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.
How to cite this page
Rabinoff-Goldman, Lily. "275 Years of Anxiety about Assimilation." 8 July 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/assimilation-anxiety>.
Intermarriage is inevitable in an open society. And no it isn't the same as 275 years ago. We didn't have a 50% intermarriage rate back then. This is a crisis of historical proportions. But if we (the Jewish people) rely on in-marrying to maintain the community then we're simply going to create unnatural, xenophobic lives for ourselves. If we rely on the orthodox to keep replenishing our ranks then we'll be replaced by a community that spends all their resources on torah and contributes little to the outside world, which would be a serious loss to humanity. If we rely on Israel then we're putting all our eggs in a risky basket. A strong, non-orthodox Jewish community in the diaspora needs to exist. The only way is to make the religion appealing enough to get our half-Jewish grandchildren to want to stay Jewish. The way we practice and teach the religion simply isn't working in that regard. We need to adapt it if we want to survive and maintain our numbers in a healthy manner, not through suffocating, high-birthrate, insulating techniques. Just remember that Judaism has changed throughout the centuries (used to be patrilineal), and our genetic makeup which has also changed. We need to stop clinging to the old ways, and look at this crises as an opportunity: to make Judaism more meaningful in a modern, scientific world, to increase our ranks, to strengthen our culture with new ideas from our non-jewish converts (diversity results in creativity and better ideas). And I understand the concept of not to proselytize the faith, but why should we go to the other extreme and make it so difficult to convert? It's not dilution... it's progress. For the first time in history there are large numbers of people who genuinely want to be Jewish and we make it so difficult for them, only to complain about how we're disappearing. It's hard to sympathize with such a ridiculous system. A matrilineal cast-like system. It's becoming archaic. Orthodox conversion can ruin lives, and most Jews (including now the Israeli govmnt) won't recognize anything else. We need to innovate to survive and thrive. Dogma is destroying the Jewish people.
Given that Jews have been worrying about disappearing via assimilation for centuries in America, I think we should stop worrying that it will actually happen on a communal level. Though, alternatively, one could make the case that all that worrying has paid off and therefore we should keep it up.