Women and intermarriage
A NJ native’s surprising thesis about Jewish identity and child-rearing
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
In her 2009 book, Still Jewish, Princeton native Keren McGinity argues that the organized Jewish community has gotten the implications of intermarriage for women wrong for most of the last century.
Rather than serving as the “lightning rod” for unhappy marriages and divorce, not to mention a catalyst for the increasing assimilation of Jews, her book suggests just the opposite: that if the marriages of Jewish women who intermarry unravel, that happens for the same reasons as do other marriages — financial stresses, shifting values, infidelity. Moreover, she says, Jewish women who intermarry not only often raise their children as Jews, they in fact sometimes gain a deeper hold on their Jewish identity.
“The basic assumption the book dismantles is this idea that a Jew who intermarries must not take Judaism seriously or otherwise ceases to identify Jewishly, won’t ever become more Jewishly engaged, and won’t raise Jewish children,” McGinity said in a phone interview from Ann Arbor, Mich. “What I found was that women did not cease to identify as Jews. Although some women dabbled in other religions or otherwise adopted dual identities in the early 20th century, increasingly over the 20th century they became more adamant about identifying Jewishly and more proactive about raising Jewish children.”
McGinity — who is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies — spent the first 10 years of her life in Princeton, then moved with her mother to Brookline, Mass., after her parents’ divorce.
She returned to the Garden State to earn a BA from Rutgers University. (“New Jersey is really underrated,” she said.)
The inspiration for her work came from her own life experience. After her parents, both Jewish, divorced and each married a non-Jew, there was little impact on her own Jewish identity. She became a bat mitzva, attended Hebrew high school, and is still in touch with some of the rabbis from that period of her life. Her mother, a Jewish artist, continued to display her work in the house, and, McGinity recalled, “our house was filled with Judaica.”
Then McGinity herself married a non-Jew, again, she feels, with little impact on her own Jewish identity.
Still Jewish focuses on the life choices of 46 Jewish women living in the Boston area who intermarried; their experiences span a period of 100 years. McGinity used historical documents for three women from the early 20th century, and oral interviews with living women for the rest.
Her work differs from that of sociologists in that it covers its subjects over a period time and offers a gender-specific view. “When you look at a sociological perspective and take a snapshot in time, that’s all we see. But when we look over many more years, we see fluidity,” she said.
In her work, she found that “the long-held belief that people who intermarry cease to identify as Jews and don’t raise Jewish children is false, at least when it comes to Jewish women over the course of time.”
Although American-Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna praised the work as “an invaluable addition to the scant scholarly literature on intermarriage,” in a quote on the book jacket, other scholars are more skeptical.
The American Jewish sociologist Dr. Steven Cohen, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, does not view McGinity’s work as breaking any new ground, at least as it concerns women and continuity. He told NJJN in a telephone interview, “There’s no question that Jewish women who are intermarried are much more likely to raise their children as Jews than are Jewish men who intermarry. I’ve written about this. It’s well documented. The impact of intermarriage on Jewish continuity is primarily focused on Jewish husbands who marry non-Jewish wives.
“That said, only a minority of children of intermarried Jewish women or Jewish men grow up to identify as Jews,” continued Cohen. “Our challenge is to welcome the intermarried such that they and their children feel impelled to identify strongly as active and committed Jews.” But he declined to focus on men alone, saying, “That the children of intermarried people have far less chance of growing up and identifying as Jews concerns me and should concern everyone who cares about the Jewish people.”
Reiterating the differences between Jewish husbands and wives in intermarried couples, McGinity responded that the challenge ought to focus on men. As she put it, we ought to be “engaging men in Jewish and family life so that when they eventually become fathers they are as likely to raise Jewish children as women.” She also pointed out that “the scholarship on Jewish children is in its infancy” and therefore there should not be sweeping generalizations” made about the identify of the adult children of intermarried couples.
Still Jewish follows the trajectory of women’s position in the family and society, from subordinate to independent, and of Jews from second-class to full equality. There are women like Mary Antin, from the earliest group, whose marriage to a non-Jew was a rare occurrence and who was far stronger and more politically active than most young Jews of her day. Harriet Mansfield represents those who gained social mobility through her intermarriage, which took place in 1942. Like many of her peers, she had little Jewish education or attachment to Judaism when she married and converted, but found that she nonetheless retained a sense of Jewishness.
Others during this period intermarried in part to escape the discrimination they endured growing up, according to McGinity.
By the 1960s and ’70s, women began to define themselves on their own terms apart from their husbands and parents, and, according to Still Jewish, “the problem” of intermarriage had grown to what leaders of the organized Jewish community were calling a “crisis.” Women like Amy Jacobson, who had little Jewish education, were intermarrying “as a form of rebellion against their parents,” whose views they saw as “hypocritical.” Meanwhile, others, like Carol Ferris chose to raise their children as Jews but with little Jewish education. By the end of the 20th century, we meet women like Hannah Noble; intermarriage was by then a common phenomenon, but her stance was definitely proactive, and she educated her children and herself, creating a Jewish home and family life filled with rich Jewish experiences.
Because of her own history, McGinity said, she found herself to be the ideal person to interview intermarried women, saying her subjects had a “natural comfort level” with her. Because the issue of intermarriage is fraught with “a lot of baggage and social pressures,” she said, “Jews who have married outside the fold can find it quite cathartic to be asked questions about that specific experience and know they are answering in a safe environment, sharing their story for the sake of scholarship and understanding.”
Ironically, during the final phases of publishing the book, which served as her dissertation for her doctoral degree in women’s gender history from Brown University, McGinity found her marriage to her Irish-Catholic husband unraveling over the issue of religion. In concert with her research, the divorce occurred, at least in part, because McGinity insisted on raising the couple’s daughter, Shira, in a fully Jewish environment, pursuant to their prenuptial arrangement.
McGinity bristles at the idea that her own last name doesn’t sound Jewish. She defended her choice to retain her married name despite being divorced. “I would very much like to live to see a day when people are not judged by their names,” she said, “when there is simply a greater appreciation of the idea that there is more to a person than a name and that someone with the name McGinity can be Jewish.”
She also said she resents the “hairy eyeball” reaction to women who take their husbands’ non-Jewish-sounding names. Such a response, she said, “reflects the deep roots of the anti-intermarriage position of bias or fear” in the Jewish community.
McGinity is working on a scholarly sequel to Still Jewish that offers a gendered, historical analysis of intermarriage, this time from the perspective of Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women.