Gender History as a Key to Understanding Intermarriage

By Keren R. McGinity


This article is a revised version of an article published in the [Boston] Jewish Advocate and is published with permission of the author. Visit

“Faith still a priority for intermarried women” headlined the Jewish Advocate article about the lecture I gave at Hebrew College in April. My key finding was that, contrary to assumptions about Jewish women becoming “lost” to the Jewish community, intermarried Jewish women increasingly were more adamant about their Jewish identities and proactive about Jewish education, observance, and raising Jewish children in the last decades of the twentieth century than they had been earlier.

Gender–the meanings and roles people attach to a person’s biological sex and the changing relationship between women and men–is a key to understanding the long-term significance of intermarriage. Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s increased negotiating power for Jewish women who intermarried by altering the relationship between the sexes and the definition of marriage in American society. A more egalitarian understanding of marriage enabled Jewish women to better express their religious and cultural preferences within their marriages.

Jewish feminists also expanded the boundaries of Jewish womanhood, which paved the way for intermarried Jewish women to increasingly define themselves as Jews according to their own standards. Simultaneously, the heightened ethnic consciousness encouraged Jewish women who married in the 1980s and 1990s to proudly claim their association with their ethnic group.

Moreover, women’s increasing professional involvement in the paid labor force meant more voting power within their families. If there is a silver lining in the working mother’s persistent role as the primary caregiver and domestic overseer, it is intermarried Jewish women’s influence over the religious orientation, activities, and communal involvement of their family.

My dissertation, “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage,” was a qualitative study of the meaning and representation of intermarriage across the twentieth century. I combined contemporary ethnography with analysis of how interfaith relationships and intermarriage were portrayed in the mass media, advice manuals and religious community-generated literature. These dual methodologies situated women’s self-representations within the larger discursive and historical contexts. My sample, consisting of 42 interviews with Boston area women of mostly Ashkenazi descent and whose marriages occurred between 1938 and 2000, was not intended to be random or representative. My goal rather was to selectively shed light on the complex histories of some Jewish women who intermarried. However, the sample size was large enough to illustrate some common experiences among intermarried women and the meanings these experiences generated at varied points across time.

The Biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger” is under debate by distinguished Jewish leaders and organizations. “However, the stranger is also expected to respect the norms, values and teachings of the society in which he or she lives,” according to Steven Bayme, the national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. The assertion that one needs to follow “norms” determined by someone else–precisely what and who are unclear–to merit acceptance suggests that there is such a thing as a homogenous Jewish people.

Others seek to strengthen Jewish identification, Jewish family life and communal involvement by positively reinforcing the contributions of non-Jewish spouses. For example, at an adult learning service on May 6th, Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton validated the existence of non-Jewish participants in Jewish life rather than stigmatize them for falling short according to standards created by the Jewish “establishment.” The virtual Mother’s Day cards distributed by the Jewish Outreach Institute thanking women of other religious backgrounds for raising Jewish children likewise expressed the Jewish community’s appreciation.

Current discourse on intermarriage is analogous to the debates between people who believed the United States constitution was a living document to be interpreted according to modern needs, and strict constitutionalists who took the original intent of the framers of the constitution verbatim. The Torah is a Torat Hayim, a living document. Lest one forget, if not for activists who interpret laws long after they were originally written, neither blacks nor women would have the right to vote and public schools would still be segregated.

As my research suggests, marrying “the stranger” actually cast women’s Jewish identity into high relief and made them more consciously Jewish than had they married endogamously in the late twentieth century. Jewish women’s identification with Judaism sometimes lay as if dormant during the dating and engagement period, and was awakened by contact with gentile husbands and the birth of children.

The evolution of Jewish women’s identities illustrated the fluidity that a culture of individualism fostered as well as that the personal meaning of religious identity changed over the life course. That some Jewish women’s paradoxical relationships led them to develop themselves in ways that would never have been explored without the non-Jewish husband’s presence illustrates that to welcome the stranger may be one unanticipated path to Jewish self-discovery in America.


About Keren R. McGinity

Keren R. McGinity is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Previously, she was Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.