Coping with Life and Death: Jewish Families in the Twentieth Century

By Peter Y. Medding | Go to book overview

Children of Intermarriage: How “Jewish”?
Bruce Phillips
(HEBREW UNION COLLEGE—JEWISH INSTITUTE
OF RELIGION, LOS ANGELES)

Until the 1960s, American Jews were simultaneously concerned and not concerned about intermarriage. In the first half of the twentieth century, Jewish intermarriage was uncommonly low. Just after the turn of the century, Jules Drachsler studied marriage records in New York City and found that the 1 percent rate of intermarriage among New York Jews was only slightly higher than the rate of interracial marriages among blacks. 1 By mid-century, the statistics had not changed much. New Haven Jews studied in the late 1940s were the religious group least likely to be intermarried. 2 Gerold Heiss similarly found that the intermarriage rate among Jews in midtown Manhattan (18.4 percent) was significantly lower than among both Protestants (33.9 percent) and Catholics (21.4 percent). 3 In their classic work, Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan described Jews as “the most endogamous of peoples. 4

The year 1963 marked the turning point for Jewish thinking about intermarriage. 5 In 1963, the American Jewish Year Book published its first article on intermarriage: Erich Rosenthal's “Studies of Jewish Intermarriage in the United States. 6 This same year saw the publication of the first symposium on intermarriage sponsored by a major national Jewish organization. 7Look magazine also published a cover story on the “Vanishing American Jew, which raised the specter of assimilation resulting from intermarriage. 8

Jewish public interest in intermarriage was thus primed for the publication of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of 1969–1970. Alvin Chenkin and Fred Massarik, who had conducted the first NJPS, astounded the Jewish world when they reported that intermarriage had risen from less than 6 percent prior to 1960 to 13.9 percent for the period 1961–1965, to 30.9 percent for the period 1966–1969. 9

Over the next two decades an occasional debate took place about the meaning of this intermarriage rate for the Jewish future. The debate focused on the offspring of these marriages, and social scientists were divided about the probable impact. Massarik, the scientific director of the NJPS, was optimistic. He discounted the threat of intermarriage, reasoning that if half of the intermarried couples raised Jewish children, there would be no net loss to the Jewish community, and possibly even a small increase. 10 Building on Massarik's analysis, the influential Jewish essayist and editor of Moment magazine, Leonard Fein, argued that American Jews were unduly worried about intermarriage. 11

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