The statistical facts of Jewish intermarriage, those introduced a year ago by the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, are now well known. Among all recently married American Jews, a majority (58 percent) marry people of another religious background. Among the more liberal streams of American Judaism (that is, excluding Orthodox Jews) the same statistic is reportedly 72 percent. But what these dry numbers hide are the human stories behind Jewish intermarriage. These stories have been beautifully documented by Keren McGinity of Brandeis University in her recently-published book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood (Indiana University Press, Sept. 1, 2014).
Marrying Out is Keren McGinity’s second book on the topic of Jewish intermarriage, and it offers an important companion for her first book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America (NYU Press, 2009). Still Jewish is a history of intermarriage in America, and focuses on the stories of intermarried Jewish women. In contrast, Marrying Out, brings to life the stories of intermarried Jewish men, and offers an analysis of current societal trends, especially gender relations and their impact on the lives of families where the man is Jewish (this analysis focuses on heterosexual couples to be comparable to her earlier work).
The overarching argument of Marrying Out is that for many Jewish men who have intermarried in the postwar period, marrying a spouse of another religious background did not spell the end of their relationship with Jewish life. For some, in fact, intermarriage resulted in an invigoration of their commitment to Judaism in general, and to raising Jewish children in particular. In this regard, the cover image offers a stark pairing to the book’s title. It shows a father and a son, both wearing kippot (traditional Jewish head covers), gazing out a brightly-lit window, the father’s arm resting lovingly on his son’s shoulder. What this image wants to suggest is that while these Jewish men married “out” they in fact fathered their children “in” – into engagement with the Jewish community.
Having married a spouse who is not Jewish, some Jewish men find it incumbent upon themselves to assert their Jewishness more than they would have had they married a Jewish woman. This is especially the case when it comes to raising Jewish children. For many of the men interviewed, intermarriage also ushered in a transition from more to less traditional denominational affiliation (Orthodox to Conservative, Conservative to Reform). But having found a community more welcoming of their family, including their spouse of another religious background, they found new and more meaningful ways to engage with Jewish life and traditions.
McGinity also points out that the consequence of intermarriage is different for men and women. Put simply, “it is much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman." The reason, however, is not only (or even primarily) the fact that two of the four major American Jewish denominations still abide by the matrilineal descent rule for determining Jewish identity. Rather, McGinity finds the primary challenge facing intermarried Jewish men to be rooted in the gender rules of American society. Our society demands of men (Jewish men included) to be first and foremost financial providers. Spending long hours climbing the corporate ladder and chasing after material success leaves men little time to nurture, educate, and support their children. They have little time, in other words, to shape the adults that their children will become.
Keren McGinity can be reached via her website: www.loveandtradition.com
I reached out to Keren McGinity to discuss her new book.
In Marrying Out you put out two arguments that are in tension, and at times seem almost contradictory. On the one hand you assure the reader that for the Jewish men you spoke with intermarriage did not weaken, and even reawakened, their connection to Jewish life. On the other hand you argue that gender relations, as they play out in contemporary American culture, leave little room for men to parent Jewish children. How did the men (and women) you spoke with negotiate this tension? And what may have made some more successful than others in negotiating this tension?
The men and women who recognized that their relationships were more traditional than they had anticipated before they married generally accepted that gender equality eluded them. As one man commented when I asked him what he would need to do to spend more time at home than at his office: “I’d need a brain transplant.” The couples that were more successful achieving gender equality admitted that it was hard but that the sacrifices they made career wise meant that they had greater work-family balance and were happier as a result.
What can Jewish institutions do to better support intermarried Jewish men who want to create Jewish families and raise Jewish children?
That’s a great question. Jewish institutions can better support intermarried Jewish men by not only extending a genuinely warm welcome to them and their families should they wander through the JCC or synagogue doors but also by actively communicating: “you and your children are a valuable part of the Jewish people; we want you and your family.” While some intermarried men migrated between Jewish denominations, others who had negative experiences may have distanced themselves from Judaism. Individual clergy and Jewish professionals can personally reach out, apologize for any wrongdoing, perceived or otherwise, and ask for another chance. Jewish day schools and supplemental programs can invite applications from interfaith couples regardless of which parent is Jewish. There also needs to be greater effort to illustrate and validate the full spectrum of Jewish identity, observance, and communal participation. Jewish institutions should collaborate to empower men as co-parents by calling on them to fulfill their roles as Jewish fathers and reinforce the idea that it’s okay to learn alongside their children.
Marrying Out suggests that other changes (such as to policies creating home/work balance for men) may be necessary to help intermarried Jewish men become more involved parents. What are these changes, and what (if anything) can the Jewish community do to promote these changes?
American Jews can lead the way to full gender equality by calling attention to the fact that the imbalance between paid labor and family life inhibits both men and women from reaching their full potential as human beings. The Jewish community can promote change by paying its female staff equal wages as its male staff for the same work; incentivize volunteer work so that it becomes more attractive to men; and emphasize the tangible value of equal parenting. To truly effect change, Jewish communities large and small need to see parenting as an equal opportunity and mutual responsibility—not something largely accomplished by women with sporadic “help” from men. When publicizing parent-child programs, Jewish organizations should include visuals of men with children, not just women, to reinforce men as fully capable care providers. There need to be father-son and father-daughter activities, events, and learning opportunities. Simultaneously, gender roles and social expectations need to be discussed at younger ages so that as Jews of both sexes reach maturity they understand how creating work/life balance is a key ingredient to a happy, not just successful, life.
What advice would you give an interfaith couple considering intermarriage?
Being Jewish is a journey, not a destination. How a Jewish partner feels about their religious or cultural identity may change over his/her lifetime. What may seem unimportant when engaged to marry can become imperative after a child is born. So interfaith couples would do well to discuss all of the “what ifs” and to understand that change is an inherent part of a relationship built on trust, compromise, and commitment. I also encourage writing a co-parenting agreement, prenuptial or postnuptial, including a religious upbringing clause. It never hurts and it may help.
So, what is your next project?
My daughter’s bat mitzvah!
Thank you, and mazal tov. This is a wonderful book that should be on (and off!) the shelf of anyone interested in Jewish life in America.
Zohar Rotem is Manager of Research and Evaluation at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, www.bigtentjudaism.org.