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Chaim I. Waxman on Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Keren McGinity, who is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, examined changes in what she sees as patterns of Jewish intermarriage – specifically, Jewish women who married non-Jewish men – in the United States in the course of the twentieth century. Her sample consisted of three women no longer alive but whose writings she culled, and qualitative interviews with forty-three women in the Greater Boston area.

McGinity well illustrates the growing rate of intermarriage, from about 2 percent during the early, 1900-1930, years to 50 percent and more by the end of the century. This was accompanied by changes in attitudes toward intermarriage, from its being portrayed in the Jewish media as dangerous and staunchly condemned by the majority of Jewish religious leadership, to its acceptance by the majority of America’s Jews and even being welcomed by some.

The growing rate of intermarriage was accompanied by changes in the identification patterns of the women who intermarried. In contrast to those in the early part of the century, such as her three subjects – writer Mary Antin and socialist activists Rose Pastor and Anna Strunsky – who had very weak Jewish identification, during the second half of the century increasing numbers of Jewish intermarried women have become more Jewishly identified and involved, and are raising their children as Jews. In other words, the increasing intermarriage rates have been accompanied by increasing numbers of Jewish women who identify as Jews. In large part, the shift is the result of the growing ethnic openness; significant changes in the status of women in American society, with increasing gender equality in education and occupation, among others; increasing numbers of Jews who are unaffiliated religiously and communally; and the almost complete “at homeness” of America’s Jews since the 1960s.

One annoying aspect of the study is that, at times, McGinity seems to forget that her research is qualitative rather than quantitative. In the most basic terms, that means the research is exploratory. In this case, for example, it might seek to understand why the women intermarried and how they dealt with it. But the sample is not representative. Clearly, forty-six intermarried Jewish women, forty-three of whom are from the Boston area, do not represent all Jewish intermarried women in the United States. The presence of tables of numbers and percentages relating to the forty-six women is, therefore, somewhat misleading. There is little sense in providing percentages of a sample of forty-six people. To do so appears as an attempt to give the impression of quantitative representativeness where none exists.

On the whole, though, McGinity’s book is well argued. It is an informative and well-presented social history of Jewish women and intermarriage in the United States. Where it runs into trouble is when the author switches roles from social historian to policy advocate. She wants the organized Jewish community, including its leaders, to adopt a new approach to intermarriage, especially the intermarriage of Jewish women to non-Jewish men. Throughout the book, McGinity is unhappy, either explicitly or implicitly, with traditional Jewish notions of Jewishness, such as matrilineal descent and an aversion to intermarriage, that is, mixed marriage. In her conclusion, she has issues with those who advocate “inreach” rather than “outreach,” and she clearly supports the approach of the late Egon Mayer and the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is receptive to mixed marriage.

At the core, what is at issue is a conception of Jewishness. McGinity’s is a postmodern conception of Jewish identity that has no essentialist nature; rather, it views it as created entirely by the subjective thoughts and feelings of the individual. Ironically, there is increasing evidence that there are essentialist differences between children of intermarried and intramarried Jews in terms of their identificational patterns, especially in terms of their sense of belonging to and involvement with a collectivity perceived as the Jewish people. Evidence suggests that it is not enough to “feel Jewish” to “be Jewish.” Leaving aside serious issues of Halakhah, the empirical evidence – including McGinity’s sample of forty-six – indicates that the intermarried may feel “still Jewish” but typically do not operationalize that feeling in ways that are likely to promote Jewish identification in their offspring.

McGinity’s strength is her argument that there is at least as much, if not more, reason to anticipate Jewish identification where the mother is Jewish and, therefore, the traditional greater rejection of Jewish women who intermarried as compared to Jewish men who intermarried, is untenable and unproductive. In other words, she makes a strong case for gender equality.

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PROF. CHAIM I. WAXMAN is professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University and senior fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.