Jews: Inside the Melting Pot
by Gad Nahshon
The distinguished scholar Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman enriched us again with a new illuminating research. It contributes to the common discourse of the biological future of American Jewry as an ethnic group. Will Jews be the 'victims' of the Melting Pot, it's 'jaws'? Are Jews 'kings of survival' turning out to be in America in the 21st century, just the epitome of the ethnic meltable ones?
Dr. Fishman, together with the American Jewish Committee, published a great altering research: Jewish and Something Else - A Study of Mixed Married Families (New York, 2001). The research is based on 254 interviews. Dr. Fishman had a research team which included: Dr. Naomi Bromberg Bar Yam, Dr. Mark Rosen, Dr. Rachel Rochenmacher, Dr. Benjamin Phillips, Margie Nesson, Lila Corwin, and Dr. Christian J. Churchill. Among the families were three groups: A. 'Inmarried' - two spouses were born Jews. B. 'Conversionary' - one born Jews, the other spouse converted and, C. 'Mixed Marriage' - one spouse born non-Jew.
The sample was taken in New England, New Jersey, Denver and in Atlanta. Indeed it was an original unique research. The findings should alert the leaders of the American Jewish community, alert those who care about continuity of Jewish life in America. The findings can stimulate pessimism and it was manifested in the Forward which was written by Dr. Steven Bayme, A.J.C.'s expert of Jewish life.
He remarked: "The rise of dual-faith homes, practicing a mixture of Judaism and Christianity, brings religious syncretism that undermines the integrity of both faiths. The nature of Jewish identification in such homes is being so radically redefined as to become unrecognizable, forfeiting distinctive Judaic ethos - to say nothing of Jewish continuity. To be sure, the mixed-marrieds in Fishman's study do not see themselves as doing anything extraordinary. Merging both faiths in one home expresses the ethos of American fairness and egalitarianism. So fluid has become the boundary between Jew and gentile in America that people move easily between faiths. While this says much for American tolerance, it erodes Judaic distinctiveness in favor of a bland coalescence of Jewish and American identities. Historically, American Jews have known that they were not Christians. As Fishman's study documents, even that boundary may today be at risk."
Sylvia Barack Fishman, Ph.D., directs a program in Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University, and is co-director of the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, also at Brandeis. Hew new book, Jewish Life and American Culture (SUNY Press, 2000) explores the way American Jews negotiate the Jewish and secular aspects of their lives. In addition to numerous articles and monographs, her earlier books include A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community, which was named a 1994 Honor Book by the National Jewish Book Council, and Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction. For the American Jewish Committee, she has written three feature articles in the American Jewish Year Book, as well as a new monograph, Changing Minds: Feminism in Contemporary Orthodox Jewish Life.
The following is the chapter 'Major Findings at a Glance' (p. 6-11) from Dr. Fishman's illuminating research:
1. Mixed-married households have diverse strategies for dealing with the dual faith heritages of the two spouses. Some raise children in the Jewish faith only, some in both Jewish and Christian (or some other) faiths, some in no religious faith. Others divide the children in a household, raising some siblings as Jews and some as non-Jews. We oversampled Mixed-marriage households have diverse strategies for dealing with the dual faith heritages of the two spouses. Some raise children mixed-married families who said they were raising their children as Jews. In our study, 63 percent of parents said they are raising their children as Jews - compared to fewer than one-third of mixed-marrieds in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Oversampling allowed us to determine to what extent such households actually maintain religious exclusivity.
2. The great majority of mixed-married households incorporate substantial Christian celebrations into their family lives, compared to only a tiny proportion of inmarried families. Despite our oversampling of Jewishly identified mixed-married families, more than 80 percent of participating mixed-married families reported Christian activities of some sort. Christmas celebrations were the most frequently reported in mixed-married families, with Easter celebrations second.
Among our mixed-married household, two-thirds celebrated Christmas at home. Sixteen percent also went to church, in addition to home celebrations. Another 16 percent celebrated in the homes of extended family, but no in their own homes. In contract, among conversionary households, 9 percent celebrated Christmas at home but didn't go to church (no converts in our sample went to church), and 54 percent celebrated in the homes of extended-family members.
Among inmarried households, 4 percent had Christmas celebrations at home. Easter celebrations were reported by over half of our mixed-married households, and 12 percent went to church in addition. Twelve percent of our mixed-married sample celebrated Easter only with extended family members.
Among conversionary households in our study, 7 percent had home Easter celebrations without church, and 15 percent participated in Easter celebrations with extended family. Among inmarried households in our study, 5 percent had some type of Easter celebration.
3. The gender of the Jewish parent is strongly related to the Jewish character of the household in a mixed-married family. Jewish mothers, in general, create much more Jewishly identified mixed-married households than do Jewish fathers.
Jewish women married to non-Jewish men were far more likely to maintain religious and social ties to the Jewish community, to raise their children as Jews, and to incorporate Jewish activities into their homes than were Jewish men married to non-Jewish women.
Among mixed-married study participants, nearly three-quarters of children of Jewish mothers were being raised exclusively as Jews, compared to fewer than half of the children of non-Jewish mothers.
Children were more likely to receive some Jewish education when the mother was Jewish, and among those receiving education, children of Jewish mothers received more intensive forms of Jewish education. Overall rates of Jewish education for children growing up in mixed-married households are much lower than in inmarried or conversionary households.
4. Most Jewish mixed-married participants received little or no guidance from their parents about dating and religion while they were still in high school and living at home. Their parents did not communicate to them an expectation that their dates be Jewish. However, when parents did encourage children to date and marry Jews, their children were much more likely to marry either a born-Jew or a Jew by choice.
Among mixed-married informants, 62 percent said their parents said nothing to them about not marrying outside the faith. In contrast, 62 percent of parents of inmarried couples and 48 percent of parents of conversionary couples said their parents discouraged mixed marriage. A backlash effect of negative reactions to discouragement of mixed marriage was reported in fewer than 5 percent of cases in any category.
5. Most study participants had discussed the religion of the household as soon as they realized their dating situation had the potential to become more serious.
A minority of the participants in this study had waited to discuss religion until after they were married. Discussing religion - and deciding before marriage to raise the children as Jews - had a measurable effect on household activities, including celebrating Jewish holidays, joining a synagogue, and not going to church. Jewish spouses in "raising the children as Jews" households had often issued ultimatums while dating that their households and children "had to be Jewish." Non-Jewish spouses usually acquiesced. When non-Jewish spouses were themselves very religious, some agreed to raise their children as Jews, but insisted that Jewish partners had to learn more and be more Jewishly religious, and to raise their Jewish children in a structured Jewish environment. Other very religious non-Jewish spouses arranged for a dual-religion household.
6. Christian observance is normative in our culture, and mixed-married households that initially try to create exclusively Jewish observances often drift increasingly into Christian activities as time passes. After years of marriage, even in "raising the children as Jews" households that initially relegated Christian activities to the households of extended families, boundaries between Christian and Jewish activities softened and Jewish spouses often agreed to move Christmas and/or Easter festivities into their "Jewish" homes, especially as non-Jewish grandparents aged.
7. Extended-family members exerted an important influence on children growing up in mixed-married households.
Although this influence did not manifest itself primarily in religious areas, it often contributed to the closeness teenagers felt toward one or the other faith tradition. Thus, for example, according to her own report, a Jewish-raised teenager found affection for her Christian aunts made her feel closer to Christianity than to Judaism. In addition, extended-family members often enriched the religious lives of growing children by providing a place where either Jewish or Christian observances could be celebrated more intensively than in the child's own home. Finally, as grandparents aged, religious observances previously celebrated in the home of extended family were often moved into the mixed-married households of study participants.
8. The desire to be "fair" and "balanced" led many Jewish mixed-married spouses to incorporate more Christian observances into their households than they had originally intended.
9. Both Jews and non-Jews tended to describe Jewish activities as "different" or "religious," while they called Christian activities "just cultural" and "fun."
10. Most non-Jewish male or female spouses in mixed marriages expressed negative attitudes toward conversion, and had negative memories about pressure to convert.
11. In contrast, Jews by choice often spoke positively about familial pressure to convert (it made them feel wanted), and glowingly described their spiritual journeys. Clearly, the "success" of a particular strategy depends as much on the subject as on the strategist.
12. Hanukkah and Passover celebrations were almost universal among our mixed-married participating households. Other Jewish holidays were celebrated far less frequently.
Holidays other than Hanukkah and Passover were celebrated in 55 percent of households that were raising all the children as Jews, 28 percent of households raising children as both Christian and Jewish, 22 percent of households that raised some of their children as Jews and some as non-Jews, 14 percent of households raising children as neither Jewish nor Christian, and none of the households raising their children as Christian.
13. Non-Jewish spouses raising Jewish children often later found themselves resenting the fact that they had given up their Christmas and other Christian celebrations.
As their children got older and received Jewish education, some non-Jewish parents had mixed feelings about the children's use of Hebrew and participation in ceremonies that they didn't share.
14. Mixed marriages generally involved somewhat older marriage partners than did inmarriages.
15. Non-Jewish spouses who didn't like organized religion often said they preferred Judaism to Christianity, and didn't mind raising their children as Jews, but looked forward to their children being old enough for them to share their misgivings about organized religion in general.
16. Participants who described familial dysfunctions said they married across religious lines because they were seeking warmth and stability and a different type of family than the one they had grown up in.
Although a minority of participants recalled dysfunctional families of origin, the proportion of problems recalled by mixed-married individuals was dramatically higher than among inmarried individuals. Reports of familial dysfunction of various kinds (cold and distant families, excessive mobility, alcoholism) were higher among mixed-married spouses than other participants in our study. Both non-Jews (31 percent) and Jews (23 percent) who married someone of another faith, and Jews by choice (26 percent), in our study were disproportionately more likely to remember their families of origin as cold than Jews who married each other (7 percent).
Similarly, alcoholism in the family of origin was reported disproportionately by certain participant groups in our study. Seventeen percent of female non-Jews and 4 percent of male non-Jews married to Jews; 25 percent of male and 20 percent of female Jews by choice; and 8 percent of male Jews and 4 percent of female Jews married to non-Jews reported alcoholism in their families of origin. Reports of alcoholism among Jews married to other born-Jews or to Jews by choice were very few.
17. Training does matter. Religious patterns from childhood and the teen years, whether gleaned from formal Jewish education or from information education in the household, tended to be repeated.
Within each cohort, for example, the holidays celebrated in the household of origin tended to be celebrated in the current household, all other things being equal.
18. Jews who had grown up with many Jewish friends during their teen years were much more likely to find at least partially Jewish friendship circles in college.
19. The religion of the current spouse was related to the friends one chose in college.
20. Factors associated with a stronger Jewish profile in mixed-married families:
Couple discussed religion before marriage and agreed to be Jewish.
Woman in family is Jewish.
Jewish family of origin openly advocated on behalf of Jewish dating and marriage.
Jewish family of origin celebrated many Jewish holidays and had some Sabbath observance.
Jewish spouse had many Jewish friends as a teenager and in college.
Jewish spouse received several years of formal Jewish education.
Factors associated with a more Christian profile in mixed-married families:
Couple discussed religion before marriage and decided that neither one was religious, OR decided to have a Christian household, OR didn't discuss religion before marriage.
Woman in family is not Jewish.
Jewish family of origin did not advocate on behalf of Jewish dating and marriage.
Jewish family of origin did not celebrate many Jewish holidays, and had no Sabbath observance.
Jewish spouse had mixed or mostly non-Jewish friends as a teenager and in college.
Jewish spouse had little or no formal Jewish education.
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