Review of “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America”

In the first chapter of Keren R. McGinity’s fantastic new book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, we meet Mary Antin, a Jewish woman who married a non-Jew in 1901. Despite all of the hurdles she and her descendents (both intermarried and in-married) faced over the next century, including anti-semitism, classism, and anti-intermarriage sentiments, there is a photo of Mary Antin’s great-great-grandchildren who are, as the title suggests, “Still Jewish,” and are being raised as Jews.

McGinity’s book is “the first comprehensive history” of intermarried Jewish women. She combines historical research and in-depth interviews to analyze what intermarriage has meant for Jewish women and the American Jewish community from 1900 to the present day. The strength of McGinity’s approach is that she attends to the multiple factors that influence intermarriage: Religion, race, class, gender, personal choices, and the coexistent social and political currents that have influenced each phase of American history. Throughout, she illustrates that intermarriage, family identity and behavior arise out of a confluence of each person’s experience of these factors.

Her findings contradict the belief that intermarried families cease to be Jewish and that they weaken the Jewish community. She ends the book by speculating that in the future, both intermarriage and Judaism will continue:

It is clear that although more Jewish women have married “out” over time, they have also, contrary to all prognoses, increasingly ventured “in.” Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate that Jewish women will continue to marry Gentile men and, paradoxically, to contribute to a renaissance of Jewish religious and cultural identity formation and practice from within their intermarriages (McGinity, Still Jewish, 2009, 216).

This is what JOI has argued since its inception: That intermarriage is our reality. It is how we move forward that what will define our future. JOI, our founders Egon Mayer and David Belin, and our executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky all appear in McGinity’s chapter about the emergence of Jewish outreach and the conflicts between those seeking to prevent intermarriage and those seeking to welcome both intermarried families and those on the periphery. We believe, and her research finds, that if we support the Jewish identity of all these folks, our future will be bright.

Click through to read the rest of our review!

While delving into the inreach vs. outreach controversy that the Jewish community is currently engaged in, McGinity draws the line between promoting inmarriage, which she feels is an acceptable position, and making narrow claims about who is and is not allowed to be Jewish:

Although promoting endogamy is not in itself prejudicial, suggesting that one must marry a fellow Jew (or someone who converts to Judaism) in order to be Jewish is exclusionary… The suggestion that to be Jewish one had to remain distinct from all others denied the possibility that someone could intermarry and remain Jewish. To the extent that activists avoided or minimized the positive aspects of intermarriage, such as accentuated Jewish identities and children who were raised Jewish by one Jewish parent and one indifferent parent, in-reach advocates communicated a desire to keep the tribe purely Jewish, a notion that ignores thousands of years of Jewish intermarriage dating back to biblical times” (McGinity, 212).

Still Jewish ends with the present day, but her conclusions should influence our future choices. Her research shows that those who claim that intermarriage is the death of Judaism are wrong, because, as McGinity writes: “The preeminent theme of this book, as the title suggests, is that Jewish women who married non-Jewish men during the twentieth century considered themselves still Jewish in three ways: by birth, by label, and, for some, by cultural religious practices.” Religious identity is derived both from upbringing and from adult choices about identity - our future will lie in honoring and welcoming more than one version of Jewish identity. The loss feared by those resisting outreach efforts is the loss of an easily-definable norm. “The assertion that, in order to be included in the Jewish community, one had to follow “norms” determined by someone else – precisely who is unclear – exemplified the exclusivity of the in-reach movement,” (McGinity, 211).

Although the potential loss of a standardized Jewish family may make some within our community uneasy, McGinity provides examples of the loss we face if we force those on the periphery to choose between their families and their Jewishness. As one woman she interviewed explained, “My marriage is more important than anything else. So if Judaism puts me in the position of making choices here, Judaism isn’t going to win” (McGinity, 194).

McGinity book makes it very clear, though, that just as Jewish women won’t reject their husbands for Judaism they also won’t reject Judaism for their husbands. At every stage of history that she researched, even when women had very little power within their marriages or were punished for being Jewish by their communities, they continued to identify themselves as Jewish. Their tenacity is further proof that there is a need for outreach methodology – the desire to express Jewish identity is very strong, and we have the opportunity to show that Judaism is not a zero-sum game that leaves people who want to participate on the outside.

We hope that McGinity’s books will start a chain of related research and add a new chapter to the continuing discussion about intermarriage in America. Click here to purchase a copy if you’re interested in reading the book.

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