Book Reviews of Interfaith Classics

By Susan Katz Miller


December, 1998

Two reviews:

Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage by Paul Cowan with Rachel Cowan (Penguin Books, 1987).

When this book first appeared more than a decade ago, I devoured it from cover to cover. As the adult child of an interfaith marriage, I took great comfort in knowing that I was not alone in the world. My parents had married in an era when interfaith marriages between Jews and Christians was still uncommon. Paul and Rachel Cowan were the first to write a popular book on such families. Now, years later, with a dozen works on interfaith marriage on the shelves, their book still stands as enlightening and relevant.

The starting point for the Cowans’ book was their own marriage. Paul Cowan was a non-practicing Jew and Rachel Cowan a Unitarian of Pilgrim stock when they first met. When their two children were small, they began a journey towards Judaism which resulted in Rachel’s conversion and rabbinical studies. This book very clearly represents a Jewish perspective on interfaith marriage, culminating in an unabashed paean to the joys of a unified Jewish family and a plea for synagogues to open their doors to intermarried couples.

While making their point of view clear, the Cowans strive to be respectful of the other choices an interfaith couple might make. Their book includes descriptions of families who chose Unitarianism, who chose Judaism or Christianity for their children without conversion for the spouse, or who chose to practice both faiths in the family.

The Cowans’ book is based on their own experience, on interviews with interfaith families, and on a series of workshops for interfaith couples which they led. Their central argument is that when people of different faiths enter into interfaith marriages, they often suppress their religious and ethnic identities. However, they believe these identities often resurface as “time bombs” set off by moments of stress such as the December holidays, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one. The book describes how different couples have faced these challenges, and how being aware of such time bombs can help to defuse them. The case histories of couples struggling with interfaith issues make for engrossing and often poignant reading.

One of the most unique aspects of the Cowans’ book is their historical research. They devote an entire section of the book to tracing the history of interfaith marriage, which requires distilling the history of Jews in America. A long section is devoted to the compelling story of Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew whose lines about the “huddled masses” are inscribed on the statue of liberty. The Cowans describe how this poet’s Jewish writings were later suppressed by her sister, who had married a Protestant. While this story appears to be a bit of a digression, it weaves together what they see as the intertwining strands of interfaith marriage, assimilation and anti-Semitism in America.

Throughout the book, it remains clear that the authors were most comfortable, not surprisingly, with their own resolution to the problem of religious difference in marriage: conversion to Judaism. However, the book will be informative and useful even to those who choose other pathways, because it is a sensitive treatment of some very complex questions.

Between Two Worlds: Choices for Grown Children of Jewish-Christian Parents by Leslie Goodman-Malamuth and Robin Margolis (Pocket Books, 1992).

Near the end of this landmark book on the children of interfaith marriage, Leslie Goodman-Malamuth and Robin Margolis use a homely but apt analogy to describe the persistence of Jewishness in the descendants of interfaith marriage. They compare the Jewish parent or grandparent to a red sock in a load of white laundry, coloring everything it touches. “Whether we’re tinted a delicate pink or shrieking crimson,” they write, “whether we’re Lutheran or Lubavitcher, we’ll always carry at least part of that red sock, that Jewishness, within.”

The idea that all children of interfaith marriage will always feel some degree of cultural duality is a central theme of this book, the first book written both by and for the adult children of interfaith marriage. Goodman-Malamuth is the daughter of a Protestant mother and Jewish father who ended up converting to Judaism. Margolis was raised as a Protestant, discovered the secret of her mother’s Judaism only after her death, and also “returned” to Judaism. Nonetheless, the authors make the point again and again that even if we choose to live in one culture, we can never completely sever ties with our “other half.” Their insights are drawn from personal experience, historical research, workshops, and the detailed responses from 185 descendants of interfaith marriage who filled out questionnaires. Both of the authors are writers by profession, and their book is by turns funny, angry and wistful as well as informative and wise.

According to halacha (Jewish law), of course, only the children of Jewish mothers are Jews. Reform and Reconstructionist movements now accept children of Jewish fathers (“patrilineals”) who are raised as Jews. Yet, Goodman-Malamuth and Margolis found that, for the descendants of interfaith marriages, the complex and often painful process of finding a primary spiritual or cultural “country of residence” does not seem to be linked closely to either Jewish law or the way in which the parents in interfaith marriages raise the child. For instance, in their questionnaire sample, the authors found that only 17 percent of these children of interfaith marriage had been raised as Jews, yet a whopping 44 percent now identify themselves as Jewish. On the other hand, only 52 percent of the children of Jewish mothers and Christian fathers, the matrilineal, or “halachically correct” offspring, had chosen to live as Jews.

Much of this book is devoted to describing the search for identity that these adult children undertake, with all of its fascinating variations. We encounter a “semi-Semitic Jewish hillbilly,” a “religious Roman Catholic/ethnic Zionist Jew,” and sets of siblings who have chosen wildly diverging identities in adulthood.

The authors mourn the fact that those of us who choose to live as Jews need “a thick skin and a mulish stubbornness in order to remain in a camp that frequently views us as marginal members at best.” They point out that the romantic attachment many Jews feel to traditional European Jewish culture cannot define American Judaism of the future, reminding us that: “No religious culture in a free society can count on ethnic bonding alone to retain its members.”

In the conclusion of their book, Goodman-Malamuth and Margolis assert that “the long-term mission of the Jewish community should be to ensure that all descendants of interfaith marriage love the part of themselves that is Jewish, however they choose to identify.” This is a subtly radical idea. And this is an essential book, not only for interfaith families, but for anyone interested in the cultural and spiritual fabric of America in the future.


About Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith child, an interfaith parent and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.