The American Jewish family, redefined

Tylenol commercial highlights changing American (and Jewish) social mores.

Tylenol commercial
“Our definition of family is now expanding and blossoming so it’s not this rigid fixed picture of what the family is,” Abigail Rockwell says in a recent Tylenol commercial in which she describes her lesbian relationship with a Jewish woman.
The commercial is part of ad campaign titled “For what matters most,” intended, in Tylenol’s words, “to help illustrate how modern families come together to celebrate what matters most during the holidays.”
Juxtaposing contemporary families with that pictured in Norman Rockwell’s 1942 painting “Freedom from Want,” the ads highlight the massive changes in America’s social structure, and incidentally among American Jews, since World War II.
Just under half of American children are currently growing up in a traditional family comprised of two heterosexual partners in their first marriage, the Pew Research Center found in a recent study, which it termed a “marked change” from previous generations.
“Americans are delaying marriage, and more may be foregoing the institution altogether,” Pew noted, adding that 41 percent of US children are born out of wedlock and 34% of US children live with an unmarried parent.
“What’s fascinating – and very welcome indeed – is that these ads seem designed to explicitly question and redefine not just... what it means to be a family, but... what it means to be an American family,” wrote Chloe Angyal on the feminist website Feministing.
Marriage patterns have changed significantly among American Jews as well, with intermarriage no longer bearing the same social stigma as in the past.
Following the release of a massive Pew study of Jewish Americans in late 2013, which revealed, among other things, that 58% of Jews married since the turn of the millennium have gentile spouses, many Jewish leaders have expressed concerns over the demographic future of their communities.
“Intermarriage rates seem to have risen substantially over the last five decades,” and “among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse,” the survey found.
According to Pew, intermarried Jews are much less likely to raise their children Jewishly, to socialize within a Jewish context or to belong to Jewish institutions.
Some prominent Jewish figures, such as Rabbi Eric H.
Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, have come out against efforts to strengthen communal boundaries in the wake of the report.
Writing shortly after its release, Yoffie contended that reducing the intermarriage rate “cannot be done,” and that “focusing on what is not possible will leave the community worse off than it is now.
“The simple fact is that no feasible strategy is available to lower those rates in any dramatic way,” he asserted.
“Doing so would require Jews in this country to pull back from full, enthusiastic participation in American life and to construct barricades and bunkers to separate themselves from the American mainstream.”
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both prohibit their rabbis from performing interfaith weddings, but cracks have begun to appear in the Conservatives’ position.
Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts, one of the US’s largest Conservative synagogues, recently sent an email to congregants asking them to support a proposal for a new shul policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings in cases where the couple commits to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.”
Although he subsequently backtracked, the leadership of the Conservative youth movement United Synagogue Youth this week voted to relax its rules barring its teenage board members from dating non-Jews.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the policy change does not reflect a change in USY’s values.
The debate over how open the community should be to such pairings remains open, however.
In an essay in Mosaic Magazine last month, historian Jack Wertheimer of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and sociologist Steven Cohen of Reform’s Hebrew Union College, argued in favor of an oft-quoted assessment of sociographer Milton Himmelfarb, who quipped that the grandchild of an intermarried Jew should be called a Christian.
“The Pew findings unequivocally support Himmelfarb’s more hardheaded conclusion,” the pair wrote.
“Among those findings: as many as 2,100,000 Americans of some Jewish parentage – overwhelmingly, the offspring of intermarried parents – do not identify themselves as Jews. Our analysis of Pew and other national and local surveys also shows that intermarried families are considerably less likely to join synagogues, contribute to Jewish charities, identify strongly with Israel, observe Jewish religious rituals, or befriend other Jews. Exceptions aside, the large majority of intermarried families are loosely, ambivalently, or not at all connected to Jewish life,” they wrote.
JTA contributed to this report.