work goes a long way in providing that education.

"Rabbi Shemtov's honesty may not make him many friends in today's highly secularized world," he asserted, "but his clearheaded explanations can hardly be refuted."