Different Takes on Intermarriage

By Eve Coulson


Reprinted with permission of Lilith. Visit www.lilith.org.

Eighteen years ago, Paul and Rachel Cowan published Mixed Blessings: Marriage between Jews and Christians, a classic in the literature on intermarriage. Its authors, a man born Jewish who grew up in an assimilated family, and his wife, a New England Unitarian and a descendent of Mayflower Pilgrims (now a Jew by Choice and a Reform rabbi), were candid about their bias in favor of choosing a Jewish life. Their book recounted, in a way that hadn’t been done before, the emotional and practical details of marriages between Jews and Christians.

As the rate of intermarriage has accelerated, the controversy over what it means and how to respond has found its way into more and more conferences, programs, sermons and family conversations. What questions do we ask, and of whom? How to understand the data, whether from questionnaires or impromptu conversations, scientific polls or our personal experience? It’s not surprising that a schism exists in the Jewish community between those who feel an urgent need to help intermarried couples connect with the Jewish community, and those who regard such activity as a waste of time and resources. Two recent books exemplify different views of the intermarriage reality.

Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage by Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis University Press, $24.95) and Interfaith Families: Personal Stories of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage by Jane Kaplan (Praeger, $39.95) both rely on interviews with couples, and each adds something new and important. Double or Nothing? presents background and current data regarding intermarriage (the term used here for those couples where there has been no religious conversion) and how it is affecting and is affected by the Jewish community. Interfaith Families provides readable narratives which illuminate the emotions and decisions experienced by individuals contemplating or living with intermarriage: How do we explain our choice to our parents? Can I give up the celebrations I’ve loved since childhood? What if I feel allergic to religious things in my partner’s background?

Double or Nothing? is a work based on research Fishman conducted for the American Jewish Committee in 2001, and she notes the support of Steven Bayme, director of the Committee’s Department of Contemporary Jewish Life, who has been one of the most consistent voices emphasizing the negative impact of intermarriage on the future of Judaism. Fishman comprehensively covers the historical, religious, cultural and personal perspectives, and those who have been following the emotionally charged communal arguments about the effects of intermarriage on the Jewish community will want to know what she has to say. The current debate has included whether it’s ethical for Jewish organizations and schools to deny employment to an intermarried person (either partner, whether Jewish or not), as well as whether resources should be spent on outreach to those deemed marginally Jewish (that is, the intermarried) or more wisely and appropriately spent on those already affiliated and ritually observant.

Given its academic and sociological approach, Fishman’s book will be of most interest to clergy, educators, and others concerned with intermarriage issues. I count myself among that group. I am a Jew by Choice, for the past 20 years an active synagogue member and an outreach professional developing ways to draw interfaith families closer to the Jewish community. I see the concerns about interfaith families from both sides.

I understand that my journey may not be the norm. My work has ranged from hauling Jewish soul food from Zabar’s in Manhattan for a deli-deprived temple community in Lincoln, Nebraska, to piloting the Conservative movement’s Keruv (“drawing people near”) initiative at my synagogue. I have seen up close the benefits when non-Jews and their Jewish partners feel welcome to explore Judaism, and so I worry about the consequences that may derive from the suggestion in Fishman’s title that if both partners are not Jewish there will be “nothing” Jewish in their lives.

More useful (and perhaps more sympathetic) for intermarried couples and their parents is Kaplan’s Interfaith Families; the author delivers more than 50 portraits of individuals and couples touched by intermarriage, and then steps out of the picture. “There were no experts who stepped in to comment on the material or to offer their interpretations,” she writes.

Nearly a generation after the Cowans’ groundbreaking work, we hear new themes among the familiar ones. In the past, the non-Jew may have been bewildered when the “uninvolved” Jewish partner insisted on having Jewish children; this has often given way to firmer and more specific demands from the non-Jewish or newly Jewish partner that the Jewish spouse get on board with active participation. For those living directly or by association with intermarriage (which at this point is nearly every Jewish family in America), Kaplan’s work provides a welcome opportunity to learn “the kinds of details only someone experiencing a situation firsthand could know.”


About Eve Coulson

Eve Coulson has spoken, written, led groups, and organized conferences on intermarriage issues as they affect individuals, couples, families and the Jewish community. She serves on the boards of Lilith Magazine and Jewish Family and Children's Services of Greater Mercer County, NJ.