Common wisdom holds that Jewish men who “marry out” are far less likely to raise Jewish children than their female counterparts. Common wisdom often places the blame for their loss on what New Jersey native Dr. Keren McGinity calls “shiksappeal” as well as fathers’ lack of engagement in parenting and lack of interest in the religion they were raised in.
A new study by McGinity — research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and faculty affiliate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, both at Brandeis University — suggests that in reality, men who marry out are actually quite attached to their heritage and eager to pass it on to their offspring, but often face challenges, cultural assumptions, and legal principles in Judaism that present serious obstacles.
Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood (2014, Indiana University Press) serves as a companion to McGinity’s previous book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America.
McGinity is now embracing a newfound role as a kind of intermarriage consultant for the Jewish community. Recently invited to join an interfaith task force, she is working to create a bridge between academia and clergy, would-be rabbis, and the general public. She’s created a website, loveandtradition.com, which she calls “Love&Tradition: Intermarriage Insights for a Jewish Future.”
Intending to reach a broad audience, she included in Marrying Out, in addition to her findings and analysis, cartoons and intermarriage humor, celebrity intermarriage, and popular culture.
“Intermarriage has been portrayed in so many ways in literature, film, television, and media but it hasn’t been looked at in terms of gender, and much of the depiction reinforces stereotypes about intermarriage,” McGinity said. “I wanted to dismantle these stereotypes based on reality.” She added, “I wanted to distill what is art, and what is life. In addition, I want to contribute to the scholarship in this area but I also wanted to write a popular book that would be enjoyable. I thought the entertainment piece would be appealing.”
On Sunday, Feb. 8, at 10 a.m., she will speak about intermarriage and continuity in 21st-century America at the Flemington Jewish Community Center (see sidebar for details).
In a wide-ranging conversation with NJJN, McGinity, who grew up in Princeton and now lives in Boston, discussed the surprises her research revealed and their implications.
Her unexpected findings exploded the myths she herself believed around what she calls “shiksappeal,” the difficulties intermarried Jewish men face, and endemic ideas about Jewish hierarchy.
Regarding the allure of non-Jewish women, McGinity said, “What I learned debunked myths I had grown up with that American-Jewish men are drawn to the ‘golden shiksa goddess’ vilified by the Jewish community as luring men away from the Jewish community.
“The reality is that childhood experiences and relationships with parents — not ideas about the so-called other — influence intermarriage.” Moreover, she said, “the women I met do not fit the stereotype. It blew away my superficial ideas.”
She also found her own “Jew-ometer” debunked. This is the widely held belief “that black hats” — her shorthand for traditional Orthodox Jews — “are more Jewish than Conservative Jews and on down the line to secular/cultural Jews.” Instead, she said, many intermarried men who had grown up Orthodox or Conservative and migrated to a more liberal branch of Judaism “actually deepened their Jewish identity.”
In fact, she said, she believes this last finding is “something I feel the American-Jewish community really needs to understand and come to accept,” she said. “The whole idea of hierarchy is incredibly destructive to the Jewish community.”
‘Make a greater effort’
Interviewing men also revealed cultural distinctions between men who marry out and women who marry out. She found that intermarried fathers trying to raise Jewish children face plenty of cultural and practical obstacles in American society, which continues to define men in terms of work rather than family. “As a feminist scholar who has researched and written about Jewish women, I did not anticipate how much harder it would be for intermarried Jewish men than intermarried Jewish women” to raise Jewish children, she said.
Men are also less likely to ask their non-Jewish spouses to convert. “It was because they did not want that burden. They want her to do it for her own reasons. Yet most were adamant about raising Jewish children. You would think these go hand in hand, but they don’t.”
In light of this aspect of her research, McGinity said, conversations about requiring a non-Jewish spouse to convert, particularly in the Conservative movement, need to be reconsidered. “This is evolving, but slowly,” she said.
From her perspective, these findings have obvious implications for the impact of patrilineal descent and continuity. “We need to make a greater effort to validate the full spectrum of participation,” she said. That means everything from day schools inviting applications from intermarried families to encouraging men to be involved fathers regardless of the mother’s religion, to being “sensitized to the pressures [intermarried men] experience.”
She emphasized, “Jewish institutions can better support Jewish men by offering a warm welcome should they come through the doors, but also communicate [to them] in proactive ways that ‘You’re important, your children are important, and we’d love you to be part of our Jewish family.’
“The handwringing about intermarriage takes on gender implications when we think kids will not be Jewish because of matrilineal descent, and that creates all kinds of schisms,” said McGinity. She also urged a more careful look at the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Survey’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” because while it’s true that there are “more children over time who have intermarried parents, there are also more children of those parents who identify as Jews over time.”
“That’s huge,” she said. “That’s the counter-argument to the sky is falling.”