Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood

Keren McGinity.  Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014)

Marrying Out: Jewish
Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood,
Keren McGinity’s second book on marriage
between Jews and non-Jews, tackles the deeply underexplored topic of Jewish men
in marriages to women who were not born Jewish. McGinity’s work seeks to explore
the experiences of intermarried Jewish men, both as husbands and, more
importantly, as fathers. To do so, she assembles a range of historical and
cultural sources and conducts in-depth interviews with these couples and
families. McGinity’s specific labeling of the women as “not born Jewish” is an
important distinction.  It flags her
consideration of couples who remained interfaith, as well as those in which the
wife converted to Judaism before or during the marriage. She points out that
if, for instance, a couple decides not to have Christmas in their home, the
wife may deeply miss her own childhood traditions at that time of year, whether
or not she has formally converted.  McGinity’s
study analyzes both groups in order to claim that many of the dynamics of an
interfaith marriage remain, regardless of conversion, across the spectrum of
these families.  These issues include ambivalence
about Christian traditions sacrificed in order to establish or maintain a
Jewish home, as well as negotiation of the extended family. McGinity’s analysis
foregrounds the interplay of gender, parenting, and religiosity, and provides often
insightful observations about the potential for Jewish men to shape their
children’s religious identities.  In
doing so, she does not combat the sociological reality that women do the bulk
of childrearing, including many Christian women raising Jewish children. She
does, however, explore how men understand their own commitment to Judaism and
how it does, and does not, translate into direct action.

Throughout the monograph, McGinity tests and ultimately
refutes what she frames as many common stereotypes about intermarriage,
including the widely-held perceptions that Jewish men marry Christians at a
higher rate than Jewish women, that intermarriage leads to divorce, and the
cultural trope that Jewish men are “lured” away by the increased sex appeal
specifically of non-Jewish women Instead, she contrasts studies demonstrating
equivalent rates of intermarriage with the overwhelming popular culture depictions
of Jewish men and (blonde) Christian women and teases out statistics on intermarriage
and divorce.

Most importantly, however, she explores the relationship of
Jewish men to the topic of intermarriage and their own Jewish heritage. She points
to sex and sexual attraction as far more important elements than Judaism in the
dating patterns of Jewish men. Further, she argues that Jewish men often have a
contentious relationship to communal Jewish life for two key reasons:  first, post-war Judaism has not adapted to the
changing needs of American men, and second, Jewish men are more likely than
women to break with organized Judaism over a single negative experience. She
points to fatherhood, more than marriage, as a moment that heightens the importance
of Jewish identity to intermarried men. 
At the same time, her interviews with both intermarried men and women illustrate
that the men continue to perform less than half of the labor involved in
childrearing (including the fostering of Jewish identity) than do the
children’s “not-born” Jewish mothers. Other interesting dimensions of McGinity’s
work include treatments of intermarried Jewish men in popular culture and the
impact of divorce on Jewish men’s responsibility for childrearing generally and
the inculcation of Jewish identity in their children specifically.
Significantly, her conclusion addresses the similarities and differences
between the experiences of intermarried Jewish men and women, an important
contribution on how gender shapes the Jewish experience of intermarriage.

McGinity draws her sample from those who entered interfaith
marriages in the post-War years, focusing on two primary cohorts: those born
between 1922 and 1945 and those born between 1946 and 1964, using similar dates
for the women in her study. While delineating these cohorts demonstrates her
attention to differences in their generational experiences, her actual analysis
does not draw sharp distinctions between the two groups, nor does she
adequately address the dramatically different historical contexts of the eras
in which they married To that end, she at times situates the experiences of
those who married in the early 1960s alongside those who married in the early
2000s. Because the landscape of marriage more broadly changed dramatically over
those intervening decades, as did conversations about intermarriage, the lack
of clear analytic demarcation can make it hard for the reader to plot the
impact of key issues on her conclusions. For example, the rise of second-wave
feminism, the increase of dual-career households, and the dramatic increase of
intermarriage (and resulting shifts in communal responses to those changes) individually
and collectively impact the ways in which these couples navigate their
relationships, their families, and their perceived place within communal life.
McGinity is aware of these cultural forces and notes them at various points in
her analysis; however, the import and force of these significant changes are
sometimes lost in an argument that does not overtly engage changes in Jewish
articulations of identity, American gender dynamics, or changing rates of
interfaith marriage over the course of the approximately fifty years of
marriage she describes. Overall, however, McGinity’s characterization of Jewish
men and their behavior provides a valuable intervention into an ongoing
conversation in both Jewish Studies and Jewish communities about the formation
of interfaith families, while also addressing the question of who bears the
responsibility for nurturing Jewish identity within these family units.

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