The ProsenPeople

Internal Dialogue: Portraits of Intermarriage

Thursday, July 31, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The findings of the Pew Research Center survey of United States Jews published last fall indicated a rise in Jewish intermarriage that perhaps did not surprise but certainly alarmed Jewish leaders, thinkers, and bubbes. In response to the ensuing hand-wringing, a new outlook emerged: Interfaith families might not be “bad for the Jews.” The Pew Research Center’s FactTank observed an increasing Jewish affiliation between generations of multi-religious offspring: “Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.” Community organizers also point to the incredible resources progressive Jewish institutions provide specifically for interfaith and conversionary families to help foster enriched and educated Jewish engagement at home—classes, support groups, family events—that remain largely unmatched for “inmarried” constituents. And such concerted efforts to retain intermarried couples and their children in the Jewish American world seem to have made a good deal of traction, according to the Pew survey.

“When those interviewed were asked why they joined one congregation over another, the rabbi’s response to their intermarriage and the word ‘welcoming’ were repeated over and over again,” Keren R. McGinity reports in Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood. These men expressed a relieved sense of inclusion not only of their families but of their own experiences, needs, and values in the community discourse—an ongoing conversation that would benefit greatly from projects like Marrying Out and Intermarried, a book of Yael Ben-Zion's photography project on interfaith and interracial couples in America.

Intermarried began as a project “triggered by a media campaign of the State of Israel that targeted Jews outside of Israel who were ‘lost’ to intermarriage,” an internet and television crusade to “dissuade Jews from marrying outside of their faith.” Bookending the project as Intermarried reached its completion, Yael notes, was the Cheerios ad in the United States that drew hateful comments for depicting an interracial family.

“One motivation for Ben-Zion’s project was to juxtapose interfaith and interracial marriages ‘to make viewers rethink their own preconceptions’ about the two,” Maurice Berger writes in the opening essay to the book. Both race and religion, Berger observes, are “subject to how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. And just as assuredly as religion, [race] can appeal to our tribalism, our tendency to view it as sacrosanct and immutable… Whether we admit it or not, intermarriage has blurred the identities of almost every one of us—rendering race, like faith, a state of mind, and not just a physical state.”

Yael photographs and records statements by new parents of “mixed” families of all kinds: couples whose backgrounds differ in nationality, in ethnicity, in race, in religion, in culture. Admitted to a glimpse of their daily lives in the most intimate spaces of their homes, the subjects share the struggles they face—from the outside world, rather than from within—over how their families are perceived by relatives, friends, and passers-by. Among the Jewish narratives are scenes and snippets from Yael’s own home: the amalgam of Christian and Jewish holidays, French and Hebrew editions of the same children’s books, progressive television cartoons Yael and her husband, Ugo, both watched from different parts of the world in their youth.

“Although we have these different backgrounds, I don’t really feel that we are a mixed couple. If we are a couple it is because, like any other couple I assume, we are sharing the same ideas and views on what really matters to us, on what defines us as human beings, our core values, so it is hard to feel mixed.”

The subjects portrayed in Intermarried a wide representation of the Jewish intermarried experience. Kari and David received emotional support from the people around them; Jeff and Ilana’s respective Catholic and Jewish families opposed their marriage until the arrival of their daughter, Annabel, whom they are raising to be educated in both faiths: “After all, one’s religion is just an accident of birth. And her birth did not accidentally give her just one religion.”

As David and Sarah began planning their family, David grew increasingly attached to his Jewish identity and heritage. Their story is related predominantly through Sarah, who shares the difficulties she encounters as a convert to Judaism—the feeling of constant scrutiny among other Jews, the puzzlement or disapproval of friends from her past.

“Statistically, more women convert to the religion of husbands than husbands convert to the religion of wives.” In the introduction to Marrying Out, Keren McGinity points out that studies of interfaith and conversionary couples tend to focus mostly if not exclusively on the woman’s experience, and intermarried Jewish men in particular have been relegated to “the subjects of interest to sociologists, celebrity biographers, journalists, and mass media producers.”

Researching for the book required Keren to confront and constrain the widespread gender prejudices coloring her initial attitudes regarding her subjects. “Although intermarried Jewish men have not been banned from participating in organized Jewish life, prevailing assumptions—that their Judaism is not particularly important to them and that they play little role in shaping their families’ spiritual lives—likewise threaten to silence their actual experiences.” These dominant perceptions of fatherhood and male religious engagement, Keren found, did not hold water with the subjects of her study. In her interviews with intermarried Jewish men ranging “from secular to Orthodox” in background and practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Keren discovered how differently her subjects saw themselves in relation to their families, their community, their faith, and their religion from the roles to which both Jewish-American and the larger American culture ascribes them. “I came to realize that it is much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman,” Keren asserts, “because ethnic gender ascriptions assigns descent to women while simultaneously distancing men from their own heritage.”

Projects like Intermarried and Marrying Out present opportunities to address that distancing and marginalization. Through the camera lens and the written word, these two books paint a more nuanced picture of Jewish and American culture and its constituents, broadening our understanding of what a portrait is, what it can transmit, and what it can achieve by simply appearing before the viewer. Yael and Keren's respective work unearths the subtler narratives among us, opening the discussion of identity and participation to the overlooked, the quieted, and the disregarded, opening a forum in which leaders, members, and outliers of American Jewish communities should—or even must—engage.

Interested in bringing Intermarried, Marrying Out, or other interfaith family programming to your community? Please visit the Jewish Outreach Institute Directory of Outreach Programs, the Union for Reform Judaism's online Supporting Interfaith resource center, and

Related content:

  • Essays on Interfaith Complexities
  • 'Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley
  • Intermarriage & Interfaith Families reading list
  • Internal Dialogue: Let's Talk Soccer

    Friday, July 18, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    Liel Leibovitz is participating in the 2014-2015 JBC Network with A Broken Hallelujah: The Life of Leonard Cohen. It is a tremendous biography—of particular interest to Jewish communities in its exploration of Cohen’s Scripture-influenced lyrics, personal spirituality, and residencies in Israel—and is certainly well worth bringing to book fairs and literary events this year, as is the author himself. But over the past week an imagined conversation on a completely different topic has been playing out in my head, between Liel and fellow 2014-2015 JBC Network author Jonathan Wilson.

    Liel rocked the Jewish world last week with a provocative piece for Tablet Magazine on the Jewish Israelis responsible for the murder of Muhammed Abu-Khudair. “If you want to understand the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Muhammaed Abu-Khudair in the hands of six young Israelis last week," the essay claims, "don’t turn to Bibi or the Bible or Hamas or Abbas: turn to Beitar Jerusalem, the favorite soccer team of Israel’s ‘undivided capital.’”

    An early leak from a Mishteret Yisrael officer revealed that the six suspects arrested in pursuit of the case were active in a zealous, violent, and notoriously racist group of Beitar fans known as La Familia, and allegedly descended unto their murderous maraud from a soccer fan gathering. It was the unchecked sports fanaticism—more so than any nationalist or religious ideologies—of La Familia, FIFA, and soccer culture in general, claims Liel, that escalated into unthinkable brutality.

    “To American readers, across the ideological spectrum,” Liel writes, “very little about the soccer thug scenario is likely to make sense. Yet if you understand soccer, and if you know Beitar, you realize that an act of extreme Clockwork Orange-style violence is an entirely possible, even predictable, outcome of the team’s fringe culture.” He cites various instances of hooliganism he has witnessed firsthand at Beitar games and in the aftermath of the team’s losses, as well as reports of La Familia activity that demonstrate the group’s shift “from low-level barbarism to rabid mass attacks” and unveil its members as “devoutly egalitarian devotees of violence for the hell of it.”

    Though it has yet to take root in the United States, the aggressive culture surrounding soccer is, sadly, a worldwide phenomenon—to which writer, professor, and most recently The Paris Review’s World Cup 2014 correspondent Jonathan Wilson attests in his childhood and adult experiences detailed in Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. On a northern California bus ride to a World Cup 1994 match, Wilson recounts:

    I realized that for days I had felt something was missing, and now I knew what it was: fear and violence. If you grow up attending soccer games in England, you are so used to spine-chilling episodes that the adrenaline flow they bring becomes an essential part of your chemical makeup. If I didn’t have to cross the road five times to avoid bands of skinhead thugs, or listen in terror as twenty thousand fans chanted “Kill the Yids” or “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in,” I didn’t know I was at a game. Once I realized that my entire soccer consciousness was perverted.

    The history of the very stadiums, Jonathan notes, is also torridly troubling. He discusses visiting Nuremberg and the Städtisches Stadion, erected just before Jonathan’s father passed through on a summer vacation, which as of 1933 was co-opted as Stadion der Hitler-Jugend, “the preferred marching ground for the Hitler Youth.” Dictators’ use of soccer facilities in later half of the twentieth century proved far worse: Pinochet gathered Chilean dissidents into the National Stadium in Santiago, where they were brutally murdered by the Junta; Mobutu Sese Seko used the basement of the 20th of May Stadium in Kinhasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as a torture prison for his detractors; Uday Saddam Hussein directed the torture of Shiite footballers on Iraq’s national soccer team based on their athletic performance, keeping “scorecards with written instructions on how many times each player should be beaten after a poor showing.”

    But as history and current events show, the perpetration of violence and in and surrounding soccer stadiums is not limited to powerful tyrants and sadists; soccer fans worldwide have distended into skirmishing forces of senseless brutality, and Israelis are no exception. “One reason why the police in Jerusalem may have apprehended their suspects so quickly,” Liel writes of the arrests for Muhammed Abu-Khudair’s murder, “is that they have devoted considerable resources over the past decade to keeping tabs on the city’s violent soccer hooligans, just like police do in Munich, and Warsaw, and Brussels, and London, and Madrid.” Jonathan compares the Hapoel-Beitar rivalry at games he attended while living in Israel to other ideological divides: socialist-aligned Barcelona against fascist Real Madrid; Catholic support for Celtic, Liverpool, and Manchester United against Protestant Rangers, Everton, and Manchester City fans in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester. Liel, on the other hand, opines that the thuggish soccer culture stems from “simply the pure, visceral, sickening thrill of violence:”

    Sometimes, it appropriates the language of politics, attaching itself to a party or an ideology or an ethnic group. But it’s always first and foremost about soccer, about the ritualized violence that give young and hopeless men meaning and comfort[…] Anyone who watches soccer more frequently than a few matches every four years understands that intuitively.

    Last week, the JBC Network offered a conversation about women’s mourning as a proposed way forward from the tragic murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir. As our communities struggle to address these events and the weeks of destruction since, let us continue to find ways to talk about what happened, what is happening now, and what we hope will follow.

    Related Content:

  • Interview with Jonathan Wilson, conducted by Martin Fletcher
  • How Leonard Cohen Saved a Jew, Young and Troubled by Liel Leibovitz
  • Rock 'n' Roll, Religion, and Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz
  • The Mothers' Kaddish

    Friday, July 11, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    We are all still reeling from the past weeks of terror and grief over the murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, three Jewish young men whose bodies were found in a field in the West Bank after an eighteen-day search following their kidnapping, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a sixteen-year-old Palestinian who was burned alive in a horrifying civilian act of retaliation.

    It is hard, and it hardly seems appropriate, to find inspiration in the face of such tragedy, especially as the violence, division, and hatred behind it continue to promulgate in its wake. There was no small victory for humankind in this story, no miracle—but there was progress.

    “The funeral ceremonies also included a seminal moment from a religious perspective, a personal moment with far-reaching public significance,” Yair Ettinger pointed out hours after the burial of the three Jewish victims, in an essay entitled “When Rachel Fraenkel Recited the Kaddish, the Chief Rabbi Said ‘Amen’” for Haaretz. “The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish by women is gaining momentum, particularly in Modern Orthodox communities. Although it has rabbinical approval, it has never had such great exposure as it had on Tuesday.”

    Indeed, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Elana Maryles Sztokman lists cemeteries and funerals among the worst examples of public gender segregation in Israel in the opening chapter of her current book, The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Extremism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation. “One of the most painful experiences of women’s exclusion,” she writes, “takes place at the cemetery, where women are increasingly barred from their own mourning processes… For perhaps obvious reasons, women who were prevented from saying eulogies or honoring their deceased loved ones at funerals faced significant emotional struggles.”

    Thankfully—and significantly—that added distress was not placed on Rachel Fraenkel, the bereft mother of Naftali, as she buried her sixteen-year-old son. She was not edged out of public view or ushered away from her son’s graveside; she stood together with her family and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in front of Chief Rabbi David Lau, religious leaders and members of Knesset, and the thousands of Jews who assembled at the cemetery, and the only response she received was “Amen.”

    “The religious feminist movement is not new,” Ettinger asserts in his article. “It has been taking shape for many years with the full cooperation of high-ranking Orthodox rabbis, but it is not every day that it gets the kind of exposure engendered by a woman’s public recitation of Kaddish.”

    Several months ago, 2014-2015 JBC Network authors Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas received a 2013 National Jewish Book Award for their co-edited anthology, Kaddish: Women’s Voices, in which over fifty writers from around the world—including Nessa Rapaport and fellow 2014-2015 JBC Network author and 2013 National Jewish Book Award recipient Chaya R. Gorsetman, who coauthored Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools with Sztokman—share their experiences mourning as Jewish women. “I hope this book will serve as a companion to others,” Ashkenas writes in the preface, “spark many meaningful conversations, and open the possibilities for women to choose how to mourn and remember a loved one.”

    Since Naftali Fraenkel , Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah’s disappearance, the entire Jewish world has been watching—watching for developments in the case, watching the bereaved families, watching for the responses of Jewish, Arab, and world leaders, watching the citizens of Israel and the Palestinian territories. This process of waiting and, eighteen days later, confirmed grief, and later still shock and horror at the discovery of Muhammad Abu Khdeir's brutalized body—for we are all, regardless of our politics or opinions, saddened by the senseless deaths of these youths—has elicited discussion within the Jewish community, albeit a painful one. We don’t know what to talk about, and so we resort to either sitting in an unhealthy silence or reacting in ways that harm others, harm our standing as a nation in the global community, and harm our own friends and dear ones.

    Yair Ettinger’s piece points us to one way in which we might create a constructive conversation, both in the immediate aftermath of this terrible event and for the months and years to follow, for our communities: a discussion of healing, of Jewish practice, of women and religion, of a way forward.