Double or Nothing


A look at how the rising rate of interfaith marriages might impact the future of the Jewish family.

by Sylvia Barack Fishman

“Facts” and figures about levels of intermarriage are not as easy to come by as one might expect, because how one defines “mixed marriage” is affected first of all by whom one counts as a Jew. For example, should a person with one Jewish parent who was raised with no religious identification, belief, or activity except for cultural Christian observances be computed within the Jewish population? Should that person’s status as a sociological (as opposed to a halakhic) Jew be affected by whether the Christian parent was a father or a mother? What category should persons who were raised in two religious traditions—Jewish and something else—be placed in? Sociologists argue over these categorizations at least as much as rabbis do, and these disputes have complicated data collection as well as analysis.

Despite these complications and uncertainties, sweeping patterns are apparent, based on the year 1990 and year 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS). 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 NJPS, 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.

What the stats say…

The 2000–2001 NJPS data have many logistical complications, but large trends are evident. The younger the Jew, the less gender is a factor. Among all Jews, 33 percent of men and 29 percent of women are married to non-Jews. Among Jews age fifty and over, 27 percent of men and 19 percent of women are married to non-Jews. In contrast, among Jews age twenty-five to forty-nine, 40 percent of men and 40 percent of women are married to non-Jews. The children of mixed-married households are overwhelmingly more likely to be mixed married themselves than the children of inmarried households. Thus, among twenty-five to forty-nine year olds who were raised in mixed-married households, well over three-quarters (79 percent) are also mixed married, compared to 28 percent who grew up in inmarried households. When asked what religion they currently consider themselves to be, 61 percent of twenty-five to forty-nine year olds who grew up in mixed-married households do not consider themselves to be Jewish. In contrast, only 7 percent who grew up in inmarried households do not consider themselves to be Jews.

One indicator of the family’s Jewish identification is that nearly half of mixed-married couples ages twenty-five to forty-nine said that they are raising their (randomly selected) child as a Jew: 39 percent said their child was being raised “Jewish,” 8 percent reported “Jewish connected, including Jewish and some other religion,” and 53 percent said the child was “not being raised Jewish.” Within inmarried households, not surprisingly, 97 percent of children were being raised “exclusively Jewish.”

Cause for alarm or celebration?

Some observers of the Jewish community assert that mixed-married families represent a net gain for the Jewish community—or at least an opportunity for Jewish exploration. They note that when two Jews marry, only one married household is created, whereas when a Jew marries a non-Jew, two “Jewish” households can be counted, one for each Jew involved. Were all the children raised in these mixed-married households to identify as Jews and to grow up to create new Jewish homes of their own, the reasoning goes, the American Jewish community would actually experience a communal and population increase as a result of mixed marriage. According to this view, the cultural intermingling epitomized by mixed marriage does not necessarily warrant anxiety or alarm and may even be a cause for celebration.

Similarly, some social scientists suggest that we are simply witnessing transformation in the meaning of ethnic and religious identities, rather than their dissolution. In past decades, scholars such as Andrew Greeley, Daniel Moynihan, Marcus Hansen, and others have been surprised by a resurgence of interest in ethnic identification. Michael Novak argued that the transformed, enlightened ethnicities that have emerged benefit themselves and America.
Nevertheless, despite the great and obvious advantages of tolerance and pluralism in American society, some observers worry about the impact of mixed marriage on Jews and Judaism. Demographers argue about how many Jews—or potential Jews—live in America, and even about how to count them. Some say that the number of Jews is far larger than has been previously estimated. Many others say recent research shows that the proportion of Jews in America is static, and probably falling, pointing out that the stagnation of the Jewish population arises from several converging facts.

First, relatively small numbers of Jews emigrate to the United States today, compared to other population groups, so immigration is no longer a substantial source of increased Jewish population. Second, American Jews have low levels of reproduction. Like other well-educated, ambitious white Americans, increasing numbers of Jews in their thirties have not yet married. Like others in their socioeconomic cohort, Jews tend to marry late and have their children, if any, even later. This pattern of delayed marriage and childbearing has resulted in a fertility rate demographers consider well below the 2.2 children per family replacement level. Third, increasing numbers of Americans of Jewish descent regard themselves as secular, or Jewish but not by religion.

Marrying out of existence?

Grateful to America for providing historically unprecedented hospitality to Jews and Judaism, some observers nonetheless regard mixed marriage as symptomatic of a cultural malaise that may weaken American Jewish vitality. Historian Jonathan Sarna recalls that “New York City’s French Huguenots, to take an extreme case, married non-Huguenots between 1750 and 1769 at a rate that exceeded 86 percent” and had soon intermarried out of existence in the liberal American environment. The Jews of Kaifeng, China, similarly intermarried into oblivion. These historical models suggest that over time intermarriage contributes to the intermingling and gradual disappearance of meaningful distinctions between ethnic Americans and the rich and complex religious and cultural traditions they are heirs to. In a country where activists lobby on behalf of endangered species of plant and animal life, some argue, American Jewish leaders have a responsibility to vigorously enhance the survivability of the Jewish cultural and religious heritage. As Sarna puts it, if liberal Americans worry about “saving the whale,” surely they should be sympathetic to those Jews who are concerned about preserving the historical Jewish civilization as well.

These two scenarios, one of flourishing interfaith communities, the other of Jewish ethnoreligious disappearance, present divergent projections into the future. Put in the starkest terms (and to paraphrase numerous Jewish jokes), can today’s mixed marriage be good for the Jews? Will the blessing of American openness cause Jewish culture to be virtually loved out of existence in twenty-first-century America?

The article above was excerpted from Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage by Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis University Press, 2004).

About the Author

Sylvia Barack Fishman
Sylvia Barack Fishman is the codirector of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Both of her books, The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006) and Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage (Brandeis University Press, 2004), have been the subject of lively discussion by scholars and Jewish communal professionals. Professor Fishman received her BA from Stern College at Yeshiva University, where she was awarded the Samuel Belkin Prize for Distinguished Professional Achievement, and her PhD from Washington University in St. Louis, which awarded her a Danforth Graduate Fellowship.

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