Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is in many ways symbolic of the American Jewish experience. While Jews are a tiny minority — just 2% of the population — America is home to the world’s largest and arguably its freest Jewish community.
Jewishness has ceased to be an obstacle to success as it was for much of Jewish history. Economic and social boundaries between American Jews and non-Jews are virtually nonexistent, Jews are welcome in nearly every school, business, or neighborhood, Jewish culture is admired and frequently imitated, and Jews are attractive as romantic and marital partners.
Many observers applaud the decreased intolerance that allows individuals from differing ethnic and religious heritages to befriend and marry each other. It seems likely that intermarriage is not only the result of this tolerance but also one of its major causes.
Even more extraordinary than the opportunities accorded American Jews is the fact that they currently enjoy these blessings without needing to submerge their ethnic and religious particularism. In multicultural America, Jews, like other ethnic and religious groups, are encouraged to celebrate their differences.
Jews today can feel both more Jewish and more American by exploring their distinctiveness. Significant numbers of American Jews are dynamically engaged by Jewish culture, history, and religious expression. Indeed, high levels of educational and occupational achievement are characteristic of many Americans with rich, multidimensional Jewish lives.
However, their are important issues that arise with increasing numbers of intermarriage. Intermarried Jews and their families are much less likely than inmarried families to be widely or deeply connected with Jews or Judaism.
American Jewish intermarried families are far from monolithic, including diverse backgrounds and attitudes. But they display a dramatic gender dimension, which is typical of other American minority groups: Intermarried Jewish women often aim to raise Jewish children. Intermarried Jewish men, in contrast, frequently articulate ambivalent feelings about religion in general and Judaism specifically — and about Jewish women. They are less likely to transmit Jewish religious culture to the next generation; their children are much less likely to receive Jewish education or identify as Jews when they reach adulthood.
The greater religious identification of American Jewish women and the lesser identification of Jewish men, which turns historical Jewish patriarchy on its head, is yet another aspect of American acculturation.
Jewish communal organizations and institutions are overwhelmingly committed to welcoming these intermarried families in all their diversity, and to facilitating their connections to Jewish life. The conversation about this important issue will continue this week as the UJA-Federation of New York hosts a Forum on Engaging Interfaith Families that will explore challenges and opportunities related to that goal.
Sylvia Barack Fishman is professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and author of “Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage.”
Let’s face it. Unless you send your child to a Jewish day school, Camp Ramah or Brandeis University, there is a high chance that he or she will become romantically involved with a non-Jew. While I appreciate Jane Eisner’s concerns in For 2013, A Marriage Agenda, she does not address some of the fundamental issues as to why non-Orthodox American Jews choose to marry non-Jews or do not get married at all.
Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.
How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.
One major reason that only 50% of non-Orthodox Jews are married by age 31 for women and by 34 for men is that it has become prohibitively expensive for the middle class to raise children in the United States. A recent government report found that on average, it costs $235,000 for a middle-income family to raise a child from birth to age 17, excluding college, which can cost another few hundred thousand dollars. This figure does not take into account sending one’s child to a Jewish day school, synagogue membership, Jewish summer camp, Hebrew school, bar/bat-mitzvah, and so on.
Shimon Peres apparently thought when he convened his Israeli Presidential Conference this week in Jerusalem that he could bring together several hundred cutting-edge thinkers and doers in the fields of technology, economics, international relations and Jewish thought to interact, share, clash and perhaps create something new, with a few thousand bright people sitting on the sidelines to listen and kibitz and add their own wisdom. From what I could gather, he was about half right.
Now, I couldn’t attend all of the dozens of sessions that were going on simultaneously, but the ones I did attend fell into two categories (and other people I’ve spoken with had the same impression). The ones on the global economy and the Middle East were interesting, sometimes dazzlingly so. I didn’t get to any technology panels, but I hear they were equally compelling. The ones on changing Jewish identity, less so. They tended to end up going around in circles, sometimes in the most embarrassing ways.
It’s partly the nature of the beast, and partly who you bring to the table. The interesting questions about Jewish identity today are to a large degree the ones that people don’t know how to ask. Either you bring together the old experts who have been having this discussion over and over for years and watch them go through their paces yet again, which happened in several panels during the conference, or you bring in new people who are struggling to find new meanings and try to have them talk about their struggles. The trouble is, they frequently don’t know how to articulate the things they’re struggling with. You can interview them to bring it out, but you have to have some idea of what to ask, and you have to let them talk. Unfortunately, the conference repeatedly handed the American seekers over to Israeli journalists who don’t have the first clue about the struggles and ambivalences of young American Jews. So they either ask insider questions that draw blank stares or they find ways to insult the interviewees.
This brings me back to Sarah Silverman. I blogged earlier about her appearance at an opening plenary session on “recipes for a better tomorrow” and the embarrassing efforts of Israeli TV anchor Yigal Ravid to be funny and pry into her personal life instead of letting her talk about better tomorrows. She appeared again on the closing day, at a panel discussion on “Jewish Identity: Younger Generation vs. Ancient Tradition,” and the result was just as painful. Actually, it was worse this time, because of the math. She shared the stage with three other seekers searching for words — Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, Boston biotech entrepreneur Safi Bahcall and Russian blogger extraordinaire Anton Nossik — and not one but two Israelis who didn’t know what to ask, but asked anyway. Silverman finally got to say something thoughtful about Jewish identity, but not because of her examiners.