Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism

Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism

Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism

Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism


Over half of all American Jewish children are being raised by intermarried parents. This demographic group will have a tremendous impact on American Judaism as it is lived and practiced in the coming decades. To date, however, in both academic studies about Judaism and in the popular imagination, such children and their parents remain marginal.

Jennifer A. Thompson takes a different approach. In Jewish on Their Own Terms, she tells the stories of intermarried couples, the rabbis and other Jewish educators who work with them, and the conflicting public conversations about intermarriage among American Jews. Thompson notes that in the dominant Jewish cultural narrative, intermarriage symbolizes individualism and assimilation. Talking about intermarriage allows American Jews to discuss their anxieties about remaining distinctively Jewish despite their success in assimilating into American culture.

In contrast, Thompson uses ethnography to describe the compelling concerns of all of these parties and places their anxieties firmly within the context of American religious culture and morality. She explains how American and traditional Jewish gender roles converge to put non-Jewish women in charge of raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples are like other Americans in often harboring contradictory notions of individual autonomy, universal religious truths, and obligations to family and history.

Focusing on the lived experiences of these families, Jewish on Their Own Terms provides a complex and insightful portrait of intermarried couples and the new forms of American Judaism that they are constructing.


It’snot enough,” said Abe in a pained voice. His daughter had married a nonJew. While Abe, an active member of a Conservative synagogue, hoped that she and her husband would become actively involved in organized Jewish activities, he did not have a great deal of hope that his descendants would carry on Jewishness. He asserted that the number of intermarried couples raising Jewish children was insufficient to prevent Judaism from dying out entirely. Abe participates in religious services and also serves on committees that perform the work of the synagogue—teaching, organizing, brainstorming, managing its financial affairs. He has made clear his commitment to Judaism with both time and treasure. But Abe believes that intermarriage will ultimately lead to the decline of Judaism. His conversations with other Jews and the Jewish books, magazines, newspapers, and websites that he reads reflect this view; it is common wisdom among many American Jews.

Yet as I learned from eight years of ethnographic fieldwork, common wisdom about intermarriage does not correspond to the lived experiences of intermarried Jews and their families, many of whom value the same traditions and ideas that Abe and other in-married (endogamous) Jews do. Why, then, is this (incorrect) common wisdom about intermarriage such a prominent part of American Jews’ conversation in public media, between pulpit and congregation, and among individual Jews? This book answers that question.

Intermarriage in Public Discourse

The July 2010 wedding of former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, a Methodist, to Marc Mezvinsky, a Jew, elicited a great deal of commentary in both the Jewish press and American media outlets more generally that reflected common . . .

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