Mixed Marriage, Mixed Message

"Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage" by Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis, $24.95)

"Sort of Jewish," "Jewish and something else," "might as well be Jewish" are some of the ways people describe their Jewish identity in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s significant new book probing the religious character of mixed-marriage households, "Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage."

One of her findings that may be widely discussed relates to households that mix Christian and Jewish customs: She finds data to support the "greatly diminished likelihood that children from these households will unambiguously identify as Jewish as adults," as she says in an interview from her office at Brandeis University. Fishman, a professor who directs the program in Contemporary Jewish Life and co-directs the Brandeis-Hadassah Institute, recognizes that people who condone the incorporation of those practices will not like her findings.

"Double or Nothing" is based on a study Fishman conducted, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. She analyzes data from 254 interviews, conducted between 1999 and 2000, with 68 mixed-married, 36 inmarried and 23 conversionary families in Denver, New Jersey, Atlanta and New England, along with focus groups with teens growing up in interfaith families.

Much previous research in this field has been quantitative studies and surveys. As she writes, this is "one of the first systematic qualitative studies of the full range of mixed-family types: Jewishly identified, two religions, secular or no formal religion, overtly Christian and principled nontheists."

The author of several books including "Jewish Life and American Culture" and "A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community," Fishman points to statistical studies showing that about half of all marriages involving a Jew have been marriages to non-Jews. But unlike those Jews who married non-Jews 50 years ago, those intermarrying today "do not necessarily have an agenda of leaving the Jewish community," she writes. And unlike earlier mixed marriages, in which it was usually the wife who was a Christian and she often converted, "very few of the non-Jews marrying Jewish men and women today convert into Judaism."

She asks, "Will the blessings of American openness cause Jewish culture to be virtually loved out of existence in 21st century America?"

Among the interrelated issues Fishman looked into was the process by which intermarried couples determine the religious character of their household, how they talk about it and negotiate, the personal meaning of their choices, how they thought about dating, the planning of the wedding, the impact of having children, children’s views of their parents religious decisions and how they construct their own identity and more.

The findings she cites as major include the notion that many mixed-marriage couples started talking about how they would deal with religious differences early on, as soon as their dating became serious. Before her study, she notes, most observers assumed these conversations took place much later. Another finding is that during the marriage, the Jewish spouse tends to be empathetic, guilt-ridden about depriving the Christian spouse of his or her practice.

"Sometimes the Jewish spouse might volunteer to bring Christian holidays into the Jewish household," she says.

Also, she points out that Jewish spouses and their families are often very "reticent or squeamish about pushing too hard toward conversion," and that not pushing too hard can be read as not-caring about the issue by the non-Jewish spouse.

"Many say that if they were asked, they might have considered it," she added.

Another aspect Fishman thinks of as groundbreaking is that many of the non-Jewish spouses talked about their attraction to Jewish culture and family life, and were drawn to the image of a Jewish home, full of warmth, passion about ideas, argument, everyone knowing each other’s business.

"One of the amusing things," she says, "is that social patterns that seem unattractive to the Jewish partner can seem attractive to Christians."

She finds that a triple-pronged approach can be effective in reinforcing Jewish life for both inmarried and intermarried families. The three prongs are formal and informal Jewish education over many years; the Jewish vitality of the home, with lots of Jewish connections and parents passionately involved in some aspect of Judaism, whether religious or cultural or Israel-related; and a Jewish peer group for kids, particularly teenagers.

"This model adds up to more than its parts," she says.

Interestingly, almost every person interviewed expressed the sentiment that he or she was not typical, but given the pattern of responses, the individuals interviewed had much in common with each other.

The title uses a gambling metaphor to highlight the question of whether intermarriage is, as some believe, a potential net gain, creating more "Jewish" households: If the children raised in these homes identified as Jews and went on to create Jewish homes of their own, the community would experience a population increase. Others see intermarriage as a diminishment of the community.

On the book jacket, a figure balances a die tenuously on the tip of his finger. As for her own opinion, Fishman hedges her bets: She asserts that when households follow the three-pronged model, the possibility of stable equilibrium exists.

"You’re gambling with the Jewish identity of children when you don’t have that model," she says.

Whether it’s double or nothing depends on "how we respond, whether the American Jewish community will be able to summon the communal will to meet this challenge" — to create connections for Jewish families to their own Jewish heritage.

The book intersperses comments from the respondents into the text, which makes for interesting, accessible reading and also humanizes these much-discussed issues. Fishman also shows how interfaith families are depicted in American literature, film and popular culture; she also looks at the issue in Jewish societies historically.

Are there policy implications?

"I believe very much in putting money and brilliant minds and outstanding talents to work in creating programming for teenagers and young adults. These are the critical, underserviced years," she says.

She’d like to see formal and informal programs provide positive peer group experiences: "It would make a difference. Nothing is going to prevent intermarriage because we live in an open society — and all of us are intensely grateful that we live in an open society."

"We can make a difference in the proportion of Jews who marry non-Jews." And, she adds, "We can give Jews the tools they need in order to create Jewishly vibrant households, regardless of who they marry."

In the end, she emphasizes the urgency of Jewish education and calls for excellence in offerings — for children, teens and adults. The author points to studies that show that mixed-married families who seek out Jewish education are looking for intellectual and experiential depth in their studies. She says that inmarried, conversionary and intermarried families all benefit from high-quality education — "one of the most effective strategies for transmitting knowledge of and attachment to Jewish civilizations and their heritage to the next generation of Jews"

In this age where intermarriage rates are so high, why does she care so much?

"I have found the Jewish way of life to be very beautiful and very sustaining as an individual, as a mother and grandmother. Judaism has been the rock of my life. We live in a culture where people worry about saving the whales. I think we should all be concerned with saving this beautiful and rich culture, not as a fossil but as a rich heritage."

About her own religious life, she explains that she grew up in religiously observant household in Sheboygan, Wis. She has always been observant and describes herself as modern Orthodox.

"I am fascinated and engaged by Jewish texts — all kinds of historical texts, ranging from biblical through rabbinical to modern Jewish literature," she says. "I’m also fascinated by Jewish people and am very fortunate to be involved with a profession that allows me to look at material that I find especially fascinating and engaging in a systematic and scholarly way."

She is now working on two new research projects and isn’t thinking yet about books. One study focuses on teen Jewish education, funded by the AviChai Foundation, and the other is on conversionary households, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.