Identity, Sex & Gender

Still Jewish

I picked up Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America because I’m in an interfaith relationship, and reading it gave me something I didn’t know I needed. It gave me an academic but accessible text that said it is possible to be strong in my Jewish identity in an interfaith relationship, and that more than that—many women before me have and still do so. An interfaith relationship does not require one to set aside their Jewish identity.
Still Jewish follows the trends of Jewish women’s intermarriages in America, and the attitudes towards those marriages. McGinity stretches back to the interfaith marriages of immigrant women at the end of the 19th century, working forward to the mid 00’s.
The mythos of intermarriage says that once a Jewish woman intermarries, she’s lost to the faith. She assimilates, loses her name, ditches her faith, and joins a mainstream Christian majority, taking any children she might have with her. McGinity uses multigenerational studies, research and first person interviews to show it’s just that: mythos. The truth is more complex.
Something McGinity saw increasing over her research was a building trend in renewed Jewish identity on the part of intermarried women over time. Particularly when you cross into the Civil Rights era (50’s-60’s) that trend of strongly renewed sense of self-identification as a Jew starts to pick up. One of the things I found painful while I read the book was the ever-present, often vociferous opinions against intermarriage. It gets wince-worthy the closer the book comes to the present. In some ways it was easier for me to write off the anti-intermarriage sentiment of the late 1800s and early 1900s because it was so ‘long ago.’
The closer you get to the present day the more bullshit it feels that people still think these things. That a community could prioritize “in reach” to eliminate intermarriage over proactive outreach to keep intermarried families involved strikes me as particularly heinous. McGinity’s delivery is more nuanced and more mature than mine is here, but her dismay over the prejudiced reactions to intermarried families was clear. She did her duty to present both sides of the argument throughout her text, presenting a historic longview where each set of attitudes were in their proper contexts to each other.
The story of Jewish women in the States, is a one that is deeply influenced by it being a narrative that takes place in the U.S. Our identities as Jewish women here have been deeply affected by the Civil Rights movement, the many phases of the American Feminist movement, and the nationwide conversations over time concerning faith, individualism, and secularism.
As our rights have increased, there has been a corresponding growth in a renewed and strengthened Jewish self in intermarried Jewish women. We’re not “losing” intermarried women in droves to assimilation, as told in the hysteric polemic of institution conversation. Jewish identity and family have become complex, but plenty of women remain Jews in their intermarriages.
The data McGinity shows throughout her text would suggest to me that even more women will feel empowered and strong in their identities when the Jewish establishment stops its vicious inward conversation about whether “in reach” or “outreach” is more important than the other, and ascribing moral outcomes to either. Because these women are still Jewish.

2 thoughts on “Still Jewish

  1. I sometimes think that the efforts at “in reach” to prevent intermarriage are a clumsy way to avoid engaging with what it would mean to really improve Jewish education and encourage more active connections to Judaism in daily lives. It’s much easier for organizations to use marriage as a clean outcome measure in their studies and fundraising pitches than many of the harder things to improve and measure.
    A knowledgable person who considers Judaism an important part of who they are is much more likely to remain Jewish and raise Jewish children regardless of who they marry. Such a person is also more likely to marry someone who is Jewish. Someone who is Jewish only because a parent or two was is less likely to give children a serious Jewish education or marry someone who is Jewish. The numerous exceptions to the education/marriage relationship show that the more relevant measure is education and upbringing rather than who one marries.
    The other underlying problem is how so many talking heads simply don’t understand statistics. That’s how you get excruciating things like Peter Beinart saying Jews need to support vouchers for Jewish day schools (at the expense of the public schooling system) because that will reduce intermarriage. I wish I was exaggerating his argument, but that’s pretty much it:

  2. There actually have been a number of studies done over time, and taken collectively, they don’t paint as rosy a picture as McGinity. Sylvia Barak Fishman’s work is very rigorous and comes to quite different conclusions. Naomi Schafer Riley’s (herself intermarried) new book, although not conclusive, does offer some significant support for a thesis that is less positive. A number of other studies have been done, many not cited by McGinity.
    This is of course on a statistical rather than an individual level. It is certainly true that there are many individual situations where there is strong Jewish content in the homes and the children receive a strong Jewish grounding. I think it is fair to say (as someone who was intermarried for 16 years)that statistically it’s not as likely as in an inmarried home, other factors being comparable. The role, attitude and participation of the non-Jewish spouse will of course vary considerably from family to family, but cannot be completely discounted as if the religious character of the home and children is only up to the Jewish spouse.
    But it is also true, statistically, that of those intermarried families raising their children as Jews, in the overwhelming proportion of cases, it is the wife and not the husband who is Jewish (only about 15% of interfaith couples raising Jewish children are where it is the man who is Jewish).
    I am not discounting McGinity’s conclusions, simply saying that the picture is much more complex than that. On a personal level, in my own work with intermarried families, I’ve seen a very wide range of outcomes. In my own case, we began intermarried and ultimately became an observant Jewish family (wrote about it in our book “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope”). It’s not an easy path, and although we’ve met a fair number of families who did what we did, we’re still very much in the minority.

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