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February 17, 2017 by Keren McGinity
Born to two Jewish parents, I have enjoyed the privilege of engaging with Judaism in whatever way I see fit. It wasn’t until I took a non-Jewish surname that my Jewish identity was ever truly questioned. Upon learning that I’d married the name McGinity (and kept it after I divorced), people usually shrugged their shoulders as if to say: “Well, you’re still Jewish and your children will be, too.” Wow. If coming out of a Jewish womb is all it takes to be Jewish then perhaps I should identify as a Jew-by-chance. Just as I explain that I was born in Madrid because my parents happened to be living in Spain at the time, my being Jewish and my daughter’s being Jewish seem likewise unintentional. This inadvertent byproduct is the legacy called matrilineal descent.
Jewish women have the advantage, provided they are biologically endowed, with having the right womb. If they intermarry, as many non-Orthodox Jews do today, they can join synagogues where their children will be deemed sufficiently Jewish to become bar or bat mitzvah without any additional measures necessary. Not so for intermarried Jewish men whose wives lack the Jewish womb. Is it any wonder, then, that intermarried Jewish men are currently less likely to raise children to identify as Jewish than are intermarried Jewish women? (It is also worth noting that this fixation around wombs is both cisnormative and heteronormative.)
According to Pew Research Center, among all U.S. adults who have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, 40 percent identify as Jewish compared to 47 percent who have a Jewish mother but not a Jewish father. Ironic as it may seem given male privilege, the cards are actually stacked against Jewish men who intermarry and, unfortunately, their children and grandchildren.
Daniel Ackerman (not his real name) learned, when he was already married and had children, that his paternal grandparents had been Jewish. His Jewish father had never shared his Jewish background with him. Inspired by this mid-life discovery, Daniel converted to Judaism, followed by his wife and, some years later, their daughter. All found their way “home,” forward or back to Judaism by formally choosing the Jewish identifier. This may not have been necessary had there not been the cultural romancing of the Jewish womb; the issue would not have arisen had his Jewish forebear been the mother not the father. The children of intermarried men sometimes go to great lengths to prove their commitment to Judaism—exerting far greater effort than the children of two Jewish parents or of intermarried born-Jewish mothers.
Patrilineal Jews, a phrase that I hope will find its way out of usage in the not too distant future, flattens the experience of hundreds of thousands of Jews who are otherwise indistinguishable from other Jews. It creates a false binary between those who are born to (intermarried) Jewish women and those born to (intermarried) Jewish men, just as “Jew by choice” reinforces a false binary between those who seemingly choose Judaism as if completely autonomously, when in fact there can be many contributing factors, and those born Jewish seemingly without any agency of their own to be and do Jewish.
Americans, not just Jews, from mixed religious backgrounds are more likely to adopt their mother’s religion—48 percent to 28 percent. (Twenty-four percent adopt neither.) American mothers of children with mixed religious backgrounds are also more responsible for religious upbringing, 59 percent to 35 percent. In other words, the inequality in responsibility for religious upbringing and identification is an American phenomenon. The acceptance by the Reconstructionist and Reform Movements in 1968 and 1983 respectively of what is referred to in Jewish circles as patrilineal descent, has had little bearing on intermarried Jews’ lives and even less influence on changing public perception about who is Jewish. “You’re Jewish if your mom is Jewish” has a tenacious hold on American Jewish culture’s social construction of Jewish identity.
Jewish fatherhood needs a makeover. Enabling intermarried Jewish men, along with all American men, to better integrate work and family is a feminist goal, and reaching it will benefit intermarried Jewish families. Encouraging men of all denominational stripes to invest in raising Jewish children is not about men getting in touch with their feminine side. It is about acknowledging that while American men contribute more at home than they did in years past, they still do far less than women on the domestic front. It also requires confronting the reality that intermarried Jewish men have been shortchanged in the realm of domestic Judaism, sometimes inadvertently ousted by their wives, who pick up the slack, and neglected by a Jewish community that erroneously assumed they did not come back after becoming b’nai mitzvah because their Jewishness was unimportant to them or because women were present. The decline in male participation that critics chalk up to a “feminization of Judaism” is not because of women’s increasing role in the rabbinate or the synagogue social hall, but because Jewish life has not yet adapted to men’s changing needs. While the labor market evolved to allow women in, there has not been a mass exodus of men from it, because the marketplace continues to fulfill their expectations in the form of salaries and benefits. The currency is less tangible, however, when it comes to Jewish family life.
Redefining Jewish fatherhood will not only create happier intermarried Jewish families; it will also ensure Jewish continuity and eliminate a sex-gender system based on inequality, creating room for one that is truly socially advanced. The new model of Jewish identity and fatherhood that emerges will include active involvement in the day-to-day responsibility of parenting Jewish offspring that happens in the home as well as in the synagogue or Jewish community center. Just as important, however, it will encourage Jewish men to incorporate fathering into their Jewish identities as contributing parts of their inner essence, just as it is for Jewish mothers. When that happens, a new psychological process will reproduce neither motherhood nor fatherhood, allowing instead for equal parenthood to empower all sexes and, subsequently, their offspring.
Practically speaking, a womb is a womb is a womb. In other words, if non-Orthodox Jews across the spectrum of Judaism could stop romanticizing the Jewish womb and break free of the matrilineal-patrilineal descent dichotomy, we could focus instead on what really makes someone Jewish that extends beyond religious belief and cultural heritage to education, experience, beliefs and behavior. If descent was no longer at the center of whether someone is Jewish from birth or has to “choose” it to be fully Jewish, energy could be directed at egalitarian Jewish parenting. This kind of parenting would strengthen Jewish peoplehood and contribute to transforming Judaism for the modern family by emphasizing how both parents wield influence over Jewish identity building.
Intermarried Jewish men can raise Jewish children equally effectively as intermarried Jewish women, provided they understand that it is their responsibility to do so, ideally in partnership with their spouses, and that their effort is valued. Jewish men can become the Jewish role models in their families, even if their own fathers were not. For example, intermarried Jewish men can light Shabbat candles, read Jewish bedtime stories, and transmit their love of Jewish culture to their offspring. For children of Jewish fathers to become as strongly identified Jewishly as children of Jewish mothers requires a real cultural shift in how we communicate about identity and think about meaningful engagement with Judaism. By making identity an equal opportunity between sexes, Jews can lead the way in illustrating that a man’s job is in the nursery just as a woman’s job is in the boardroom.
Keren R. McGinity is the inaugural director of the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement program at Hebrew College’s Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education and the founding director of the Love & Tradition Institute. She is the author of Still Jewish: A History of Women & Intermarriage in America (NYU Press, 2009) and Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood (Indiana University Press, 2014).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.