To Understand Interfaith Marriage, Ask Jewish Women

By Sherry Israel

May 5, 2009


Review of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, by Keren McGinity (New York University Press, 2009).

Keren’s McGinity’s new book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, tells the fascinating story of changes over the course of the 20th century in the roles and self-concepts of interfaith marriage for American Jewish women, and the effects of those changes on the transmission of Jewish identity to the next generation. The book takes us from a time when a Jewish woman’s interfaith marriage meant turning her back on active participation in Jewish religious and community life (although not, McGinity argues, her Jewish identity or social values), Still Jewish coverthrough the conformity and traditional domesticity of the post-war years and the heady stirrings of self-definition of the ’60s and ’70s, into the present. McGinity argues that for many women today, interfaith marriage has had the apparently paradoxical effect of heightening their sense of Jewish identity and leading to an increase in active participation in Jewish learning, observance, and raising Jewish children.

McGinity’s narrative covers four historical periods: the first two decades of the 20th century, the 1930s through the ’50s, the 1960s and ’70s, and the final two decades of the century. A key feature of the book is the use of individuals’ experiences to illustrate and illuminate larger trends. For the first period, McGinity relies on archival material about the lives of three prominent Jewish women. For the remaining chapters, she conducted personal interviews with a sample of 43 women from cities and towns in the greater Boston area whose interfaith marriages took place in the remaining twentieth century decades. As she herself notes, the sample is neither random nor representative, but it is still “large enough to illustrate some common experiences … and the meanings those experiences generated at various points across time.”

In a highly readable style, McGinity embeds the personal stories and the themes they generate in a rich tapestry of information drawn from statistical data, letters, memoirs, biographies and novels about women, the popular press and advice manuals from each time period, as well as Jewish community-generated literature about women and interfaith marriage more generally. Thematically, McGinity makes a convincing case that the great American social trends of the century, culminating in the convergence at the end of the century of feminism, individualism, ethnic/religious pluralism and the fluidity of identity, have influenced the ways American Jewish women experienced their marital and life choices. Her analysis helps us understand not only what has been happening, but also its meaning in the lives of individuals and the Jewish community as a whole. McGinity concludes that for her respondents at the end of the century and the generation they typify, ” …  interfaith marriage was not an adversary to Jewish continuity, rather it was an opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth, [for] accentuated Jewish identities.” The details of her analysis and description deepen the picture at every stage.

Still Jewish is an important addition and corrective to the currently available American discussion of interfaith marriage. One problem with Jewish communal conversations about the subject is that the framing question is, all too often, “is it good for the Jews?” Of course, the answer depends in large part on who the questioner counts as Jewish and what outcomes are defined as good–not a promising way to understand what is happening, or to frame policies that have a good chance of actually making a positive difference.

With a few exceptions, most scholars studying “the intermarried” lump them together in a single undifferentiated group. Since most of the available empirical data about Jewish interfaith marriage has been produced by Jewish sociologists and demographers, we know a lot about the big picture and almost nothing about the Jewish life experiences of those who are in an interfaith marriage. The Jewish conversation is usually from an insider perspective. It is rare to find references in academic studies of interfaith marriage to the great currents of change in the wider American cultural and historical context. It is as if American Jewish life were like a sacred text being studied by its rabbinic devotees, existing in an eternal present lived in isolation from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, Jewish researchers have neglected gender as a framework for understanding Jewish interfaith marriage, even though empirical researchers in history, social and political science and even medical research are taking it into account.

Still Jewish changes all this. McGinity makes it clear that “intermarried Jewish women” are not one single entity, neither over time nor at a given time. Her analysis of American social and historical trends clarifies the reasons for the changes in the meaning and social implications of interfaith marriage that she describes, revealing the weaknesses of total insider history and analysis. Most of all, the book makes it clear that gender has to be a key factor in any approach to understanding interfaith marriage in America.

Like all good research, the book leaves us with many new questions. How typical are the women whose stories McGinity retells? Is “revitalization from within”, the intriguing and optimistic title of her fourth chapter, a common or unusual phenomenon? Are there identifiable factors that lead some women in interfaith marriages to affirm Jewish choices while others do not, and if so, what are the policy implications for different segments of our community? What about regional patterns–how does all this play out in the West, the South, the Midwest and other parts of the country? And, of course, what about Jewish men? Are they also making Jewish choices when they marry someone of another faith, and why or why not?

In her concluding chapters, McGinity contrasts the two policy approaches to interfaith marriage now current in the American Jewish communal conversation, “outreach” and “inreach.” Based on her own life experience, and on the evidence of her research, McGinity weighs in firmly on the side of outreach. Taking her insistence on the need for nuance seriously, I think this forced choice is unnecessary. Instead, I suggest that this is another of those “you are right, and you are right, too” situations.

There is a segment of the Jewish community where it still makes sense to stress the traditional position in favor of endogamy and there is a larger segment for which marriage to non-Jews is a natural part of the cultural landscape. Some of those who marry someone of another faith will be open to forming Jewish families and raising Jewish children. Like Jews married to other Jews, those in interfaith marriages will make all manner of choices about what forms their Jewish lives will take, and different choices at different points in their lives, because that is the nature of religious and ethnic identity formation and expression in America in our day. McGinity’s book supports those who say that the existence of a rich array of authentic and deeply-grounded Jewish experiences, and communities of friendship and support, create places at the Jewish table for both partners in an interfaith marriage. This will increase the odds that Jews in a interfaith marraiges will choose to continue to be part of the Jewish story and in turn to pass it on to the next generation.


About Sherry Israel

Sherry Israel is a social psychologist, retired in 2007 after 16 years as an Associate Professor at the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. She has published in a variety of publications, on topics including group dynamics, Jewish demography, Jewish identity, and Jewish communal organizations.