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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
Sept. 17, 2008
While the rest of the country wonders if a (decidedly not Jewish) Republican hockey mom could become our first female vice president, I'm obsessing about gender in the Jewish community.
Last month I noted in this space that Jewish women and men who intermarry often do so for different reasons--the women because their efforts to find a Jewish husband are unsuccessful, the men because they are either avoiding Jewish women or simply don't see any value in marrying within the Tribe. I cited Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman's recent study, Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, which revealed many of these gender disparities. I also pointed out that some prominent thinkers in the Jewish world are actually encouraging Jewish women driven by the biological clock to intermarry rather than remain single.
After the column appeared, several intermarried Jewish women contacted me to say that they, like me, had initially wanted to marry a Jewish man, but didn't have much luck dating them.
"When I turned 30 I realized that I couldn't limit myself anymore," wrote one Manhattan woman. "My (non-practicing Methodist) husband of two years is the most compassionate, charitable, intellectually curious person I know--and those are the Jewish values I admire most."
Just as I was feeling pleased with myself for penning such an astute column, I began to wonder if I'd given Jewish men a fair shake. After all, they're hardly the only ones guilty of gender stereotyping.
The New York woman who praised my column noted that "the handful of Jewish men I dated seriously were commitment-phobes who are now (many years later) still unmarried or with non-Jewish women." And a friend married to a former Unitarian echoed this attitude, writing that the few Jewish men who were interested in her "were often so neurotic it was clear it wouldn't go past a few dates."
Mentioning that one's Jewish suitors tend toward the neurotic hardly makes one a bigot, yet it is interesting that comments like these frequently surface in conversations with intermarried and single Jewish women--and I must confess I've had similar thoughts at times myself.
But short of public service messages to convince Jewish men that Jewesses are really not too overbearing--alongside parallel ones extolling the brute strength and psychological resilience of Jewish men--can stereotypical attitudes be changed?
And did I, in last month's column, inadvertently overstate their whole influence on intermarriage trends?
When Rabbi Abraham Unger, a professor at Wagner College in Staten Island, wrote an op-ed in response to my piece--in which he said my contention is "that Jewish male attitudes toward Jewish women are largely to blame for intermarriage"--I wondered if I had accidentally "contended" something I don't actually believe.
I would never say Jewish male attitudes toward Jewish women are "largely to blame" for intermarriage, both because I think gender stereotypes represent only one of many factors influencing American Jews' marriage choices, and also because using the word "blame" implies that I think intermarriage is an inherently bad thing, something that can and should be prevented.
Yes, intermarriage is at times a symptom of--and can also be a factor in--an individual's disengagement from Jewish life, but the issue is in many ways a distraction from the main challenge the Jewish community faces (outside of the Orthodox world, at least): widespread lack of interest in or knowledge about Judaism.
And that's where, if Sylvia Fishman's study and my own anecdotal observations are to be believed, men and women really are different.
The problem, I've decided, isn't that Jewish men don't want to marry Jewish women. It's that, for whatever reason, they don't want to join synagogues, learn about Judaism or celebrate Jewish holidays, and they're apathetic about passing the traditions on to their children.
I'm generalizing here; of course there are numerous Jewish men out there who are passionate about Judaism.
But as Fishman's study notes, "nationally, girls and women outnumber men in weekly non-Orthodox worship services, in adult education classes, in volunteer leadership positions, and in Jewish cultural events."
It's not only intermarried Jewish men who tend to be disengaged from Jewish life. Large numbers of in-married ones are as well. The difference, however, is that a Jewish wife is more likely than a non-Jewish one to insist that the family participate in Jewish life and the children be given a Jewish education.
Amazingly, tens of thousands of gentile wives actually do insist that their families participate in Jewish life--often because they want their children exposed to religion and their Jewish husbands have vetoed Christianity.
The Jewish Outreach Institute's rapidly expanding network of Mothers Circle programs is doing an amazing job of giving such women the knowledge, confidence and resources to raise Jewish children--but it's an uphill battle when the non-Jewish parent is more enthusiastic about Judaism than the Jewish parent is.
In one family I know, the wife is constantly nudging her Jewish husband to bring her to a seder; her husband told me she'll probably come check out Shabbat services on her own, but he's a little squeamish about them himself. Another friend, who took a Judaism course last year and who is contemplating conversion, told me a few months ago that the more "Jewish" she becomes, the more nervous her Jewish husband gets.
How to account for all these gentile women who are more enthused about Judaism than their Jewish husbands?
My friend has a theory. While Jewish men are often attracted to gentile women in part because these women represent to them a refreshing change from the Jewish community, the opposite holds true for their wives.
"We were attracted to them, in part, because we were attracted to Judaism," she explains.