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 www.interfaithfamily.com.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.