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Intermarriage is not the problem - Judaism is the problem left me with a lot of unanswered questions. Further thought and research seems to lead to more questions and perhaps the beginnings of a few answers.

Quite a bit of research has been done on the subject. Sylvia Fishman published several outstanding studies including Jewish and Something else and Matrilineal Ascent/ Patrilineal Descent These have been expanded into a book, "Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage." Fishman, like almost everyone else, approaches the issue from the point of view of religion. Perhaps in the USA intermarriage can only be a religious issue. Proposals like that of Yossi Beilin, to institute secular conversion, would therefore be besides the point for American Jews. The Golah (Diaspora) may have different problems, a different definition of Judaism and a different reality than Israel. But if that is the case, it seems to me that Judaism is bound to lose the battle. According to Fishman's results, in mixed marriages women are usually the ones who insist on Jewish education for children, and the religion of the mother tends to determine if the children are raised as Jews. This fits the traditional Jewish rationale for determining religion according to the religion of the mother: the mother supposedly is the one who carries the cultural heritage. But perhaps the cause and effect relation is reversed. Perhaps the mother's religion determines the religious affiliation of the children in mixed marriages because the Halachah (Jewish religious law) determines that the children are Jewish only if their mother is Jewish.

Some of the reactions that Fishman records speak directly to issues discussed in "Intermarriage is not the problem." Remember that that article was prompted by Edgar Bronfman's call for acceptance of intermarried couples. Many of us take it for granted that Jews exclude non-Jews. In "Jewish and Something Else" Fishman noted:

On an ideological level, many non-Jewish spouses said they resented what they perceived as the exclusivity of Judaism as a religion. Significantly, few said they had been treated coldly in synagogues, Jewish institutions, or Jewish social settings. Their notion of the exclusivity of Judaism was related to ideas about Jews as "the chosen people." Thus, they talked about Jews as a group "wanting to be separate" or "wanting to be different," but, even when pressed, they insisted that they personally had not been excluded in any way.

These are not quantified results, but if the conclusions can be supported systematically, they would suggest that acceptance of mixed marriage couples is not the problem. The "exclusivity of Judaism" is often an anti-Semitic stereotype. It is not impossible to imagine Jews marrying anti-Semites, and in fact, I knew at least one such couple. This hints that some of the causes of intermarriage may lie in the way some Jews view themselves and other Jews. They don't marry X despite the fact that they are not Jewish, but because they are not Jewish. For those couples at least, acceptance is not the answer.

Jewish and Something Else, also has something to say about why why non-Jewish spouses in many intermarried couples do not convert, a question I had asked in Intermarriage is not the problem - Judaism is the problem but it does not give systematic data. Sometimes difficulty in learning Hebrew is cited as the reason, sometimes feelings of strong identification are cited, even if the person is not religious. If anyone complained that they didn't convert because Jews made them feel not wanted, it was not recorded, and likewise, though some non-Jewish spouses objected to Judaism as a religion, there didn't seem to be many in the sample who didn't convert because they objected to religion in general.

On the other hand, the study's conclusion about why couples do or do not raise their children as Jews is unequivocal:

In nearly all of our cases of mixed-married spouses raising Jewish children, when the Jewish spouse made an unequivocal declaration that his or her children must be raised as Jews, the non-Jewish spouse agreed.

This suggests once again, that the problem is not intermarriage itself, but rather the attitude of the Jewish spouse to Judaism. On the other hand, these are all married couples. Presumably, if there was no agreement on this question, there might be no marriage, but nobody knows what percentage of mixed marriages were prevented because of such disagreements.

Though "Jewish and Something else" treats intermarriage as a religious issue, the issue of peoplehood cannot apparently, be suppressed. Some favorite shibolleths of American life are that all are equal in the American melting pot and that religion is a matter of individual conscience in modern secular society, as opposed to "primitive tribalism" Some participants' comments belie the conventional wisdom.

And there is an asymmetry generally, I think, of the minority religion, and how much of the majority religious influence it can handle, or rather my wife and her friends can handle, versus me, a majority religious person, and how much of the minority religion I can handle.

Christmas and Easter are also mentioned as "American" holidays that are "fun," as opposed to Jewish holidays that are "religious." Jewish religion and peoplehood seem to be thoroughly confounded in the minds of at least some non-Jewish spouses:

The seder is much more religious. I mean, it's talking about the Jewish people...

Neither interviewers nor interviewee seemed to be aware of any irony or contradiction in that statement.

Hannukah and Passover. two quintessentially "Zionist" holidays, are the two Jewish holidays that are celebrated m almost every mixed marriage household (true to its religious bias, the study evidently did not ask about participation in Israel Independence Day celebrations). This is a striking finding, especially since other holidays, including the High Holy Days were observed in only about 42% of the intermarried (non-converted) households. Are these holidays singled out because of their national content? Because they can be celebrated at home and do not require attendance at synagogue?

"Jewish and Something else," like most such in-depth research, studied a very small and non-representative sample of 127 families in total, and a lot of the results are based on anecdotal methodology rather than statistical inference. Despite the importance of the problem of intermarriage, we are only beginning to understand all the reasons for it, and until we understand the causes, we won't know how (or if) it is possible to ensure that mixed marriages do not result in extinction of the Jewish Diaspora.

Ami Isseroff


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