Intermarriage and The Future Of American Jewry

By Marlena Thompson


Review of The Vanishing American Jew: In Search Of Jewish Identity For the Next Century by Alan Dershowitz, Little Brown, $24.95 and Embracing The Stranger: Intermarriage And The Future Of The American Jewish Community by Ellen Jaffe McClain, Basic Books, $25.00

According to Alan Dershowitz, Harvard professor, well-known lawyer, and author of The Vanishing American Jew, the greatest threat to the survival of Jews as a people is our very success as individuals. He contends that a history packed with pogroms, poverty, and persecution has created a Jewish identity dependent on victimization. The “problem” today, he claims, is that the Gentile community in America “would kill us with kindness, by assimilating us, marrying us, and merging with us out of respect . . . even love.”

In putting forth this theory, Dershowitz doesn’t deny the existence of anti-Semitism, but asserts that overt anti-Semites–skinheads, Holocaust deniers, members of militia, etc.–have been marginalized. Dershowitz maintains that the so-called “Tsuris Theory of Jewish Survival”–the perception (amongst Jews themselves) that Jews need external troubles to stay Jewish–must change in order for the Jewish community to thrive in the benign social climate of modern day America.

Amongst those factors Dershowitz cites as contributing to the demographic annihilation of American Jews are an extremely low birth rate and an ever-increasing rate of intermarriage.

Evidently influenced by the fact that his son married an Irish Catholic woman, Dershowitz states: “Intermarriage will continue; it will probably increase . . . A half-Jewish grandchild who is proud of his or her Jewish heritage is preferable, from a Jewish perspective, to a grandchild who completely rejects it . . . If we cannot fight our children’s mixed marriages, we must try and get these children to join us.” Dershowitz thus encourages more tolerance toward those Jews who have chosen non-Jewish spouses.

In discussing ways to forge a positive Jewish identity and increase the likelihood of the survival of the Jews as a people, Dershowitz advocates a number of changes in mainstream Jewish thought and action, such as:

  • Being less “tribal” and exclusive, and more open to converts.
  • Being more welcoming toward non-Jewish spouses in intermarriages.
  • Recognizing the validity of secularism in Judaism.
  • Encouraging the emergence of Jewish leaders other than rabbis.
  • Permitting non-Jewish students to study at Jewish day schools as a way of upgrading the academic qualifications of those schools. (He uses Quaker schools, open to students of all religious beliefs, as a model.)
  • Teaching Judaism “in the most eclectic and welcoming manner.”

Although intermarriage is but one factor discussed by Dershowitz, his focus on this topic calls to mind another work dealing with intermarriage: Embracing The Stranger by Ellen Jaffe McClain.

Of the two, McClain’s work is by far the more powerful and thorough in its examination and discussion of intermarried couples and their relationship with mainstream Jewish America.

McClain, who professes “a passionate commitment to liberal Judaism as a religious faith and . . . way of life,” discovered she was considered an “enemy of the Jewish people” when she chose a non- Jewish husband. Resenting that, and certain that she was not the only holiday-observant, temple-going Jew who had intermarried, Jaffe began to conduct her own intensive study of “exogamy,” or “marrying outside the group.”

She wanted to know who the Jews are who marry non-Jews, their reasons for doing so, who the non-Jews they marry are, how these couples are perceived and treated by the Jewish community, and how those perceptions and behaviors can be changed for the better. Her investigation resulted in Embracing The Stranger.

While Dershowitz ascribes the rising rate of intermarriage primarily to demographics–the demise of Jewish neighborhoods and the corresponding proximity of Jews and non-Jews in schools, universities, and other social gathering places–McClain explores a more subtle reason for the phenomenon: the persistence of mutual negative stereotyping amongst Jewish men and women. She found that many Jewish men believe in the reality of the so-called “Jewish American Princess” stereotype–that certain Jewish women are materialistic, demanding, and interested in only a doctor or lawyer when seeking a mate–while an equal number of Jewish women believe that many Jewish men personify the “Jewish Prince” stereotype–that certain Jewish men are arrogant, egotistical, and interested in a compliant, intellectually non-competitive woman for a wife.

“Jewish men and women must learn to stop using stereotypes to mask their own lack of self-esteem and lack of pride in being Jewish,” writes McClain.

McClain argues that Jews who intermarry have been wrongly characterized as automatically lost to Judaism. She notes that Jewish women committed to Judaism who have married out are especially likely to choose non-religious Gentile men who are supportive of maintaining Jewish homes.

However, McClain notes that outreach efforts to intermarried families have been relatively unsuccessful because they lack an ungrudging, unambiguous commitment from the Jewish establishment: “So many . . . rabbis, educators and lay leaders are afraid of being perceived as giving aid and comfort to “bad Jews” . . . that the “bad Jews” never discover how they can get to be “good Jews.”

The two authors sometimes converge. For example, both note that American Jews, while amongst the best educated in the country, are abysmally ignorant of their own culture. As such, both advocate changes in how Jews are educated in their own tradition, Dershowitz by recommending that Jewish education be made relevant to all aspects of living and learning, and McClain, by urging institutional Judaism, including synagogues and synagogue-affiliated schools, to become more spiritually nourishing and therefore more inviting.

I read both books with more than a passing interest. I happen to grow up across the street from Mr. Dershowitz, so I am always interested in the perspectives of my one-time neighbor, whether I agree with them or not. But McClain’s book was especially significant to me as I identify with her position vis- a-vis the Jewish community. After devoting the last fifteen years of my life to Jewish education, I was recently turned down for a position as an education director for a Conservative synagogue because, I was told, “it was discovered that my husband wasn’t Jewish.” (This is a fact I surely wasn’t hiding but which hadn’t come up, as I had believed it wasn’t relevant to the position.)

Food for thought. As are both The Vanishing American Jew and Embracing The Stranger. Different as they are, they are required reading for anyone seriously concerned with the future of Judaism and the Jewish community in the coming millennium.


About Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at