December 12, 2018

Intermarriage is an Opportunity, Not a Threat

By Keren R. McGinity

We can learn a lot from actor Michael Douglas about gender and intermarriage. “I am a Jew,” he said with pride when he accepted the Genesis Prize last month in Jerusalem. He admitted it was “a long journey” to making this statement. He is the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother and has two children with his non-Jewish wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dylan and Carys. He elaborated how his son’s decision to have a bar mitzvah and his father’s reconnection to Judaism late in life influenced his own thoughts about being Jewish. Michael Douglas and his family, both of origin and by marriage, teach us that the experience and meaning of intermarriage are complex. Jewish identity is fluid and can deepen long after the wedding. Interest and participation in the Jewish community can also increase over time. Going forward, it shouldn’t take winning a million dollars to make clear that someone is counted as a full-fledged member of Klal Yisrael.

Men’s voices need to be included in the intermarriage discussion. When I spoke publicly about my previous research on intermarried Jewish women, in my first book Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, people would often ask me: “What about my son? What about my brother?” Those questions motivated me to research the lives of intermarried Marrying Out CoverJewish men. In order to truly understand Jewish gender, I realized, both sides of the relational coin must be evaluated. My new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood illustrates that, contrary to common assumption, they and their families are not “lost” to the Jewish people. It is, however, much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman. Ethnic gender ascription assigns descent to women while simultaneously distancing men from their own heritage. Patrilineal descent continues to be one of the most divisive issues among Jewish movements, with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements assenting and the Conservative and Orthodox dissenting. The lack of consensus is exacerbated by a lack of awareness in the general public about patrilineal descent and the formal actions it entails. Making things more difficult is the American construct of masculinity, which perpetuates the idea that “real men” put their careers first and suggests that being a “good guy” isn’t worth striving for because it lacks cultural currency. This junction between achievement and being a mensch is where American manhood clashes with Jewish values, creating what I call the Jewish masculine mystique. Men suffer from competing priorities and communal disenfranchisement like women suffered from overeducated and underutilized minds prior to second wave feminism. Men are struggling to prove themselves as men while onlookers question the depth of their Jewish identity and commitment after bar mitzvah.

Unlike intermarried Jewish women who maintain the affiliations in which they were raised, my research shows that intermarried Jewish men shift from one branch of Judaism to another in search of connection and community. Whether and where they affiliate is influenced by interactions with clergy and being sure that their wives would be welcomed and their children would be considered Jewish. Intermarried Jewish men’s investment in how their children are raised illustrates a particularly Jewish take on American gender. Personal testimonies about fathering Jewish offspring suggest that the process of becoming a parent can have a profound effect on a man’s Jewish identity. Yet, the men’s insistence that I speak to their wives also alludes to the fact that women continue to shoulder most of the labor associated with child rearing. Thus, even when a man insisted that his children be raised Jewish, it was often the woman of another faith background actually doing the work.

Equal parenting has yet to fully take hold in America, which creates both opportunity and challenge for interfaith families. Women who were not raised Jewish have the chance to learn about Judaism in order to teach their children and to potentially choose to become Jewish, as some do. Men, too, can learn more about being and doing Jewish. The challenge is in reconstructing Jewish gender to increase the social value of men’s roles as parents, not just professional providers, and to emphasize the acceptability of learning alongside their children rather than being expected to know.

Jewish institutions can better support intermarried Jewish men who want to create Jewish families and raise Jewish children by actively communicating: “we want you and your family.” Individual clergy and Jewish professionals can personally reach out, make explicit the invitation to actively join the Tribe, and apologize for any past exclusion or alienation, perceived or otherwise. Jewish day schools and supplemental education programs can invite applications from interfaith couples regardless of which parent is Jewish, as well they should. Organizations can collaborate to empower men as co-parents by calling on them to fulfill their roles as Jewish fathers and creating programming that fits their interests. It’s high time to emphasize the value of Jewish father-child relationships, events, activities, and learning opportunities.

In order to mobilize Jews of mixed parentage and intermarried Jews to take pride in their Jewish identities and actively engage in Jewish life, Jewish pluralism—regardless of observance level, Hebrew fluency, Judaic literacy, or skin tone—must be celebrated just as marriage equality has finally become the law of the land. Perhaps then it will become clear to doomsayers that the American Jewish future is bright because of intermarriage, not despite it. Love is indeed love.

Dr. Keren R. McGinity is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis KRMInstitute and a research affiliate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Learn more at www.loveandtradition.com.

 

Comments

  1. Marjorie Kassner says:

    Are orthodox jewish rabbis marrying same sex couples? While I wholeheartedly agree with your article, I believe it is highly unlikely that the orthodox will be accepting of these families.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Marjorie. I hear you. For Jewish pluralism to truly succeed, all sides need to accept each other even when we disagree with each other’s practices. However the orthodox community is not monolithic. Orthodox rabbis may not officiate (yet) but some are at least accepting and welcoming of same-sex families. Rabbi Avi Weiss is a good example. See http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.666064

  3. ruth housman says:

    I wonder all the time about identity issues, in mixed marriages. Some do support heritage, and feel deeply the need to teach children both sides of a journey. There are many atheists in mixed marriages. and one side might believe, and then the spouse “not believe” at all. I think at some point this might cause severe friction as children get mixed messages, particularly about God. The older I get, the more I feel, children are born with this feeling, that there is something more, and that when a parent discounts this feeling and the other doesn’t, this leads to a kind of inner war, because our parents are truly, being mentors, our first “gods”. The world is changing. Israel is largely secular. Traditions, yes, but belief, actually no except among the highly Orthodox. And then, right now, around the world, people flocking to Safed, in search of the mystical, spiritual tradition. Young people seeking some kind of rootedness in something perhaps larger than themselves. Where are we headed, and why is a Story written this way. Is the search part of the Story, a treasure hunt. To seek and then to find? Look around, everywhere, outside Judaism, into the core of the world, that heat at the center. It feels like a melting pot, a new kind of merger, and it’s true. life has these intense bipolarities, and the ice for sure, is melting at the poles.

  4. Since I responded to the first question, would someone else like to respond to the second? Happy to facilitate discussion. Let’s hear more voices.

  5. Cindy levy says:

    Very interesting. I’m beginning to believe that subjects like identity and spirituality are so individual and constantly evolving that some experiences get difficult to generalize.

    • I understand what you mean, Cindy; I thought my identity, spirituality, and experiences made me an anomaly…until I studied intermarried Jews over time. Qualitative research enables us to see patterns, to make generalizations. History illuminates what changes and what stays the same.

      • Cindy levy says:

        You did such a great job Keren. Your excellent scholarship and concern for the community is a blessing. And I probably shouldn’t have communicated In this discussion because I was actually thinking of a whole different realm of being that got roused because of my current evolution that truly doesn’t have anything to do with your area of expertise. It was like I was in a stream-of-consciousness mode and just responded. I need to keep pouring all of my energy into my work instead of confusing people who are talking about something else. Keep up your good work. And I’ll keep up with mine.

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