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Jewish on Their Own Terms

Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 214
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  • Book Info
    Jewish on Their Own Terms
    Book Description:

    Over half of all American Jewish children are being raised by intermarried parents. This demographic group will have a tremendous impact on American Judaism as it is lived and practiced in the coming decades. To date, however, in both academic studies about Judaism and in the popular imagination, such children and their parents remain marginal.

    Jennifer A. Thompson takes a different approach. InJewish on Their Own Terms, she tells the stories of intermarried couples, the rabbis and other Jewish educators who work with them, and the conflicting public conversations about intermarriage among American Jews. Thompson notes that in the dominant Jewish cultural narrative, intermarriage symbolizes individualism and assimilation. Talking about intermarriage allows American Jews to discuss their anxieties about remaining distinctively Jewish despite their success in assimilating into American culture.

    In contrast, Thompson uses ethnography to describe the compelling concerns of all of these parties and places their anxieties firmly within the context of American religious culture and morality. She explains how American and traditional Jewish gender roles converge to put non-Jewish women in charge of raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples are like other Americans in often harboring contradictory notions of individual autonomy, universal religious truths, and obligations to family and history.

    Focusing on the lived experiences of these families,Jewish on Their OwnTermsprovides a complex and insightful portrait of intermarried couples and the new forms of American Judaism that they are constructing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6283-4
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    It’s not enough,” said Abe in a pained voice. His daughter had married a non-Jew. While Abe, an active member of a Conservative synagogue, hoped that she and her husband would become actively involved in organized Jewish activities, he did not have a great deal of hope that his descendants would carry on Jewishness. He asserted that the number of intermarried couples raising Jewish children was insufficient to prevent Judaism from dying out entirely. Abe participates in religious services and also serves on committees that perform the work of the synagogue—teaching, organizing, brainstorming, managing its financial affairs. He has...

  5. 1 Defining Judaism by Debating Intermarriage
    (pp. 23-50)

    The narratives about intermarriage in contemporary discourse echo those of the mid-twentieth century, despite significant changes in American Jews’ lives since then. A narrative of intermarriage as assimilation was born from a convergence of sociological theory about assimilation, immigration, and ethnicity with Jewish historical and religious understandings of intermarriage. These threads reinforced one another in media produced by Jews for consumption by other Jews. Media, scientists, and Jewish religious experts contended and cooperated with one another to shape American Jews’ understandings of themselves and each other through this narrative, creating a sense of a shared reality and communal boundaries. For...

  6. 2 American Contradictions: Conversations about self and Community
    (pp. 51-80)

    As my intermarried informants developed their self-understandings and practices, they took into account a wide range of factors: intermarriage discourse; their own feelings and experiences; and American cultural ideas about religion, community, the self, and gender. Couples and individuals combined these factors in ways that were sometimes contradictory but responded to their needs and experiences as they understood them. These couples’ conversations and experiences showed that the meanings of marriage between Jews and Christians were not as easily or clearly defined as American Jewish discourses about intermarriage have suggested. My informants both resisted and accommodated such discourses as they sought...

  7. 3 “What You Are” and “What’s in Your Heart”
    (pp. 81-112)

    While both the universalist individualist and ethnic familialist perspectives draw from Jewish and American cultural and religious orientations, they weave together the various strands in different ways. Families who adopted an ethnic familialist perspective generally were more closely connected to Judaism than to Christianity and often followed patterns that more closely resembled those of endogamous Jewish families. Their approach to their families’ religious lives was comparatively less intellectualized and systematic than the universalist individualist one, emphasizing family and feelings more than rationality and self. While the two approaches differ in style, they share many key concerns: the appropriateness of religious...

  8. 4 Translating Jewish Experience
    (pp. 113-134)

    Jewish outreach professionals, the religious experts who specialize in programming for Jews who do not affiliate formally with Jewish institutions, face the same tensions of universalism, individualism, ethnicity, and family that intermarried couples do. But as representatives of the subset of Jewish institutions that actively reach out to these couples, they also participate in—or actively resist—deeply entrenched ideas about categorical difference between Jews and non-Jews. Some of the professionals I interviewed explained their interest in embracing intermarried couples in terms that invoked dominant cultural narratives that equate intermarriage with assimilation, relying on the vaguely defined, monolithic concepts of...

  9. 5 Sovereign Selves in a Fractured Community
    (pp. 135-162)

    Navigating the conflicting cultural and religious values and themes in discourses about intermarriage challenges religious experts as much as laypeople. In interviews and participant-observation with these experts—rabbis, Jewish educators, and other clergy—I discovered that their shared vocabulary of Jewish traditions and symbols obscured deep divisions. For some clergy, as for some laypeople, universalism and individualism expressed the ultimate truth of their religious convictions. Others saw the role of universalism and individualism as much more limited and focused instead on covenant and community. Matters grew more complicated as laypeople challenged the clergy’s convictions with their own demands and claims....

  10. 6 Moving Forward, Inconclusively: The Crisis of Jewish Identity
    (pp. 163-176)

    In intermarriage discourse, Conservative Rabbi E, history professor Jack Wertheimer, and others have raised the question of whether Jewish institutions’ limited financial and human resources ought to be directed toward outreach to intermarried couples when they could instead be directed toward endogamous couples (see, for example, Wertheimer 2001). They feel that intermarried Jews’ marriage choices clearly show their lack of loyalty to Judaism. Yet the kinds of programming inspired by the perceived need for outreach attract endogamous, presumably “loyal” Jewish couples as well. Endogamous Jews who are similar to my intermarried informants welcome the programming directed at intermarried couples because...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 177-180)

    American Jews’ engagement in discourse about intermarriage is a form of collective experience as Jews. Engaging in debate about intermarriage allows American Jews to behave as if we are one community despite our deep divergence over important theological and practical matters. Yet examination of this debate has shown that there is no consensus even about the definitions of its central terminology—Jewish continuity, for example. Lacking agreement on terms or outcome, we settle on debate itself as our way of being together.

    Even if Jews regard arguing as a sport, arguing in circles for decades often signifies that something is...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 181-182)
    (pp. 183-194)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 195-200)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-202)