Still Jewish: An interview with Keren McGinity
Recently, JWA hosted a fascinating webinar with Dr. Keren McGinity on "Gender Matters: a New Framework for Understanding Jewish Intermarriage Over Time." Keren is the author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, and is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. She earned her PhD at Brown University, where she also served as a Visiting Assistant Professor of History. She is a member of JWA's Academic Advisory Council, and was our first research fellow back in the early days of the Archive.
After the webinar, I had the chance to talk further with Keren about her work:
JR: Your book is a great example of scholarship that could have real implications for policy. You don't go into specifics about what you'd like Jewish communal leaders to learn from your book, but if you had the opportunity to propose some policy changes, what would they be?
KM: I would like people to learn from my book that the meaning of intermarriage is more nuanced than quantitative findings alone indicate, that gender must be analyzed, and that studying changes over time tells a fuller story than single sociological snapshots. If I had the opportunity to propose some policy changes I would suggest that Jewish communal leaders focus on engaging self-identified Jews before and after they wed, regardless of whether they intermarry or in-marry. The more involved a Jew is before s/he gets married, the more likely s/he will continue to participate in and contribute to Jewish life afterwards. I would also strongly encourage the different movements to work together to reach a consensus about accepting a child as Jewish by patrilineal or matrilineal descent, taking both biblical history and contemporary gender issues into account, so as to eliminate the harmful fissure that currently exists. Although making Jewish life more accessible monetarily to all families, including day school education, should be a priority, I understand the challenges involved in the current economic climate. That said, a tremendous amount could and should be done, at relatively little cost, to enhance the image of Jewish life by breaking down the social hierarchy that continues to make some Jews feel judged or alienated from the community by their more observant neighbors. There are not "good Jews" (i.e. in-married, religious, etc.) and "bad Jews" (intermarried, secular, etc.), just Jews!
JR: I know your book is getting great reviews, and in writing it, you very gracefully handled a topic that is extremely sensitive in the Jewish community. Now that the book is out and you're talking about it publicly, have you received any criticism from people who are concerned that you're "too positive" about intermarriage? If so, how do you respond?
KM: I am delighted that word is getting out about my research, which I hope will be helpful to individuals and communal leaders. Still Jewish has been reviewed in the Jewish Week, the Jerusalem Post, Moment magazine, online by the Jewish Outreach Institute and InterfaithFamily.com, and soon on MyJewishLearning.com. It will also be featured on Interfaith Voices Radio, a nationally syndicated program. Although I have not received criticism from people concerned that I am "too positive" about intermarriage, I continue to anticipate it. I would respond by explaining that I am neither for nor against intermarriage, rather a knowledgeable witness to it. Moreover, the historical evidence speaks for itself. Looking at the trajectory of the hundred-year history of intermarried Jewish women, it is clear that although more Jewish women married "out" over time, they have also, contrary to all prognoses, increasingly ventured more deeply "in." Besides, intermarriage is not the "problem;" it's the attitudes about intermarriage that will ultimately influence whether Jews who choose to intermarry in an open and pluralistic society will continue to feel welcome in the fold or alienated from it.
JR: Your study focused on heterosexual married couples. Would you be willing to speculate about how adding sexuality as a category of analysis might affect your findings? Would you guess that the patterns you identified would be similar or different in lesbian intermarried couples?
KM: This is a fabulous question! When I initially put out the call for study participants, I received inquiries from women involved in same-sex relationships and wished that I could include them. For methodological reasons, I elected to work within the federal definition of legal marriage as being between a man and a woman. However, lesbian (and homosexual) intermarried couples represent a sub-population that deserve serious study and could yield additional insights for understanding the meaning of Jewish intermarriage. Although one can't be sure without doing the research, I would speculate that some of the patterns I identified would be similar and other different. For example, the faith-no-faith characteristic of many intermarried Jewish women-Gentile men couples might also be found among lesbian intermarried couples. The rise of new ethnicity and second-wave feminism would likely have similar influences, such that I would venture to guess that Jewish women involved in same-sex marriages would similarly raise Jewish children as did their heterosexual counterparts in the late twentieth century, albeit perhaps with more cultural influences from their empowered non-Jewish partners. What may be different is that both women would be more equally responsible for the childcare responsibilities rather than one of them shouldering most of the responsibility as in the case of heterosexual couples. Again, it is difficult to know without actually doing the research!
JR: You call the process by which Jewish women who intermarried toward the end of the 20th century created meaningful ethnic self-identities a "Jewish-feminist modus Vivendi." At JWA, we're very interested in the crucial roles that feminism has played in transforming American Judaism. Can you explain more about how you see the impact of feminism on intermarried Jewish women?
KM: Intermarried women's Jewish-feminist modus vivendi of the twentieth century is analogous to the "cult of true womanhood" in the nineteenth century. Instead of combining piety and domesticity with submissiveness and passivity, however, intermarried Jewish women combined ethnicity and domesticity with assertiveness and ingenuity to create Jewish identities that were personally meaningful. Beginning in the 1960s and increasingly in the following decades they were both the gatekeepers of, and door openers to, Jewish life for their families. Feminism played a key role in enabling intermarried women to transform what it to be a Jewish woman in America; in other words, she could intermarry and still be Jewish, participate in the Jewish community, and raise Jewish children. Thanks to the influence of feminism on a more malleable understanding of marriage, American Judaism now has to reckon with intermarried Jewish women in its ranks. The incomplete gains of feminism must also be recognized, however, even if they represent a silver lining in the case of intermarried Jewish women.
JR: In your book, you point out that the fact that women still hold much of the responsibility for organizing family life works to the advantage of Jewish continuity. In the case of intermarried Jewish women, the more the women are involved in shaping Jewish life and family life, the better. This brought to my mind the media hype in recent years about the supposed "feminization" of Judaism. What do you have to say about this communal concern about women's prominence in Jewish life?
KM: The media hype about the supposed "feminization" of Judaism is exactly that: hype. Although I agree that men have been "disappearing" from Jewish communal involvement, it is not because women have "appeared." I don't for a minute buy this oversimplified cause-and-effect argument for two reasons: first, because it assumes that the devaluation of Jewish involvement occurred as a result of women's increased presence, and second because it lays the blame at the door of liberal Judaism. The real issue is a much larger American gender phenomenon. Men, Jewish and otherwise, continue to be paid more than women for the same work. Combined with this fact is that their identities are in large part shaped by their earning capacity and professional status, that is, to be "good providers." Hence it is neither women's nor liberal Judaism's "fault" that men are less involved, but the Protestant male breadwinner ethic that continues to pervade American society. Lastly, the matrilineal descent issue, while good for intermarried Jewish women, has all but cut off intermarried Jewish men who feel disenfranchised by traditional Judaism.
JR: We enjoyed this book and its unique gendered analysis of the topic of intermarriage, and we're eager to know what else you're working on. Do you know yet what will your next project will be?
KM: Thank you very much for you interest in Still Jewish and my next research study. In order to fully understand the meaning of intermarriage, it is important to have both pieces of the gender puzzle. The working title of my second book project is "The Jewish Masculine Mystique: Interfaith Romance and Fatherhood in American Life." It will be a companion or sequel of sorts looking at how the meaning and representation of intermarriage changed during the post World War II era for Jewish men. Like Still Jewish, it is a qualitative study integrating contemporary ethnography and archival research. "The Jewish Masculine Mystique" will incorporate an analysis of popular culture in addition to social history. My preliminary findings suggest that Jewish men who intermarried have been more pro-active about raising Jewish children than previously recognized.
Thank you so much, Keren! Good luck with your new project, and we look forward to hearing more about it as it comes along!