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Birth of A Jewish Matriarch

An excerpt from Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America (New York University Press, 2009). Reprinted by permission.

Keren McGinity has written a scholarly yet accessible study of the lives of Jewish women who intermarried in the United States in the 20th century. She places each individual story into its cultural context, both in Jewish terms and in terms of US society as a whole. In the section we're reprinting here, pages 178-180 in the book, McGinity draws on individual interviews with contemporary Jewish women to explain why those who intermarried in the period from 1980 to 2000 tended to have a stronger commitment to raising their children as Jews. We're grateful to have the opportunity to introduce our readers to this new book.


Marrying a Gentile, combined with becoming a mother, heightened the consciousness of most of the women interviewed regarding their Jewish identity and Judaism in general. Thirteen out of the fifteen women discussed in this chapter who intermarried between 1980 and 2000 described intensified Jewish identities, increased religious practices, or both.

For example, when Bonnie Aaronson planned her 1981 wedding, she had a very strong cultural and social identity as a Jew, but she was not a religious person. In the late 1980s, however, after Bonnie had two children, she became actively involved in her temple and co-chaired a committee that created an alternative High Holiday service. Interviewed nearly twenty years after she wed, Bonnie remarked, "I have changed pretty dramatically in terms of my Jewish practice and observance ... in the course of our marriage." Although Bonnie may have become "more Jewish" once she became a mother regardless of whether she intermarried, representing a typical American Jewish pattern, the extent of her change over time suggests that the paradox created by her marriage to a non-Jew significantly fostered the development of her Jewish identity. 1 As Bonnie emphasized: "I was the one that cared." 2 Intermarried Jewish women's experiences demonstrate the "tenacity of Jewishness" that Mayer identified in 1985 and the continued revitalization of Judaism envisioned by Sarna in 2004. 3

The juxtaposition of being Jewish while married to a non-Jew usually heightened Jewish women's consciousness about being Jewish, and having children while intermarried made the Jewish women I interviewed decidedly proactive about making Jewish connections, about observance, and about Jewish education. The sociologist Susan Maushart argued, in her 1999 book, The Mask of Motherhood, that becoming a mother precipitated an identity crisis for women that presented new opportunities for personal growth and development. 4 Becca Tamen's description of how having children solidified her Jewish identity illustrates the impact of motherhood on intermarried women: "I actually don't think I started as firmly thinking about myself as Jewish till I had kids, and then starting thinking about religion and the future and what they would be and so what I needed to be."5 The experience of having a child also forced women to come to terms with the inadequacies of their own Jewish upbringing and to look for creative ways to teach their children (and themselves) about Jewish heritage. Hannah Noble remarked:

It's really about the kids. It has really only begun to be important to me To--I really want to raise my kids with a really solidly Jewish identity and I want them to know more than I did, because I couldn't tell ya, when I got married, what Passover was about or Chanukah was about. I'd never been taught. And now I go to the Israeli bookstore on Harvard Street and just go crazy with books for my kids and toys in Hebrew, and so ... .we're working on it.6

Thus, rather than the generations becoming assimilated to the point of no return over time, I found that, among my sample of intermarried Jewish women, those who intermarried in the 1980s and 1990s made increasingly sure, more so than their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s, that their children received more Jewish religious and cultural education than they themselves had had. Bonnie Aaronson felt her parents had made a "big mistake" by not providing her with a religious education, a mistake she would not repeat as a mother raising Jewish children.7

That some Jewish women who intermarried made significantly more commitments to Jewish education and observance for their children than their own Jewish-Jewish parents had done for them illustrates one way that Judaism continued to be revitalized by women who married "out." Whereas some women who intermarried in the 1960s and 1970s disassociated Jewish education from Jewish identity, women who intermarried at the end of the century were considerably more committed to Jewish identification through education. Women who intermarried in the 1980s and 1990s seemed less convinced than their predecessors that their children's Jewish identity was absolute; whether their children would be Jewish depended intimately on the choices these women made about Jewish education and lifestyle. 8 Coincidentally, through this process, the Jewish women themselves became more involved with Jewish beliefs and practices as they learned alongside their children. A poignant example was a woman who did not experience a Jewish rite of passage when she was thirteen and was seriously considering becoming a bat mitzvah with her daughter. 9

The increased religiosity of intermarried Jewish women over time also reflected the national trend that people tend to become more religious as they age. According to the 2001 ARIS, the percentage of people who considered themselves to have a religious outlook increased with age as follows: 27 percent (age 18-34); 38 percent (age 35-49); 42 percent (age 50- 64); 47 percent (age 65 and over). 10 In her study of adult mother-daughter relationships, the sociologist Debra Kaufman identified a pattern that appeared to be particular to the Jewish women in the sample; as Jewish mothers age, they tend to pursue their spiritual lives to a greater extent than they may have earlier when they had less time.11 Similarly the coeditors of Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories (2000) describe the Jewish identity of Jewish mothers as "fluid," "consisting of a continuing process of growth and change"; even women who continued to identify with the denomination or secular tradition of their parents experienced "an evolving inner consciousness and a maturing concurrent change in the external expression of their Jewishness."12

When Jewish women first met and fell in love with non-Jewish men, one's religiousness could sometimes be temporarily pushed aside so that the relationship leading to marriage was unimpeded by issues of distinction. Reflecting back on how little her religion meant to her when she fell in love with a non-Jewish man, Brandy Simon admitted that she convinced herself that her religious background was irrelevant: "I reduced its importance--much more than I would now if somebody asked me."13 Overlooking or minimizing differences between Jewish women and Gentile men was preferable to drawing attention to them or anticipating difficulties that might arise because of them. One woman described her marriage to a Catholic as follows: "And with religion especially we did not want to acknowledge disagreement."14

A woman's Jewishness could be overlooked according to the speed with which the relationship moved, and then reinvigorated as the relationship progressed. Women who had been raised in less observant Jewish households, like Hannah whose parents considered her a religious fanatic for lighting Shabbat candles once she was married, were typically urged by their Gentile husbands, none of whom converted, to better educate themselves about Judaism to substantiate their claim to raising Jewish children. Gabriella Abrahms, for example, agreed to her husband's proposition that if she went to Friday night services every week for six months to learn more about the tradition she professed was so important to preserve, he would agree to send their son to Hebrew School.15

Evidence from periodical literature further illustrates that, by marrying outside their faith, Jewish women often became more interested in and more committed to Judaism than they might have otherwise. Writing in Commonweal about her intermarriage, Madeline Marget explained how fifteen years after she wed, she wanted to "stand up and be counted": "I find myself, lately, eager to declare myself as a Jew, and to return to the formal observance of the religion in which I was raised." 16 Whereas her husband was uncomfortable with organized religion in general, Eileen Ogintz confided, "I, on the other hand, have felt an increasingly stronger pull to Judaism." 17 Beth Levine, in an aptly titled article "The Forbidden Road Home," explained that although she intended to marry a fellow Jew and raise "nominally Jewish children," she would have been hard-pressed to explain what being a Jew meant. That changed when she married Bill Squier. Marrying a Gentile made her a more observant and knowledgeable Jew, and forced her to search her soul for answers to questions she had never thought to ask before. She wrote: "More so than anything else, marrying Bill has opened the door to my Jewish spiritual home." 18 Emily Blank married a Protestant minister, which set her on an even more extreme journey of educating herself about her Jewish faith, one that eventually led to her becoming a cantor with a pulpit.19

1. It is common wisdom in the American Jewish community that, once Jews have children, synagogue membership rises (Amy Sales, Associate Director, Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, e-mail communication to author, 14 December 2004). For a humorous depiction of this phenomenon, see Woody Allen's film Deconstructing Harry (1997), in which Demi Moore portrays a fictitious ex-wife who, soon after her son was born, "became Jewish with a vengeance." Thanks to Lee Sanderson for introducing me to this particular cinematic moment.

2. Bonnie Aaronson, interview by author, tape recording, Brookline, Mass., 24 January 2001.

3. Mayer, Love and Tradition, 153-176; Sarna, American Judaism, 374.

4. Maushart, The Mask of Motherhood, xix.

5. Becca Tamen, interview by author, tape recording, Cambridge, Mass., 17 January 2001.

6. Hannah Noble, interview by author, tape recording, Brookline, Mass., 9 January 2001.

7. Bonnie Aaronson, interview by author, tape recording, Brookline, Mass, 24 January 2001.

8. My study suggests that the argument made by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen that "because today's Jews believe that Jewish identity is inalienable, i.e., that they will always remain Jewish no matter what choices they make" does not extend to intermarried Jewish women's perceptions about the Jewish identity of their offspring (The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) 185.

9. Hannah Noble, interview by author, tape recording, Brookline, Mass., 9 January 2001.

10. Kosmin, Mayer and Keysar, Exhibit 5 "Outlook of Older & Younger U.S. Adults: Religious and Secular," American Religious Identification Survey, 21

11. Debra Renee Kaufman and Gail Melson, "Prime Time Parenting: Adult Mother-Daughter Relationships," paper presented by Debra Kaufman at the Eastern Sociological Society, Boston, 9 March 2002. E-mail communication to author, 24 March 2004.

12. Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, Ellen Cole and Susan Steinberg-Cohen, eds., Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories: Acts of Love and Courage (New York: Haworth, 2000), 7.

13. Brandy Simon, interview by author, tape recording, Brookline, Mass., 23 January 2001.

14. Madeline Marget, "Madeline and Ernie: Honoring What We Do Not Share," Commonweal 115, 23 September 1988, 492.

15. Gabriella Abrahams, interview by author, tape recording, Brookline, Mass., 2 January 2001.

16. "Madeline & Ernie," 492.

17. Eileen Ogitz, "A Marriage of Two Faiths," Ladies Home Journal 105, December 1988, 22-24.

18. Beth Levine, "The Forbidden Road Home," Reform Judaism 30, no. 1 (Fall 2001): 22-23.

19. Emily Blank, "How Marrying a Protestant Minister Made Me a Better Jew," 131, 4 April 2004.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Keren R. McGinity

Keren R. McGinity is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Previously, she was Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.

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