Intermarriage and Conversion in the United States
In this article “intermarriage” refers to the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew who does not convert to Judaism. The terms “interfaith marriage” and “mixed marriage” will be used interchangeably with “intermarriage.” In sociological terms, marrying within one’s ethnic or religious group is called endogamy, while marrying outside is exogamy.
Although it was known that there were large numbers of mixed marriages among the third and fourth generations of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants of the 1700s and 1800s and the German Jewish immigrants to America in the mid- to late nineteenth century, within the American Jewish community intermarriage was by and large not the subject of research or analysis until the 1960s. Until then, it was the consensus of social scientists that with the large influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants between 1880 and 1920 mixed marriage had become a null category. In fact, in a chart drawn by Milton Gordon in his book Assimilation in American Life (1964), Jews are listed along with “Negroes” as having virtually no “marital assimilation,” as he called it. The leadership and the masses of American Jews were preoccupied with breaking down any barriers to complete assimilation. Fighting discrimination and prejudice was the order of the day. Benjamin Ringer’s volume of the paradigmatic Lakeville Studies of the mid-1950s was entitled The Edge of Friendliness: Relationships Between Jews and Their Non-Jewish Neighbors. It would have been difficult at that time to convince social scientists that just three decades later a similar community study might be entitled “Intermarriage: Intimate Relationships Between Jews and Their Non-Jewish Neighbors”! Even in 1990s America, however, mate selection is not solely a matter of romantic love. As noted in a popular text for courses in marriage and the family: “Although we use the system of marital choice by mutual selection in our society, the belief that the selection is completely free is an illusion” (Saxton, p. 138).
The first voice noting a growing rate of mixed marriage was heard in an article written by Eric Rosenthal for the 1963 American Jewish Yearbook. Rosenthal analyzed the mixed-marriage rates of Jews in Iowa and later (in 1967) of those in Indiana, the only two states that recorded the religion of future bride and groom when they registered for a marriage license. He found that the out-marriage rate of Jews was over twenty percent in these states. However, his findings were largely ignored because the Jewish populations of Iowa and Indiana were so small that it was hard to imagine that what Rosenthal found there could be generalized to the whole United States.
So, interfaith marriage as a whole was only given cursory notice. The differential rate of men and women in the cases that were known was noted but not emphasized. There was data to indicate that in most ethnic, racial, and religious groups women were more likely than men to marry out. In the market or economic model of marriage utilized by analysts, women were seen as marrying out of their ethnic groups in order to rise in the stratification system or to “marry up” by trading beauty for social position. Men, the theory held, could rise in the social system through achievement in the worlds of the intellect, business, or finance, while women could only do so by trading one ascribed status for another. Marriage to highly achieving men from older American backgrounds was seen as the primary way for women to climb the ladder of success. In a recent textbook, the resulting shortage of eligible men for high-status women is described for American society in general as follows:
The phenomenon of the dating differential also helps explain why unmarried women are often from relatively higher-status populations than are unmarried men of the same age. Overall, there are about equal numbers of young men and young women. But because men tend to date and marry women with lower statuses with respect to age, physical size, education, intelligence, and social class, the women who get left out (“undating women”) are those with high status with respect to those factors. (For the same reason, men of low status become “undating men.”) (Saxton, pp. 141–142)
Jewish women, however, were anomalous in this regard. They did not define marrying out as marrying up. They were raised to believe that there was nothing superior to a Jewish man. And, despite the social class advantages that might have accrued to them through marrying non-Jews, the rate of interfaith marriage for Jewish women was, until the decade of the 1970s, always considerably lower than that of Jewish men. In the Council of Jewish Federations 1970 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS, 1970) this differential persisted, though by the time a comprehensive reanalysis was undertaken of intermarriage patterns as reflected in eight Jewish community studies conducted between 1985 and 1988, the authors uncovered a trend toward equalization of the rates of outmarriage for Jewish men and women. They wrote that
in the past, Jewish men were much more likely than Jewish women to intermarry. Although rates of intermarriage and mixed marriage for both men and women have risen steadily over time, Jewish men are still more likely than Jewish women to intermarry. . . . The proportion of inmarriages declines by thirty-five percent in three decades, from ninety percent before 1960 to fifty-five percent in the decade of the 1980s. For Jewish women, the proportion of inmarriages declines by twenty-eight percent during the same period, from ninety-eight percent to seventy percent. . . . Apart from the fact that both groups are subject to the same societal influences, the two rates are also integrally connected to each other: as increasing proportions of Jewish men intermarry, there will be fewer available Jewish males for Jewish women. (Medding et al., pp. 8–9)
Until the mid-1970s, the issue of gender differentials in exogamy was often noted in passing in articles describing mixed marriage. However, the reluctance of Jewish women to marry out was never emphasized. If there was any analysis of the phenomenon, it took the form of blaming Jewish women for the out-marriage of Jewish men. Several analysts theorized that some Jewish men felt that marrying Jewish women would be like “marrying their mothers.” Other social scientists explained away the greater penchant for interfaith marriage on the part of Jewish males by citing characteristics that were “wrong” with Jewish females, implying that if only Jewish women were different there would be considerably fewer Jewish males marrying out of the group. Needless to say, these authors (who were all male) never praised Jewish women for refraining from exogamy nor did they seek to interpret the gender discrepancy from the perspective of Jewish women.
At least two factors would lead the naive observer to suppose that Jewish women would, in fact, have been more prone to interfaith marriage than Jewish men. First, according to the sex-ratio data derived from the 1970 NJPS, there were more Jewish women than men available for marriage in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Since women have traditionally been more dependent upon marriage than men, both for their identity and their economic survival, we would expect that, faced with the probability of spinsterhood, they would choose intermarriage over the single life.
A second reason to suppose that Jewish women might have married out more than Jewish men is that, according to traditional Jewish law, a child’s religion is determined by the religion of the mother. Thus the fact that a woman married out did not affect the official Jewish affiliation of her children. An exogamous Jewish man, however, must either have had his spouse convert prior to the birth of their children or have seen to it that the children themselves were formally converted for them to be considered Jewish by the overwhelming majority of Jews. One would therefore expect stronger sanctions against out-marriage for men than for women, whose exogamy would not appear to threaten group survival to the same degree.
Why is it, then, that, until the last two decades or so, Jewish women were so reluctant to intermarry? First, there was the structure of the Jewish family together with the prevalence of traditional gender-role distinctions. Sons could fulfill their parents’ expectations through educational and occupational success. The legend of “my son the doctor” and the sacrifices parents made to ensure the actualization of this dream are well known. Sons were also expected to provide future nahas [satisfaction] in the form of Jewish grandchildren, but parents found it difficult to abandon “my son the intermarried doctor,” since he was still fulfilling parental expectations in other ways. On the other hand, daughters were not necessarily expected to “make it” in the occupational world. Until the 1970s, “success” for a nice Jewish girl was defined as marriage to an educated Jewish man who could support her in the proper style, and close supervision of daughters in the courting years effectively limited the possibility of their forming intimate relationships with non-Jewish men.
Second, further reinforcing daughters’ early and suitable marriage was the fact that while it was and is still generally difficult to function in the Jewish community as a single person, it is even harder for women. Finally, the general closeness of daughters to their families was expected to carry over to married life. Intermarriage would not only be a “failure” for the Jewish daughter but would also cut her off from anticipated and accepted future warm ties with her nuclear family. These ties were not projected as strongly for sons, who have been shown to extend their loyalty to the nuclear family into the broader community of all Jews and to move toward a closer relationship with their wives’ kinfolk. As late as the 1970 NJPS, Massarik and Chenkin reported that twice as many Jewish men as women were contracting interfaith marriages.
By the 1990 NJPS, all of this had broken down. Daughters had the same occupational expectations as sons, and they were as likely to go away to university and interact with non-Jews as their brothers; the median age of first marriage for Jewish women was twenty-four. The gender differential was largely the product of two factors: structural differentials in the circumstances of Jewish women and men, and a methodological anomaly. The structural props minimizing the rate of interfaith marriage among Jewish women were radically altered or disappeared entirely between 1965 and 1990.
The methodological anomaly was also done away with by 1990 through the random-digit-dialing method of sampling employed in the later National Jewish Population Survey. Until that survey there was always a sampling bias leading to an underenumeration of the percentage of Jewish women who married non-Jews. As a result of the normative practice of women changing their names when they married, Jewish women who married non-Jews were more likely than men to disappear from lists from which, until the most recent surveys, respondents were drawn. A man named David Cohen retained that name even after mixed marriage, and thus was more likely to be found on a list of known Jews than a woman named Susan Cohen who became, after her marriage to a non-Jew, Susan McDevitt or Susan Smith. Since women who married out of the faith were undercounted on the lists, they were undersampled, and it appeared that fewer Jewish women married out than was actually the case.
Perspectives on the rates of interfaith marriage changed in the late 1960s due to a multiplicity of intersecting factors. Along with the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement and the budding feminist movement came enhanced self-awareness and pride in ethnic and racial identity. Predictions of the demise of ethnic consciousness in favor of religious identity—for example, those made by Will Herberg in his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)—turned out to be decidedly premature. It might have been thought that greater adherence to cultural pluralism would lead to endogamy. However, the opposite was true. Pride in one’s own identity went hand-in-hand with a revitalized sense of equality, which meant that all available singles were potential mates. Moreover, particularly on the university campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people from different ethnic, racial, and religious origins met each other face-to-face and worked together in the antiwar, civil rights, and feminist movements. Young men and women were physically, intellectually, and ideologically available to each other. For the first time in Jewish history, both physical propinquity and psychological availability—the necessary conditions for mate selection between men and women of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds—were present.
By 1990, the rate of interfaith marriage among Jews had risen to 52 percent and, although the rates were still higher for men than for women, the gap was getting smaller every year. The democratic ethic and welcoming arms of the open society that raised the interfaith marriage rates of Jewish men reached out as well to Jewish women. The only differential remaining was in the area of conversion, with more women than men converting both out of and into Judaism as a result of interfaith marriage.
According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, rates of intermarriage have stabilized since 1985. According to this latest survey, the intermarriage rate for Jews whose marriages started in 1985–1990 is not fifty-two percent (as per the 1990 NJPS) but only forty-three percent, as is the intermarriage rate for those whose marriages began in 1991–1995. (The discrepancy between the 1990 and 2000 surveys is the result of a change in the NJPS’s change of definition in who is considered “Jewish” for purposes of the survey; retaining the 1990 definition still elicits data that indicates a stabilization in intermarriage rates.) Jews who have married between 1996 and 2001 have an intermarriage rate of forty-seven percent. As of 2000 the intermarriage rate is slightly higher among men (33%) than among women (29%), but the gender composition of intermarriage fluctuates with age. Among those above the age of fifty-five men are more likely to be intermarried than women. In the 35–54 year age group, equal proportions of men and women are intermarried. The gender gap in intermarriage has widened among those under the age of thirty-five, with men again more likely than women to be intermarried.
All of the studies to date show that converts to Judaism make steadfast and loyal members of the community. At the time of the 1970 NJPS, the conversion rate to Judaism in husband Jewish/wife non-Jewish mixed marriages was as high as twenty-five percent, though in the wife Jewish/husband non-Jewish cases it was less than ten percent. By 1990, conversion to Judaism took place in less than five percent of interfaith marriages, though still more often in cases where the husband was the Jewish partner. (The reasons for this decline are largely unexplored. It is thought that the patrilineal descent decision of the Reform movement together with the rise of an American norm that it was unethical to ask one’s spouse to convert if one was not willing to convert oneself had some effect on the rates.)
One reason offered for the higher propensity of women to convert has been that men still have more power in marital relationships. Therefore, if the husband feels strongly about religion, the wife is more likely to convert to his religion than he is to hers. As societal norms concerning spousal roles become more egalitarian, it is likely that this differential will narrow, as has the general gender gap in interfaith marriage.
AJYB (1963, 1967); National Jewish Population Survey. United Jewish Communities: The Federations of North America (formerly the Council of Jewish Federations). (1970, 1990, 2000); Gordon, Milton. Assimilation in American Life (1964); Herberg, Will. Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955); Medding, Peter Y., et al. Jewish Identity in Conversionary and Mixed Marriages (1992); Saxton, Lloyd. The Individual, Marriage, and the Family (1993).