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Strangers to the Tribe: Portraits of Interfaith Marriage

September 1999

Review of Strangers to the Tribe: Portraits of Interfaith Marriage by Gabrielle Glaser, 1997, Houghton Mifflin, New York NY, 265 pages.

Gabrielle Glaser is a journalist. Yet in this book, she does not pretend to be a dispassionate, objective observer. For Glaser is also a partner in an interfaith marriage, struggling with a number of intellectual, but ultimately also very personal, questions. As she sketches out the portraits of twelve intermarried couples, she is looking for reassurance that interfaith marriages can be happy, and for clues as to how to make them so. And she is making a decision for herself on whether or not to convert to Judaism.

Glaser, raised as a Christian by two Christian parents, nevertheless carries the name of a Polish great-grandfather whom she believes was probably Jewish. She describes disliking Easter as a child, and questioning the logic of redemption. Frankly, if there was ever a Christian spouse ripe for conversion to her husband's faith, Glaser has got to be it. So there is not much suspense here over whether she will or she won't. But many of the other couples described in this book have more complex tales, and less obvious decisions to make. Their histories make for absorbing reading.

In many cases, Glaser has interviewed three generations in these intermarried families, lending historical depth and texture to her portraits. A skilled writer, she fills out each portrait with telling details and amusing family anecdotes. It is obvious that Glaser gained the trust of a wide range of people from these families, and asked them thoughtful and probing questions. The result is one of the most readable books yet on interfaith marriage, and possibly the most revealing. Glaser admits that her sample is not statistically representative of interfaith marriage. For instance, in a third of the couples she describes, the non-Jewish partner ended up converting to Judaism. Statistically, only 15 percent of such partners convert. Again, the book is driven in many respects by Glaser's struggle over whether to convert: she has a particular interest in understanding the effect of conversion on an interfaith marriage.

Glaser's choice of couples seems peculiar in other respects. The only gay or lesbian couple also happens to be the only couple that breaks up--an odd choice that makes an unfortunate impression. Another couple is raising one child as Catholic and the other as Jewish. I doubt that the number of interfaith families who choose this option is even statistically significant. And Glaser gives very short shrift to families who are declining to choose one religion or the other for their children and instead educating them about both.

Overall, despite Glaser's original status as the Christian spouse, this book is told from an essentially Jewish perspective. The author is trying to shed light on questions that arise in the Jewish community: Why do Jews intermarry? How can Jewish parents come to terms with children who marry out of the faith? Can Judaism, as a religion, ever truly accept intermarried couples? A large majority of the couples in this book, whether or not the spouse converts, are raising their children as Jews. Yet according to Glaser, the National Jewish Population Survey in 1990 found that only 28 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children as Jews. Again, the author is out to convince herself, and nervous Jewish parents, that interfaith marriage will not compromise the survival of the Jewish people.

Glaser concludes on an optimistic note: "I cannot help noting that Jews have survived every imaginable plague and defied every woeful prediction." Obviously, Glaser believes that Judaism will survive interfaith marriage in America. In many ways, she has stacked the cards in this book to convince us she is right. Nonetheless, it is ultimately a compelling point of view.

Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter, is writing a book on raising interfaith children with Judaism and Christianity.

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