Still Jewish with Keren R. McGinity, Ph.D.

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Still JewishWhat happens when Jewish women intermarry? Do they lose their ties to Judaism, or do they develop stronger ties to the Jewish community? Keren McGinity’s new book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, tackles these very questions. McGinity, a formerly intermarried Jew herself, through her research and her interviews with 46 women in the Greater Boston area, confronts the stereotype that once a Jew intermarries, she loses her connection with the Jewish community. Instead, McGinity argues that intermarried women became more involved Jewishly, raising their children with Jewish backgrounds and strengthening their own Jewish ties.

Still Jewish looks at four different time periods: 1900-1929, 1930-1959, 1960-1979, and 1980-2004. The first period discusses how the growing work force and women’s rights movement allowed for the interaction of Jews with other Americans, as well as increasing women’s independence from traditional norms, such as staying at home while the men worked. In the second period, what McGinity dubs as the “transitional period,” mixed-marriages between Jewish men and gentile women were much more common, possibly showing the importance of the role Jewish women held in maintaining Jewish traditions in their homes. In the 1960’s, the beginning of the third era, Jewish women began to identify more with their heritage when they intermarried and began raising their kids with Jewish backgrounds. In the fourth period, McGinity found that many women were inspired by their Gentile husbands and multiculturalism to create their own Jewish self-identities and to connect with their communities.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Ms. McGinity a few questions about her book and her research.

Q. Are there identifiable factors that lead some intermarried women to affirm Jewish choices while others do not?

A. The identifiable factors that lead some intermarried women to affirm Jewish choices are contextual and historical. Specifically the countercultural movement, the rise of ethnic consciousness, and second wave feminism of the 1960’s and 1970’s influenced intermarried Jewish women’s experiences, how they self-identified, and how they raised their children.

Women who intermarried later in the century were significantly more adamant about being Jewish and about raising Jewish children than women who married “out” earlier in the century. So, in addition to the relationship between gender and religion, the change over time is extremely important to understand.

Q. You say there is no clear answer regarding whether the Jewish community should utilize outreach or in-reach in their efforts to counteract the intermarriage trend. Have you seen anything since your book’s been published to make you change your mind? If so, what sort of things?

A. Allow me to clarify. I believe that intermarriage is inevitable in an open pluralistic society, and that fighting it is like trying to change the weather, to paraphrase the late sociologist Egon Mayer. Moreover, I believe there is more to be gained by spending resources on engaging Jews prior to (inter)marriage than trying to prevent it from happening.

As a scholar, I have to point out that there is currently insufficient data about what impact either outreach (such as programs designed to reach all types of Jews, whether unaffiliated, affiliated, whatever denomination) or in-reach (such as programs designed to reach Jews who are already part of a committed community or synagogue) have had over time. However, in a location such as Boston where there is considerable outreach, there is also a higher percentage of children of intermarriages being raised as Jewish than the national average. Hence, while the direct relationship between the two may be difficult to nail down, it seems likely that programs such as “A Taste of Judaism,” “Yours, Mine, and Ours,” and “Baby Makes Three,” could only have helped. I advocate outreach over in-reach.

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Organizations such as the Jewish Outreach Institute, InterfaithFamily.com, and the Jewish Discovery Institute provide essential information and programs to individuals involved in interfaith relationships (or who have family members that are) that help keep Jews connected to their heritage, feel welcome in the community, and perhaps even make Judaism appealing to the non-Jewish partners.

Q. What kind of impact do you hope your book will have on the Jewish community?

A. I hope that my book will broaden the discourse about intermarriage, open hearts, and change minds. It has the potential to help sensitize people about issues of marginality, alienation, and exclusion. The historical stakes for my study of intermarriage are high: using gender, it reconceptualizes how intermarriage is understood to affect Jewish continuity according to the histories of 46 women who intermarried between 1901 and 2000. By raising awareness of women’s lives, the Jewish community can benefit from a better understanding of the relationship between gender and lived religion. I also believe that the sooner the Jewish community stops using intermarriage as a scapegoat for its ills, the better able it will be able to deal with the real challenges of in-fighting between movements and disputes over “who is a Jew?”

Q. What would you say to the people who claim that intermarriage is bad for the Jewish community as a whole, and “dilutes” the Jewish population?

A. My research findings about intermarried Jewish women dismantle the tenacious assumption that intermarriage is “bad” for the Jewish community as a whole or “dilutes” the Jewish population. Using gender as a category of analysis and with the benefit of hindsight, the gloomy forecasts may be overstated, at least regarding intermarried Jewish women. Looking at the trajectory of the hundred-year history of intermarried Jewish women, it is clear that although more Jewish women married “out” over time, they have also, contrary to all prognoses, increasingly ventured more deeply “in.”

In addition, the argument that intermarriage “dilutes” the Jewish population is inherently racial. Judaism is not a race, but a religion designed to transcend biological characterizations. Although promoting endogamy is not in itself prejudicial, suggesting that one must marry a fellow Jew (or someone who converts to Judaism) in order to be Jewish or have Jewish children is exclusionary.

Q. What about Jewish men? Have you ever thought about writing about their decisions to intermarry?

A. Yes! During the years that I spent studying intermarried Jewish women, I became intensely interested in learning more about Jewish men’s experiences. In order to fully understand the intermarriage puzzle, we need both pieces of the gender puzzle.

Last fall, when I began my appointment at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, I launched a new research project, tentatively titled “The Jewish Masculine Mystique: Interfaith Romance and Fatherhood in American Life.” It will be a companion or sequel, looking at how the meaning and representation of intermarriage changed during the post World War II era for Jewish men. Like Still Jewish, it is a qualitative study integrating contemporary ethnography and archival research. “The Jewish Masculine Mystique” will incorporate an analysis of popular culture in addition to social history. My preliminary findings suggest that Jewish men who intermarried have been more pro-active about raising Jewish children than previously recognized.

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Keren McGinity is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. You can purchase her book here.

Jordana Green is an intern at MyJewishLearning.com

Posted on August 7, 2009

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