To Understand Interfaith Marriage, Ask Jewish Women

From Interfaith Family, A review of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, by Keren McGinity.

Keren’s McGinity’s new book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, tells the fascinating story of changes over the course of the 20th century in the roles and self-concepts of intermarried American Jewish women, and the effects of those changes on the transmission of Jewish identity to the next generation. The book takes us from a time when a Jewish woman’s intermarriage meant turning her back on active participation in Jewish religious and community life (although not, McGinity argues, her Jewish identity or social values), through the conformity and traditional domesticity of the post-war years and the heady stirrings of self-definition of the ’60s and ’70s, into the present. McGinity argues that for many women today, intermarriage has had the apparently paradoxical effect of heightening their sense of Jewish identity and leading to an increase in active participation in Jewish learning, observance, and raising Jewish children.

Still Jewish coverMcGinity’s narrative covers four historical periods: the first two decades of the 20th century, the 1930s through the ’50s, the 1960s and ’70s, and the final two decades of the century. A key feature of the book is the use of individuals’ experiences to illustrate and illuminate larger trends. For the first period, McGinity relies on archival material about the lives of three prominent Jewish women. For the remaining chapters, she conducted personal interviews with a sample of 43 women from cities and towns in the greater Boston area whose intermarriages took place in the remaining twentieth century decades. As she herself notes, the sample is neither random nor representative, but it is still “large enough to illustrate some common experiences … and the meanings those experiences generated at various points across time.”

In a highly readable style, McGinity embeds the personal stories and the themes they generate in a rich tapestry of information drawn from statistical data, letters, memoirs, biographies and novels about women, the popular press and advice manuals from each time period, as well as Jewish community-generated literature about women and intermarriage more generally.