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STILL JEWISH! What It Means Now to Be a Jewish Woman in an Interfaith Marriage

Reprinted with permission of Lilith. Visit www.lilith.org.

At various times in the last century in America, we intermarried Jewish women have been reviled as "decimators" of the Jewish people, declared prematurely "dead" by our own parents, and seen rabbis publicly turn their backs on our husbands, the fathers of our children, in synagogue. We've been surveyed, counted, and sorted into categories we don't necessarily claim for ourselves. We've had lots to say, but until now we have rarely been heard as our own unique demographic.

Keren McGinity has just completed a study of Jewish American women who married non-Jews. I agreed to be one of her subjects. Though I have not personally lived through every horror story listed above--my parents, for example, did not say Kaddish for me when I married my non-Jewish husband, whom they love--I had experienced enough. One of the first things I told McGinity was that I was not interested in participating in a study that was going to view my marriage as an unmitigated disaster of Hitlerian proportions. That was not her angle, and maybe because of her earnestness--or the coupling of her Jewish first name with a decidedly not-Jewish last name--I chose to trust her and accept her invitation to talk.

McGinity asked me about my background, our courtship, religious attitudes, power negotiations and more. Questions like: "Did you and your husband make any compromises before getting engaged?" and "If you had to do it all over again, would you intermarry?"

McGinity herself is one of "us": a Jewish woman married to a Gentile man. She's also, now, a Ph.D. from Brown. Her just-completed dissertation, "Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America," is the first gendered history of intermarriage and the first historical, exclusive look at American Jewish women who intermarried during the Twentieth Century. McGinity interviewed 42 Boston-area women of Ashkenazi descent from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox backgrounds, whose first, second, or third marriages were to non-Jewish men they married between 1938 and 2000; the oldest woman was 92 at the time of her interview.

Other scholars--sociologists, psychologists, and demographers--have studied intermarriage and how attitudes toward it have shifted over time. Usually we look at population studies and their offspring--theories on why Jews intermarry, programs to prevent intermarriage, injunctions against rabbis performing intermarriages, and so on--in the present tense, for the substance of what they say, and their implications. But McGinity is a historian. In her work--as in our own experience--we intermarried Jewish women take center stage. The most important truth she points to is this: that intermarried Jewish women are defining for themselves what a Jewish family is--and those definitions, while they may not please some, feel authentically Jewish for the people who are creating them.

When she speaks publicly about her work, as she did in April in Newton, Massachusetts, McGinity cautions up front that the women she interviewed do not make up a statistically valid random sample. Her approach is qualitative. "I'm using the personal not simply to quantify how many people are attending services, lighting candles, having or not having a Christmas tree," she says. "I'm more interested in what having or not having a Christmas tree means." When a woman has a Christmas tree because she no longer considers herself Jewish, it isn't the same as when, say, a woman has a Christmas tree out of respect for her widowed mother-in-law who had no one else to spend Christmas with, McGinity's thinking implies.

Comparing these experiences over the span of 10 decades, McGinity asserts that what intermarriage meant for Jewish women in the first half of the century is quite different from what it meant in the second half--a finding consistent with those of other researchers. A primary catalyst for change was feminism, she claims. Jewish women marrying in the latter decades of the century not only felt less constricted by community expectations, but were also more assertive about wanting a Jewish home, stating clearly that they wanted this, and what's more, they could imagine a marriage and a Jewish home without a Jewish man in the house.

The words of writer Mary Antin, author of The Promised Land (1912) and an immigrant from the Pale of Settlement who married a Lutheran in 1901, speak of a new world where women could marry for love, and were freer than they were in the Pale to choose a different way of life. McGinity quotes from her writings: "When I came to America I lightly dropped the religious forms that I had mocked before…"

Though not quite Jewish, Antin did not embrace Christianity. When push came to shove, she declared: "I can no more return to the Jewish fold than I can return to my mother's womb; neither can I in decency continue to enjoy my accidental personal immunity from the penalties of being a Jew in a time of virulent anti-Semitism. The least I can do, in my need to share the sufferings of my people, is declare that I am one of them."

McGinity reminds us too of Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), and Anna Strunsky (1877-1964), also immigrant Jewish women who intermarried in the early 1900s. Stokes was a socialist and anti-war activist; Strunsky, a writer. "They for the most part moved into their husbands' and mainstream social circles," McGinity reports. "They left the Jewish fold, more than not."

The women McGinity spoke with who intermarried in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s felt the sting of anti-Semitism and tried to submerge their Jewish identities. "I'll always admit that I'm Jewish if asked," one woman said, "but I don't come forward all the time and say that I am." Another woman, a World War II refugee from Vienna, explained that anti-Semitism had influenced her decision to marry a non-Jew in 1949. "In some ways, I've wondered lately whether I was running away from all of this," she said. Several of McGinity's interviewees reported that their knowledge of Jewish life was too sketchy to pass on to their children. Some became Unitarians and ceased to consider themselves Jewish at all. Yet all these women were "still Jewish," in McGinity's eyes, in a different sense. One of the women who converted to Unitarianism recounted that, after attending a bar mitzvah, she remarked to her husband, "I was the only person there who wasn't Jewish." His response? "But you are." Even for those who had converted, "no one let a Jew forget she was a Jew," McGinity says. "Jewishness was inescapable, whether they claimed it for themselves or not."

Influenced by the diminishing ethnic and racial boundaries of the time, and the growing fascination with ethnicity (think Black is Beautiful, and the rise of Jewish pride after the Six-Day War of 1967), McGinity's women who intermarried in the 1960s and 70s felt free to marry gentile men while at the same time--unlike their counterparts in earlier decades--strongly and loudly affirming their Jewish identity. One woman, who married a non-Jew in 1969, told McGinity that a powerful influence was "this idea that we're all the same and that…the way to solve a lot of the conflicts and problems--because it was the civil rights movement we were just coming out of--was that people would intermarry." (When this woman's father learned of her intention to marry a Japanese-American, he warned her, chillingly, "Remember Pearl Harbor.")

These decades also saw the rise of second-wave feminism and then a distinctly Jewish feminism. For some women in McGinity's sample, even the feminist question of whether to change over to a husband's last

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners.
Jeri Zeder

Jeri Zeder is a freelance writer. Her articles on traveling in Portugal and her sister-in-law's Catholic wedding have appeared in InterfaithFamily.com.

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