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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
May 14, 2009
Last month, the obituary of Janet Jagan--a most unique woman--caught my attention.
From her middle-class Jewish beginnings in Chicago, Jagan, née Rosenberg, married a Guyanese dental student at age 22 and went on to become the first woman president of Guyana, a tiny South American country with just a handful of Jews.
At a time when less than 7 percent of American Jews intermarried, Janet Rosenberg's decision to marry Cheddi Jagan, a Hindu and the son of sugar plantation workers, was fiercely opposed by her parents. It is not clear what horrified them more: the fact that Cheddi was not Jewish or that he was not white. Janet's father, a rare Jewish Republican, disowned his daughter and even threatened to shoot her suitor; not surprisingly, when Cheddi's visa expired a few months later, the newlyweds left Chicago and settled in Guyana, then a British colony. Jagan not only adapted to her adopted home of under a million people, roughly half of South Asian origin and half of African origin, but she became a central figure. She co-founded the People's Progressive Party, helping lead the move for independence and maintaining a close partnership with her husband, who served before her as president.
Obviously Jagan was a remarkable individual and hardly the typical Jewish woman--or typical anything--of her generation. But when her obituary appeared, I was midway through the newly released Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America by Keren McGinity, so I couldn't help thinking about how Jagan's life fit in terms of historic patterns of intermarriage. One of the main points of Still Jewish is that Jewish women's experiences in intermarriage shifted throughout the 20th century, and "women who intermarried later in the century were more likely to raise their children with strong ties to Judaism than women who intermarried earlier in the century."
The women of Jagan's generation adopted their husbands' names and, sometimes, their religions and cultures, and women one generation later frequently turned to Unitarianism--a sort of compromise religion between Judaism and Christianity. In contrast, notes McGinity, a Jewish woman who married a Catholic in 1992 (she is now divorced) and is raising her 7-year-old daughter as a Jew, women who intermarried in the 1980s and '90s have "contrary to all prognoses, increasingly ventured more deeply 'in': become more involved in Jewish life, more proactive about raising children Jewish."
Which is not to say that the older generations of intermarried women chucked out their Jewish identities wholesale upon arriving at the honeymoon suite. Many, McGinity writes, continued to think of themselves as Jewish and often edged closer to the Jewish community later in life.
In this way, Jagan's story is somewhat typical. According to Suzanne Wasserman, who made the 2003 documentary Thunder in Guyana about Jagan, while neither Jagan nor her husband practiced any religion, she kept meticulous photo albums and a detailed family tree.
"She always wanted her children and grandchildren to know where she was from," said Wasserman, whose mother was Jagan's cousin.
Wasserman told me that while making the film she repeatedly tried to get her distinguished relative to talk about her Jewish identity and other personal matters, with little success.
At only one point in the film does Jagan actually address her Jewishness. Asked what fostered her commitment to social justice in Guyana, she speculates that it came from her "own experience as a Jew in the U.S., maybe that feeling of the underdog, maybe it came from that."
I in no way want to minimize Jagan's major contributions to Guyanese society or to imply that the world would be a better place had she, say, stayed in Chicago, joined a synagogue and sent her son and daughter to Hebrew school. Even if she had wanted to live that kind of mainstream life--and I doubt that an ambitious activist like her would have--the Jewish community of that time and place would likely have offered a chilly reception to the intermarried, interracial, politically radical Jagan family.
However, something about Jagan's choice to leave home, give up her U.S. citizenship and set down roots in a completely foreign culture makes me a bit sad, so symbolic is it of what "marrying out" once meant.
For better or worse, a modern-day Jagan might make different choices. In her book, McGinity questions many truisms in American Jewish thinking: that intermarriage is always a net loss for the Jewish community (resulting in Jews giving up, rather than sharing, their identities); that interfaith relationships are more likely than endogamous ones to end in divorce; that statistics about the Jewish behavior (or lack thereof) of intermarried couples in previous decades are predictive of how current and future intermarried couples and their children will behave.
Nonetheless, while her conclusions echo my own views and experiences, I find myself nervous about giving Still Jewish too much weight. Although scholarly and heavily footnoted, drawing on a wide range of literature and data, the book's conclusions rely heavily on interviews with 46 individual women who volunteered to participate. As McGinity herself acknowledges, the women are not a "random or representative"--or even very large--sample.
On the other hand, their stories are rich and compelling, showing the complexities of individual experiences and the limitations of previous "quantitative" research, which was based on limited and often simplistic questioning of large swaths of people.
In the story of Mary Antin, a Jewish writer who in 1894 married a Lutheran man, McGinity found that Antin's great-granddaughter ended up marrying a Jewish man and is today raising her children as Jews. "No one, no matter how sophisticated the methodology or the technology, can predict with certainty the Jewish future and all its permutations," McGinity notes.
Even the Jagan family epic may have similar twists and turns. According to Wasserman, just a few weeks after Jagan's death, one of her granddaughters--currently a student in the U.S.--attended her first-ever Passover seder.