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Hopes, dreams, and rationalizations aside, the reality is that children of intermarriage are extremely unlikely to identify as Jews when they mature into adults. This conclusion was predicted by Marshall Sklar, widely known as the foremost sociologist of American Jewry of the twentieth century:
Many intermarried parents declare...that upon maturity their child will have the right to choose his own identity. This generally means that his identity will be with the majority group...the majority of the children of intermarried Jews, then, will be Gentiles.1
As we will see, sadly, Dr. Sklar’s prediction has been proven to be correct. The explanation is important:
Hebrew University’s researcher Dr. Peter Medding studied what keeps families Jewish generation after generation. He found that the key is giving children what he calls an “unambiguous Jewish identity.”2 This conclusion is not surprising. We live in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish society with powerful media and cultural influences pushing us away from identification with a Jewish minority comprising less than 2% of the general population. If the children involved do not grow up “unambiguously” Jewish, there is little chance of any Jewishness surviving long term. As we will see, intermarriages almost never provide the needed “unambiguous Jewish identity.”
In May, 2001, Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University released a new study which looked in-depth at American interfaith families and confirmed many people’s fears that intermarriage was essentially a stepping-stone out of the Jewish people.
Aside from verifying previous studies of extremely low Jewish identity rates among the children of intermarriage (82% of mixed married households celebrate Christmas in some form; 79% celebrate Christmas despite having an agreement to raise the kids as Jews; 66% celebrate Easter in some form),11 perhaps the most important point that the study revealed was that the Christian-ness of intermarried homes increases over the years. The study found that whether or not the mother is Jewish, most interfaith families - even those raising their children as Jews - incorporate substantial Christian celebrations into their lives, often including more Christian aspects as the couple and their children age.12
After years of marriage, even in households that initially relegated Christian activities to the households of extended families, boundaries between Christian and Jewish activities softened, and Jewish spouses agreed to move Christmas and/or Easter festivities into their “Jewish” homes, especially as non-Jewish grandparents aged.13
Despite good intentions in the early years, the Jewish messages intermarried families send get more and more diluted as the children age. The classic example quoted from Dr. Barack Fishman’s study was the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Many Jewish parents initially refuse to celebrate these Christian holidays in their home. However, they “eventually compromise out of a desire to be fair to their spouses” or because the previous arrangement (i.e., going to the Christian grandparents for those holidays) gets harder as the years go by and the grandparents get older. As one intermarried Jewish woman put it:
I love my mother-in-law, and she just can’t do it any more. So now it’s my pleasure to make Easter dinner for her and her family. I even make them ham, because it means a lot to them.14
In fact, as a different study stated, “even some of the most Jewish of the mixed married couples maintain Christian observances in the home.”15 Dr. Fishman concluded that, in fact, “the great majority of mixed-married households incorporate substantial Christian celebrations into their family life.”16
Consider the following interchange from a radio talk show in California:
A woman calls in: “I’m Jewish,” she says. “My husband is not Jewish, but he is very active in the Jewish community. We are trying our best to raise our children as Jews and give them a Jewish education. Now my son is almost thirteen, and he tells us he doesn’t want a bar mitzvah. What can we do?”
“Let me get this straight,” the host says. “You say your husband is not Jewish?”
“That’s right,” the woman answers.
“How do you expect your son to follow Judaism when you don’t?”
Actions speak louder than words. If being Jewish was really that important, children subconsciously sense, then Mommy wouldn’t have married out. By marrying out she has demonstrated that Judaism is of little relevance. Why should the kids then listen to exhortations about the importance of being Jewish?
Similarly, one adolescent raised with the dual-religion approach remarked, “It was your idea that I should be both Christian and Jewish. But I’m not a little kid anymore and I believe in Jesus. It is my life.”
Most of the Jewish parents involved, if asked during their engagement period, would certainly have answered that “yes, our kids will identify as Jews.” But the reality is otherwise. Intermarriage does not - indeed almost cannot - provide the “unambiguous Jewish identity” that is needed to keep Jewishness alive in the family.17 After all, as long as one spouse is not Jewish, “it is hard to exclude Christian rituals, ceremonies, and culture from family life.”18
1. Sklar, America’s Jews, 202.
2. Medding, et al. Jewish Identity, 37–38.
3. Of the rest, 33% are being raised Christian only, 24% in “no religion” homes, and 25% in “dual religion” homes. (Phillips, Re-examining Intermarriage, 49, fig. 2–3. This study is based primarily on the intermarriage data taken from the 1991 National Jewish Population Survey, as well as follow-up research done in 1993.)
4. Ibid., table 2-5, p. 52. Those who are being raised as “Jews only” in homes with one Jewish parent and one non-religious parent score 2.6 out of 3 for Christmas observances and only 1.8 out of 3 for Passover observances. Those who are being raised as “Jews only” in homes with one Jewish parent and one openly Christian parent score 2.5 out of 3 for Christmas observances and only 1.5 out of three for Passover observances. Despite these disheartening numbers, these “Jews only” children are the Jewish “cream of the crop” when it comes to the products of intermarriages. In other constellations, whether the children are being raised as “no religion” or Christian, Christmas observances remain as high or higher and Passover observances are almost non-existent.
5. Mayer, Children of Intermarriage. Some other statistics: 83% of the children of intermarriage perceived “no greater responsibility to fellow Jews than [to] others in need”; 70% felt they had no greater responsibility to support Israel than other Americans, or at all; 81% deemed “unimportant” the act of belonging to the Jewish community. Only 9% felt studying about Judaism was very important.
6. Medding et al., Jewish Identity, table 29, p. 67. Compare this with only 2% of in-married families that have a Christmas tree. The authors note that the degree of Christian observances and identification are essential in defining Jewish identity: “Our theory of Jewish identity posited that being not Christian was a major defining element of Jewish identity. The creation of an unambiguous Jewish identity entails, at the very least, the absence from the home of Christian symbols and practices, even if the level of Jewish identification is low.”
7. Mayer, Children of Intermarriage.
8. Compared to 60% and 57% respectively of in-married families. Medding et al., Jewish Identity, table 18, p. 53 and table 21, p. 58.
9. Mayer, Children of Intermarriage. Additionally 59% flatly disagreed, and 23% were uncertain. Similarly, the Jewish Community Center’s Maccabi Teen Survey of May 1994 found that “children of interfaith families have significantly lower levels of Jewish identity than do children in in-married or conversionary families.” (Sales, Values and Concerns, 23. See also p. 28.)
10. Ibid., 18% were uncertain, 71% would not be upset.
11. Fishman, “Jewish and Something Else,” 45.
12. Ibid., 8. Dr. Fishman deliberately over-represented the percentage of intermarried families who were at least attempting to raise their children as Jewish, and yet writes that the “persistent and recurring influence of Christianity even in mixed-married families who consider themselves to be raising their children as Jews [is] all the more striking” (p. 41).
13. Ibid., 8.
14. Ibid., 47.
15. Phillips, Re-examining Intermarriage, 72.
16. Fishman, “Jewish and Something Else,” 45.
17. As in this entire volume, please remember that a sincere convert is a full Jew and a marriage between a born-Jew and a sincerely converted Jew is not an intermarriage at all, but rather a marriage of two Jews.
18. Fishman, “Jewish and Something Else,” 81.
19. Sales, Values and Concerns, 23.
20. Fishman, “Jewish and Something Else,” 7.
21. 1990 Council of Jewish Federations’ National Jewish Population Survey data. Dr. Steven Bayme, “Intermarriage and American Jewry: Communal Policy and Program Direction” in Intermarriage: What Can We Do? What Should We Do?, 3. See also Winer and Meir, Questions Jewish Parents Ask, p. 1 and p. 19 for more on this.
22. Mayer, Children of Intermarriage: 6% were uncertain, 91% would not discourage their children.