Thirty years ago, Jews were considered the most endogamous ethnic group in the United States; in the early 1960s, less than 11 percent of Jews who married chose non-Jewish spouses. But the authoritative 1990 study of North American Jews by the Council of Jewish Federations found that, since 1985, just over half of Jews who marry wed non-Jews (the study didn’t look at partners who don’t or can’t legally marry), and that less than one-third of the children of interfaith marriages are being raised as Jews. In addition, affiliation with synagogues and Jewish organizations is down to 40 percent, an all-time low. According to the survey’s analysts, “The current pattern probably means that there will be net losses to the . . . Jewish population in the next generation.”
These numbers sent shock waves through the American Jewish community, with a flurry of articles appearing in both the Jewish and the mainstream press; “Troubling Times for U.S. Jews,” “Holiday Season Tests Beliefs for Interfaith Marriages,” “Intermarriage Seen by Some Jews as Threat of Being ‘Loved to Death.'”
But the news isn’t all bad. Yes, over 50 percent of us are marrying out, but what about the rest, the ones who are choosing “in?” LILITH decided to talk with Jews who have already committed to Jewish partners (or who are orienting themselves to do so). In the midst of a highly assimilated world, many share an increased awareness of the complexities of interfaith coupling and partner choice.
Who are these Jews who choose Jews? How has it happened that they arrived at endogamy—was it accidental or deliberate? Was it an unconscious choice that, in retrospect, seemed conscious after all? Have the intermarriage statistics themselves had an effect on dating/mating patterns?
What are the factors involved in finding a partner who is either Jewish or not? We may choose “out” simply because we choose an individual who happens not to be Jewish, or we may choose out as a means of escaping a family to which we feel overly bound. We may choose “in” because we seek a romantic partner who reflects our early love relationships, and with whom we feel “at home,” or of whom we know our parents (or grandparents) would approve.
Developmental stages likewise play a role: Many of us make the decision to become partnered in our early twenties, when we’re in an early stage of separation from our families— some of these choices are reactive. Some of us are entirely present-oriented (“It never occurred to me that Brendan would not only be my partner, but the father of our children; I didn’t think about life after 29.”) Sometimes later on in our lives, when our relationships with our parents have changed, and we’ve maybe reconnected with Jewish life, we find ourselves faced with unexpected consequences in relation to our earlier choices.
All of this is not to say that there’s a right and a wrong way. Choosing a non-Jewish partner, for example, does not necessarily mean leaving Jewish life. As one informant in an interfaith marriage told LILITH, “It’s ironic, because my husband and I lead a much “Jewisher” life than do my siblings who married Jews. We belong to a shut—they don’t—and we send our kids to Hebrew school. We have an active Jewish life, and it’s not just out of guilt. Whereas perhaps my siblings and their partners just “assume” that they’re Jewish, my husband and I feel that we need to really make a choice, and to define our lives around it.”
What follow are the experiences of eight Jewish women who have chosen (or plan to choose) Jewish partners. Culled from several dozen, their voices, honest, insightful and funny, speak to real experiences with love and attachment.
Rachel Altman is a writer who lives in Southern California. She is at work on a novel based on her family’s memoirs.