Intermarriage and the Complexity of Jewish Identity – By Sarah Imhoff

Sarah Imhoff on Jennifer A. Thompson’s Jewish on Their Own Terms & Keren R. McGinity’s Marrying Out

Jennifer A. Thompson, Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism, Rutgers University Press, 2013, 224pp., $24.95 (paper), $80 (cloth); y
Jennifer A. Thompson, Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism, Rutgers University Press, 2013, 224pp., $24.95 (paper), $80 (cloth);
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What is intermarriage? The answer seems obvious: marriage between people from different groups. But which groups count as distinct? We would not call a marriage between an American and a Canadian “intermarriage” unless the partners were also different in other ways. Today we would be unlikely to use the term to describe a marriage between a Presbyterian and a Methodist. And we surely do not call marriages between a man and a woman “intermarriage,” though they are from two different categories of person. Colloquially and in scholarly circles, intermarriage usually denotes one of two things: marriage between people of two (sufficiently) different religions or two different races or ethnicities.

Thinking about intermarriage is a fascinating exercise in considering which identities we see as essential — which attributes qualify as important enough to make a partnership that bridges them count as crossing boundaries. Religion and race are clearly two of these differences. Two recent books, Jennifer Thompson’s Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism and Keren McGinity’s Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood, ask what Jewish intermarriage means for intermarried couples themselves and the Jewish community as a whole today.

The ways that the authors define Jewish intermarriage, both explicitly and by assumption, illustrate the slipperiness of the categories of race/ethnicity and religion. Is Jewishness ethnic? Racial? Religious? All of the above? Or none of these? These ambiguities have implications for how the scholarship on intermarriage portrays Jews and Jewishness, but also for how it defines non-Jews and what it means to be non-Jewish. Does non-Jewishness signal ethnic difference or religious difference from Jews? While we could look at a wide variety of other types of intermarriage, the Jewish conversation about intermarriage is particularly fascinating because of the way it slides between these two categories of race/ethnicity and religion.

The issue of intermarriage has prompted soul-searching and finger-pointing within the Jewish community for decades — even centuries. To the chagrin of many other Jews, a small number of elite European Jews intermarried in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sometimes in order to ascend socially or politically. Immigrant families settling in the United States worried, not wholly without cause, that their children might intermarry. American Jewish intermarriage rates hit fifty percent in the 1990s, and they have hovered around that mark since then. Thompson and McGinity are not the first to tackle questions of Jewish intermarriage, and they will not be the last. But they are some of the most careful ones. Neither is full of hand-wringing or moralizing, which are typical of many books on Jewish intermarriage. They do not prognosticate or prophesy doom. What they do is present meticulous ethnographic research that shows us something about how people live their lives and see themselves in the world.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Thompson’s Jewish on their Own Terms argues that intermarried Jews are not, as popular discourse and upset family members might have it, selfish individualists who are rejecting the importance of Jewishness. She conducted thirty-six individual interviews with intermarried couples, and then more than fifty people who were part of intermarried or inmarried couples, rabbis, or Jewish educators. Given that the intermarried Jews she interviewed did not abandon Jewishness, Thompson sought to analyze how they understand it. She presents two paradigms, “universalist individualism” and “ethnic familialism,” to characterize how intermarried couples think of themselves in relationship to Jewishness. “Universalist individualism” figures identity as an issue of personal choice and conscience. When intermarried couples follow this paradigm, Thompson argues, they privilege the value of “fairness” to each parent, which most often looks like including elements of each religion and/or ethnicity. When intermarried couples see identity through the paradigm of “ethnic familialism,” they foreground the unity of the family and affective connections to tradition, the community, and the past. The two paradigms also differ with respect to women’s roles: universalist individualists tend toward egalitarian parenting with respect to identify formation, and ethnic familialists tend toward emphasizing women’s roles as traditional bearers and teachers of religion. She then shows how married couples draw on each model of understanding Jewishness at different times. But none were simply unreflective assimilationists.

Thompson also suggests that intermarriages serve as a lightning rod for larger communal anxieties about what it means to be a good Jew or what it means to be Jewish at all. Thompson supplements her ethnography of intermarried couples with analysis of how rabbis and other Jewish educators think and talk about Jewish intermarriage. And, she discovers, they think and talk about it a lot. This discussion raises questions about who is central to the community, what it means to belong to the community, whether Jewishness is a choice, and a host of other issues. Though perhaps she exaggerates when she claims that the narrative equating intermarriage with assimilation “relieves endogamous Jews from anxiety about the meaning and nature of their own Jewishness” (are Jews ever relieved from the anxiety of the meaning of Jewishness?), she certainly is an astute observer of how intermarriage becomes the occasion for all sorts of discussion — and blame — about Jewishness and Jewish continuity.

Keren R. McGinity, Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood, Indiana University Press, 2014, 290pp., $28
Keren R. McGinity, Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood, Indiana University Press, 2014, 290pp., $28
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McGinity’s Marrying Out combines ethnographic study with an exploration of contemporary popular culture to offer a similar argument to Jewish on Their Own Terms. Her analysis complicates the dominant cultural narrative that when Jewish men marry non-Jewish women, they both assimilate away from Jewishness and raise non-Jewish children. The data in Marrying Out is not representative of all American Jews — McGinity interviewed fifty-four intermarried Jewish men in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nevertheless, the book provides a penetrative analysis of how Jewish men are not “lost” to Jewish communities but rather shape their own identities as Jewish husbands and fathers. Following her first book on American Jewish women who married non-Jews, here McGinity presents a rich portrait of Jewish men’s relationship to religious belief, the synagogue, holidays, and understandings of Jewish ethnic culture and descent.

McGinity restricted her study to Jewish men who married non-Jews, but her work is nevertheless attuned to gender difference within intermarriages, and especially with respect to raising children. She notes that in American culture, religion is often assumed to be the mother’s domain when it comes to child-rearing. So the dynamic of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother might at first seem to lead to children without Jewish identity. But, McGinity argues, Jewish men’s self-conception includes a particular “gendered ethnicity” which keeps them connected to — and committed to passing on — a sense of Jewish identity even if their wives do not convert. Like Thompson, McGinity offers a model for social-scientific studies dealing with gender: both present masculinity as culturally contingent and changing; both consider the differences in wider cultural gender norms without assuming that they will always hold within an individual family; and neither fall into gender essentialist traps in their interpretation.

Both Jewish on Their Own Terms and Marrying Out include elements of the racial/ethnic model for understanding intermarriage alongside the religious model. For most scholarship, as well as for these books, it is the racial/ethnic model that seems to drive the inquiry. We can see this by looking at the variety of publications about the United States that use the word “intermarriage”: the word connotes interracial or interethnic far more often than it connotes interreligious. Though we have much research on Christians and marriage in general, there are few scholarly books that focus on Christians marrying non-Christians. And this is not just because Christians are the American majority and therefore are statistically likely to marry one another. We have few books about Muslims marrying non-Muslims, Hindus marrying non-Hindus, or Buddhists marrying non-Buddhists. But we do have shelves of scholarly books about ethnic and racial intermarriages. There are dozens of historical studies, sociological studies, legal studies, and more.

The racial/ethnic paradigm for thinking about intermarriage pervades scholarly work on Jewish intermarriage in subtle but profound ways: even marriages that take place after a non-Jewish partner converts to Judaism are labeled “intermarriages,” even though both partners are then of the same religion. Both Thompson and McGinity include these conversionary marriages in their books.

The slipperiness of religion and ethnicity in the intermarriage paradigm can sometimes cause the unfortunate homogenizing of non-Jews, as if there were a coherent identity category called “non-Jew.” In general, these two scholars are careful not to assume some sort of homogeneity among non-Jews. But there are still moments when it creeps in. McGinity writes that she will refer to all of the non-Jews in her study as “Christian” because it is less offensive than “gentile.” But not all gentiles are Christian. Did all of the intermarried women in her study actually identify as Christian? If so, those data are sociologically relevant, and bear stating explicitly. But if they were Hindu, or Buddhist, agnostics, or atheists, it is unreasonable to use “Christian” as a synonym for “non-Jew.”

The messiness of Jewish religion and ethnicity can also make for odd bedfellows when it comes to identity categories. Thompson, for instance, explains that exploring intermarriage has allowed communities to think better about outreach. But the explanation relies on sentences that lump religious differences with ethnic ones: the book explains that it will explore “a broader [picture] that includes converts to Judaism (often called “Jews by Choice”) and people of color.” “Jews by Choice” and “people of color” belong to two different categories. The former is a religious designation; the latter is a racial or ethnic one. If a study said it included “Evangelicals and Latinos” without further description, for instance, we would wonder what the relationship was between the two identity markers. And who are these “people of color”? If they are not Jews of color, why are non-Jews of color targeted for “outreach”? And if they are Jews of color, then they should already be included in the community, not “outreach.” Are these Jews of color also Jews by choice?

It is not that Thompson is confused by these categories. She even acknowledges that her informants “saw religion and ethnicity as part of the same continuum.” It is rather that scholars often replicate the untheorized assumptions of the Jewish community. In this case, the assumption is that neither Jews by choice nor people of color are a core part of the Jewish community, and even that they are somehow not wholly Jewish. But if scholars want to understand these exclusions, we need to understand what assumptions they rely on and how they work. And the assumptions that underwrite the idea that Jews by choice are not central to the Jewish community or are not wholly Jewish are different from the assumptions that underwrite the idea of people of color not being wholly Jewish. These sorts of pairings — Jews by choice and people of color — generally do not detract from the otherwise excellent work, but they do point to the sometimes unacknowledged messiness in scholarly accounts of Jewish religion and ethnicity.

We can also see this underlying messiness in McGinity’s study. For instance, the idea of referring to converts as “Jews by choice” — a common practice in Jewish communities — illuminates something particularly interesting about Jewishness in relationship to American assumptions about religion. In the US, most people assume that each American is his or her religion “by choice.” Religion is widely considered a matter of individual conscience, “sincere belief,” in American culture. When McGinity explains that she will define intermarriage “based on religion at birth,” her definition runs against the grain of dominant American understandings of religion. She discusses “born Jews” and “born Christians,” though the latter category is theologically meaningless for many Christians. Fourteen of the twenty-seven women she interviewed converted to Judaism, and yet they are all labeled “Christian.” All this suggests that religion — from her Jewish viewpoint — is a little more like ethnicity. It is about descent; perhaps it is even embodied. If you were born to Christian parents, you will always be a “born Christian”; you cannot ever completely leave the religion into which you were born. Scholars need to analyze the implications of the ways that they use (or implicitly rely on) the categories of religion and ethnicity.

Jewish on Their Own Terms and Marrying Out give us rich and nuanced examples of how intermarried couples see themselves, and how others see them. For both authors, occasionally infelicitous locutions come from thinking about Jewishness in a complex way: in the end, ethnicity and religion are not so separable for Jews. And the Jewish case suggests that we must complicate our notions of how we see religion, and how we see ethnicity, in people’s lives.