275 Years of Anxiety about Assimilation
Never in my relatively short life do I remember a time where there wasn't a sense of urgency, even panic, in the American Jewish community around intermarriage and Jewish continuity. According to Sylvia Barack Fishman of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute,
"Close to half of the "Jewish" marriages in the years 1984-1989 were mixed marriages. Social scientists argue over whether the mixed-marriage rate during that time period was as high as 52 percent or as low as 43 percent, depending on who is counted as a Jew. All agree that mixed-marriage rates climbed precipitously during the 1970s and 1980s. According to the 1990 [National Jewish Population Study], slightly less than one-third (31 percent) of all mixed-married households with one Jewish parent reported that they were raising their children as Jews."
I can remember these statistics being thrown at my Jewish day school class (we were elementary students) as reason to be very afraid.
Over the past few years, I've come to realize just how entrenched the fear of assimilation via intermarriage - ultimately the fear of being swallowed up and disappeared within American culture - is for the Jewish community. What I am just beginning to understand is that though this fear is couched in conversations about newness and change (hence the panic - consider it fear of the unknown), in fact anxieties about intermarriage and assimilation have a long history with American Jewry.
Which is all by way of introducing the 275 year old letter that Abigail Franks, a Jewish woman in colonial New York, wrote to her son Naphtali on July 9, 1733. Naphtali had gone to England to pursue business and presumably marriage, which were in better supply in the Old World than in the New, and was staying with Abigaill's brother Asher in London. In her letter, Abigail entreated her son to continue his "morning Devotions" and to eat only bread and butter, for she mistrusted her brother's kashrut standards. Not only that, but in more than 30 letters that Abigail wrote to Naphtali between 1733 and 1748, she expressed her agony over her daughter Phila's secret marriage to a non-Jewish American, and her own struggle to maintain her faith in the New World.
I don't know whether to be heartened or saddened by the knowledge that the push-pull of acceptance and assimilation has walked hand in hand with American Jewish history since colonial times. But I wonder if it wouldn't be worthwhile for American Jews to take a look at how our forebears developed coping strategies that allowed them to navigate the difficult question of what it means to be both an American and a Jew.
Click here to learn more about Abigail Franks.