Why Jewish Women Marry Out

Article excerpt

Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America

By Keren McGinity

NYU Press

2009, $39.00, pp. 307

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In the early 1970s, as connections to its immigrant past were waning, the Jewish American community faced a dilemma. Jews were enjoying an increasingly comfortable position in American society, but declining synagogue attendance and sharply rising rates of intermarriage sparked concern about the future of Jewry.

With these fears in mind, a 1973 New York Times article reported on a seminar on "The Role of Jewish Women in Strengthening the Jewish Family." Assuming the centrality of the family to preserving Judaism, seminar participants agreed that Jewish women were "the fixative that binds the core together." Their view was that the family was threatened by lower birth rates, higher levels of divorce and intermarriage rates that had climbed from six percent in 1965 to almost 32 percent by 1970.

What had changed among Jews and in American culture? In an otherwise increasingly confident Jewish community, what did intermarriage signify? These are the central questions of Keren McGinity's Still Jewish. Using historical sources and interviews with 46 women--educated, middle class, liberal--in the greater Boston area, McGinity, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and an intermarried Jew herself, parses the nuances of why Jewish women have married out of the fold and the meaning of Jewish identity today. She also details how the mass media and major Jewish religious disciplines portrayed intermarriage as dangerous--and how that initially uncompromising view changed.

Still Jewish divides the 20th century into three eras (1900-1930, 1930-1960 and 1960-2000) that encapsulate the shifting patterns of Jewish assimilation. Initially an insular population, with an intermarriage rate of only two percent, only one out of two Jews married other Jews by the end of the 20th century. Freed from the confines of Eastern European Jewish life, American Jews looked less to Deuteronomy 7:1-3 ("You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters away for your sons") and more toward a secular, pluralistic notion of marriage.

McGinity first explores the early 20th century marriages of writers Mary Antin and Rose Pastor and political activist Anna Strunsky, who "reveled in American ideals of freedom of choice" and married gentile husbands with whom they shared strong intellectual and political principles. It was not just these women's prominence that made their marriages so different. Religious authorities publicly disapproved of their marriages as far beyond Jewish tradition. Both the Orthodox and Conservative rabbinate condemned intermarriage outright. And although some Reform rabbis suggested that the movement should consider welcoming interfaith couples, in 1947 the Central Conference of American Rabbis reaffirmed its opposition to intermarriage. …