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-Zions 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​.inter​faith​fam​i​ly​.com.

Relat­ed content:

  • Essays on Inter­faith Complexities
  • Til Faith Do Us Part by Nao­mi Schae­fer Riley
  • Inter­mar­riage & Inter­faith Fam­i­lies read­ing list
  • 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.