Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Intermarriage is an Opportunity, Not a Threat

July 23, 2015

By Keren R. McGinity

We can learn a lot from actor Michael Douglas about gender and intermarriage. "I am a Jew," he said with pride when he accepted the Genesis Prize last month in Jerusalem. He admitted it was "a long journey" to making this statement. He is the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother and has two children with his non-Jewish wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dylan and Carys.

He elaborated how his son's decision to have a bar mitzvah and his father's reconnection to Judaism late in life influenced his own thoughts about being Jewish. Michael Douglas and his family, both of origin and by marriage, teach us that the experience and meaning of intermarriage are complex. Jewish identity is fluid and can deepen long after the wedding. Interest and participation in the Jewish community can also increase over time. Going forward, it shouldn’t take winning a million dollars to make clear that someone is counted as a full-fledged member of Klal Yisrael.

Men's voices need to be included in the intermarriage discussion. When I spoke publicly about my previous research on intermarried Jewish women, in my first book "Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America," questions motivated me to research the lives of intermarried Jewish men.

In order to truly understand Jewish gender, I realized, both sides of the relational coin must be evaluated. My new book, "Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood," illustrates that, contrary to common assumption, they and their families are not "lost" to the Jewish people. It is, however, much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman. Ethnic gender ascription assigns descent to women while simultaneously distancing men from their own heritage. Patrilineal descent continues to be one of the most divisive issues among Jewish movements, with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements assenting and the Conservative and Orthodox dissenting.

The lack of consensus is exacerbated by a lack of awareness in the general public about patrilineal descent and the formal actions it entails. Making things more difficult is the American construct of masculinity, which perpetuates the idea that "real men" put their careers first and suggests that being a "good guy" isn’t worth striving for because it lacks cultural currency. This junction between achievement and being a menschis where American manhood clashes with Jewish values, creating what I call the Jewish masculine mystique. Men suffer from competing priorities and communal disenfranchisement like women suffered from overeducated and underutilized minds prior to second wave feminism. Men are struggling to prove themselves as men while onlookers question the depth of their Jewish identity and commitment after bar mitzvah.

Unlike intermarried Jewish women who maintain the affiliations in which they were raised, my research shows that intermarried Jewish men shift from one branch of Judaism to another in search of connection and community. Whether and where they affiliate is influenced by interactions with clergy and being sure that their wives would be welcomed and their children would be considered Jewish. Intermarried Jewish men's investment in how their children are raised illustrates a particularly Jewish take on American gender. Personal testimonies about fathering Jewish offspring suggest that the process of becoming a parent can have a profound effect on a man's Jewish identity. Yet, the men's insistence that I speak to their wives also alludes to the fact that women continue to shoulder most of the labor associated with child rearing. Thus, even when a man insisted that his children be raised Jewish, it was often the woman of another faith background actually doing the work.

Equal parenting has yet to fully take hold in America, which creates both opportunity and challenge for interfaith families. Women who were not raised Jewish have the chance to learn about Judaism in order to teach their children and to potentially choose to become Jewish, as some do. Men, too, can learn more about being and doing Jewish. The challenge is in reconstructing Jewish gender to increase the social value of men’s roles as parents, not just professional providers, and to emphasize the acceptability of learning alongside their children rather than being expected to know.

Jewish institutions can better support intermarried Jewish men who want to create Jewish families and raise Jewish children by actively communicating: "we want you and your family. "Individual clergy and Jewish professionals can personally reach out, make explicit the invitation to actively join the Tribe, and apologize for any past exclusion or alienation, perceived or otherwise. Jewish day schools and supplemental education programs can invite applications from interfaith couples regardless of which parent is Jewish, as well they should. Organizations can collaborate to empower men as co-parents by calling on them to fulfill their roles as Jewish fathers and creating programming that fits their interests. It's high time to emphasize the value of Jewish father-child relationships, events, activities, and learning opportunities.

In order to mobilize Jews of mixed parentage and intermarried Jews to take pride in their Jewish identities and actively engage in Jewish life, Jewish pluralism — regardless of observance level, Hebrew fluency, Judaic literacy or skin tone — must be celebrated just as marriage equality has finally become the law of the land. Perhaps then it will become clear to doomsayers that the American Jewish future is bright because of intermarriage, not despite it. Love is indeed love.

Dr. Keren R. McGinity is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and a research affiliate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.