A woman's love and (inter)marriage

In 'Still Jewish,' Keren R. McGinity reviews intermarriage from the modern American woman's viewpoint.

By TAMAR CASPI
May 27, 2009 12:25
3 minute read.
A woman's love and (inter)marriage

marriage book 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America By Keren R. McGinity NYU Press 256 pp., $39.00 Phrases such as "intermarriage is finishing what Hitler started" or "intermarriage is this generation's Holocaust" have sparked articles, books and debates to no end. Are we killing off the Jewish people by marrying out of the religion? Statistics show there has been a decrease in the Jewish population, but that could also be attributed to cultural and social dynamics as much as anything else. Intermarriage rates within the American Jewish community are hovering at 52 percent, according to some reports. Intermarriage has been documented and written about, but research from the women's point of view was vague at best until now. Keren McGinity's first book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, follows intermarriage trends beginning with the turn of the 20th century and culminating after the millennium. McGinity, who is the postdoctoral research fellow in contemporary American Jewish life at the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, calls herself a "knowledgeable witness" to intermarriage after marrying and divorcing an Irish Catholic. The author, whose own experience led to her interest in the topic, researched decade by decade beginning with the diaries of three prominent Jewish women and then using interviews with 45 women whose age range was as varied as the religions of the men they married. McGinity offers a number of reasons as to why Jewish women are now the "unprecedented majority of Jews who married gentiles": new immigrants desiring to assimilate; gender equality in education, politics and work; and the increasing numbers of disaffiliated Jews and decreasing numbers in religious identification and observance among many Americans. The author also explains why intermarriage involving Jewish women wasn't recorded: Many women were ostracized from the Jewish community for marrying "out" and were lost track of; other women took their non-Jewish husband's last names and became invisible to researchers, while others fell victim to the marginalization of women before the second feminist wave and therefore didn't count. One of the interesting themes McGinity found through her interviews with women who intermarried in the past few decades was that their faith strengthened rather than dissipated and did so because of their husbands' support. When these women became mothers, they became more knowledgeable and traditional about Judaism than how they themselves were raised. Even though their faith did not lead them to marry "in," it did not diminish the importance of religion in their lives. These women did not take it for granted that their children would automatically be considered Jewish based on matrilineal descent, rather intermarriage was actually "a catalyst for a more clearly defined and meaningful Jewish identity and life." Those children have been the subject of much controversy among the leaders of the Jewish community, and McGinity discusses the topic from all angles. According to Orthodox leadership, children of Jewish mothers are not considered Jewish if the father did not also identify as Jewish. But in 1979, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), decided to count children who had at least one Jewish parent and was being raised as Jewish. This move was made in the hope of padding the Jewish population but was quickly rejected by the more conservative denominations. Though at times the book reads like the research paper it is, it is also a topic filled with mystery and intrigue, and McGinity has done due diligence and is able to answer all questions on the topic except one: Should the Jewish community utilize outreach or in-reach in counteracting intermarriage? Lay leaders want to change the ways of yesteryear to attract the younger generation to stay within the community, but they also want to reach out to those that have already intermarried and welcome them into the community. Unfortunately, these tactics are contradictory in nature and even McGinity, with all her knowledge on the subject, is able to admit that there is no clear-cut answer. Still Jewish is a fascinating read for those interested in Jewish history or women's history as well as for those concerned about the future of the Jewish community. While it is an enlightening book, it still leaves the reader with inquisitiveness on the subject. If nothing else, hopefully the question of outreach versus in-reach will create new conversations on the topic and will lead to a more welcoming atmosphere for single Jews as well as the already intermarried Jews to want to join the Jewish community.

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