Jew­ish Inter­mar­riage Around the World

Shu­lamit Rein­harz and Ser­gio Del­laPer­go­la, eds.
  • Review
By – September 8, 2011

The inter­mar­riage rate in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is over 50 per­cent and grow­ing, accord­ing to Ser­gio Del­laPer­go­la, the world’s fore­most author­i­ty on Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion trends. This sta­tis­tic and its pos­si­ble impli­ca­tions have become a major con­cern as ques­tions have arisen as to whether the vibran­cy of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty can be sus­tained with such a high pro­por­tion of inter­mar­ried cou­ples. Jew­ish Inter­mar­riage Around the World offers an inge­nious approach to the top­ic by pro­vid­ing the read­er with fas­ci­nat­ing case stud­ies of inter­mar­riage pat­terns in 13 coun­tries oth­er than the USA and Israel. The coun­tries include four dis­tinc­tive groups: 1) Europe (specif­i­cal­ly Great Britain, Swe­den, Fin­land, and Nor­way), 2) the For­mer Sovi­et Union (FSU), 3) pri­mar­i­ly Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries (specif­i­cal­ly Cana­da, South Africa, and Aus­tralia), and, 4) South Amer­i­ca (specif­i­cal­ly Mex­i­co, Venezuela, Argenti­na, and Cura­cao). Each case study pro­vides the read­er with inci­sive analy­sis by an expert on out-mar­riage in that par­tic­u­lar country. 

The frame­work for the book is that of the Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute (HBI) where the empha­sis is on fresh ideas about Jews and gen­der world­wide.” Both fac­tors are espe­cial­ly cru­cial for under­stand­ing the issues. Gen­der plays an espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant role in under­stand­ing the impact of inter­mar­riage since Ortho­dox Jew­ish law (Halakah) defines the chil­dren of a Jew­ish moth­er as Jew­ish whether or not the father is Jew­ish. An inter­na­tion­al per­spec­tive is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant because Jews live, work, and study all over the world. 

Among the many impor­tant and com­plex issues addressed in the book is the press­ing need to stan­dard­ize the mea­sure­ment tech­niques and mean­ing of the terms, such as out-mar­riage,” inter­mar­riage,” mixed mar­riage,” and exog­a­mous mar­riage.” They are not equiv­a­lents. Lack of clar­i­ty of terms means the pub­lic is not get­ting a full and accu­rate pic­ture of chang­ing social patterns. 

Anoth­er issue raised in these absorb­ing arti­cles is the com­plex­i­ty of Jew­ish self-iden­ti­ty. Out-mar­riage doesn’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly mean that Jews and their chil­dren are lost” to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. As Sal­ly Franken­tal and Stu­art Rothgieser report in their arti­cle Inter­mar­riage between Jews and Gen­tiles in South Africa,” the assump­tion that endog­a­mous Jew­ish cou­ples will pro­duce Jew­ish chil­dren ignores the fact that many inter­mar­ry­ing Jews stri­dent­ly assert the valid­i­ty and legit­i­ma­cy of their own Jew­ish­ness and indi­cate a desire to trans­mit that iden­ti­ty, or label, to their chil­dren.” This was a pat­tern described in many of the countries. 

Read­ing these arti­cles crys­tal­lized for me the need to address a very thorny issue — the def­i­n­i­tion of who is a Jew.” There is a lack of con­sen­sus among Ortho­dox, Con­ser­v­a­tive, and Reform rab­bini­cal groups as to how to devel­op a non-divi­sive and non-polar­iz­ing approach to con­ver­sion and defin­ing who is a Jew. 

Jew­ish Inter­mar­riage Around the World is a must read for Jew­ish Stud­ies social sci­en­tists and every­one con­cerned with increas­ing the vibran­cy of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty world­wide. Some of the arti­cles may present the aver­age read­er with a bit of a chal­lenge in terms of under­stand­ing the tech­ni­cal aspects of the inter­mar­riage sta­tis­tics, but those high­ly quan­ti­ta­tive dis­cus­sions can be skimmed and more atten­tion paid to the meaty and fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cus­sions of the find­ings of the study. This book is much more than a study of inter­mar­riage rates. It is an enthralling account of the glob­al nature of the Jew­ish people.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions