Commentary Magazine

Intermarriage & the Jewish Future

American Jews have always had a reputation for resisting intermarriage, and they still serve as a model in this respect for other ethnic and religious groups who worry about their future in a pluralist society. Just as the Jewish alcoholic or juvenile delinquent is thought to be a rare exception, so the Jewish son who brings home a Gentile bride is generally considered a sport. Within the Jewish community itself, the danger of intermarriage is always felt to be there, of course, but the prevailing attitude—even among those who are knowledgeable about Jewish matters or professionally concerned with Jewish welfare—is that the threat of the problem has been surprisingly well contained in America.

One result of this complacency is that the Jewish agencies have sponsored or conducted practically no research in the area of intermarriage. Social planning agencies have extensively investigated other community problems as a matter of course—the needs of the aged, the convalescent, the refugee, the maladjusted family, etc.—and the defense agencies have examined anti-Semitism from diverse angles, ranging from studies of the personality of the active bigot to investigations of attitudes toward Jews in rural counties where there are no Jews, merely “images” of them. By contrast, what little hard data we have on the subject of intermarriage comes mainly from the work of independent scholars (often as a by-product of broader projects), and not from the research facilities of the official community.

This surprising lack of interest in a matter more crucial to Jewish survival than any other is not, of course, wholly the product of faith in intuition or of wishful thinking. Actually, the small measure of relevant research that was done in the past has tended to reinforce complacency. The earliest study of intermarriage was Julius Drachsler’s Democracy and Assimilation, which received a good deal of attention at the time of its publication in 1920. On the basis of an examination of about 100,000 marriage licenses issued in New York City between 1908 and 1912, Drachsler found that of all white groups in the city, the Jews were least prone to marry outsiders. The Jewish intermarriage rate of 1.17 per cent was scarcely higher than that of interracial marriages among Negroes, and Drachsler bracketed the two together as a “low-ratio group,” as opposed to the “middle-ratio” groups (Italians and Irish) and the “high-ratio” groups (English, Germans, Swedes, and others).

A second investigation that was influential in confirming the Jewish reputation for endogamy was conducted in New Haven by Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy. Published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1944 (a follow-up article appeared in 1952), the Kennedy study was to reach a wide audience through Will Herberg’s extensive use of it in Protestant-Catholic-Jew. Kennedy’s conclusions were in close keeping with those of Drachsler. She found that for all the years investigated—1870, 1900, 1930, and 1940—Jews had the lowest intermarriage rate in the city. The Italians were the only ethnic group which approached them in endogamy, and even their rate of intermarriage was several times higher.

All this must have seemed impressive evidence to the leaders of the Jewish community, just as it did—and does—to the scholars themselves. For example, the most recent sociological investigation of American-Jewish life, C. B. Sherman’s The Jew within American Society, continues to take a highly optimistic view of the intermarriage problem. Comparing newer statistics with those collected by Drachsler, Sherman remarks that “considering the degree of acculturation to which the Jewish community has attained during the period, the surprise is not that the increase has been so big, but that it has been so small.” Much the same point is made by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan in Beyond the Melting Pot. Commenting on the Kennedy study, the authors note that the persisting pattern of endogamy “sharply distinguishes the Jews of the United States from those of other countries in which Jews have achieved wealth and social position, such as Holland, Germany, Austria, and Hungary in the twenties. There the intermarriage rates were phenomenally high.”1

But even more influential, perhaps, than the Drachsler and Kennedy studies in establishing the Jewish reputation for continued endogamy was a report by the Bureau of the Census based on its Current Population Survey of March 1957 (the only such survey to include a question on religion). In its sample of 35,000 households, the Bureau found that only 7.2 per cent of the husbands or wives of Jews were of a different faith. The comparable figure for Protestants was 8.6 per cent, and for Catholics it was 21.6 per cent.

These statistics gave many people within the Jewish community reason to believe that the Jews were still doing quite well: after all, the Catholics, who had made a much more conscious effort than Jews to foster separatism, were faced with an intermarriage rate that was almost three times as high. Moreover, the Jewish rate was all the more heartening in view of the absolute size of the group and the insignificant percentage it comprised of the population as a whole. In his annual review of demographic data in the 1959 American Jewish Year Book, Alvin Chenkin, statistician for the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, described 7.2 as a “nominal” percentage; if marital selection had taken place entirely at random, Chenkin pointed out, the Jewish intermarriage rate would have approached 98 per cent.

Since the 7.2 figure has become the most widely quoted statistic in recent discussions of intermarriage and currently provides the main source of reassurance in the Jewish community, it is worth taking a closer look at what it actually means. Quite apart from whether comparisons in this area between majority and minority groups are valid at all (a case could be made that they are not), there remains the fact that almost everyone who has cited the figure has failed to heed the Bureau’s caveat that its statistics on intermarriage were probably subject to a larger margin of error than would result from normal sampling variation. (In an unusual aside, the Bureau noted that while it had told its personnel not to assume the same religion for all members of a given family and directed them to ask about each adult member of a household separately, some interviewers might have overlooked this instruction.)

Other implications of the 7.2 per cent figure have also been ignored. No one has bothered to relate it, for instance, to the well-known fact that considerably more Jewish men intermarry than do Jewish women (at least seven out of every ten Jews who intermarry are men), so that as a consequence some Jewish women must either marry Gentiles or remain single. Spinsterhood does not, to be sure, affect the intermarriage rate, but it does influence another crucial demographic factor: the birth-rate. Nor is this the only indirect consequence of intermarriage. For example, all other things being equal, the smaller the size of any group, the higher will be its rate of intermarriage; or to put it the other way around, the higher the proportion of the minority to the total population, the smaller will be the impact of “randomization” upon it. Thus, since the general population in the United States is growing, the Jewish population must also grow in order to escape further attrition by randomization. Should the size of the Jewish population only remain constant, the group’s intermarriage rate would inevitably rise.

However, the most crucial point which has been generally overlooked in evaluating the 7.2 figure is that it represented the ratio of intermarried to inmarried couples and not the current rate of intermarriage among Jews. The statistic, in other words, was cumulative—included were people who had taken their vows in Czarist Russia where intermarriage was forbidden, as well as people who had married in the United States; people belonging to the virtually closed community of the immigrant generation, as well as people living in the wide world of the fourth generation. The current rate, then, may well be at least double that of the Bureau’s cumulative ratio. And even the cumulative ratio is bound to soar in the decades ahead with the thinning-out of the ranks of those who are presently keeping it down—first-and second-generation Jews.

In short, the grounds for the American Jewish community’s optimism are by no means as firm as they have been assumed to be by laymen and sociologists alike. Interestingly enough, the present state of Jewish endogamy seems to have been grasped more firmly by the novelists than by the sociologists. Even a hasty run-down of the work of such writers as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Leslie Fiedler, Bruce Jay Friedman, Herbert Gold, Jack Ludwig, Myron Kaufmann, Neal Oxenhandler, etc., reveals how much recent American fiction has dealt with marriage or the strong possibility of it between a Jew and a Gentile. That the stance taken toward the question, moreover, is usually not in the least militant or didactic is significant evidence that among those who might be expected to be in closest touch with the climate of the times, the high incidence of intermarriage is no longer a matter of controversy.



Within the organized Jewish community itself, the publication last year in the American Jewish Year Book of Erich Rosenthal’s article “Studies of Jewish Intermarriage in the United States,” is one of the first signs that this community may at last be preparing to recognize that a problem does exist.2 (In the sixty-three previous volumes of the Year Book, the subject was dealt with only once—in a brief two pages.)

In his pioneering study, Rosenthal provides a sophisticated analysis of statistical data concerning intermarriage in the state of Iowa and in the city of Washington, D.C. According to Rosenthal’s findings, during the years 1953-59, only 57.8 per cent of the marriage licenses applied for by Jews in Iowa listed both applicants as Jewish. (Iowa and Indiana are the two jurisdictions in the United States where the marriage-license form includes a query on religion.) Religion, then, still plays a role in the marital choices of Iowa Jews—42.2 per cent, after all, represents a far smaller intermarriage rate than would be produced by randomization. Nevertheless, as Rosenthal suggests, unless the figure drops sharply in the future, the final chapter in the history of Iowa’s Jewish community will have been reached by the end of this century.

Of course, the current situation in Des Moines, Davenport, and other Iowa communities is not an accurate reflection of what is happening in the major cities and their suburbs, where the great majority of American Jews still live. But at the very least this section of Rosenthal’s study does point up the fact that the problem is most critical where the Jewish population is small both in absolute and relative terms. Moreover, in the other section of his study, Rosenthal reminds us that even in a middle-sized Jewish community like that of Washington, D.C. (with 81,000 members it ranks as the seventh largest Jewish community in the nation), the cumulative ratio is now almost twice the. Census Bureau’s figure. And since a significant segment of the Jewish population resides in communities of this size, the problem of Jewish survival there cannot be shrugged off as one might be tempted to do with the problem in Iowa.

Rosenthal utilizes a 1956 survey of Washington’s Jewish population which was unusually resourceful in locating the unaffiliated Jew. Although the issue of intermarriage was of secondary interest in the design of the study, it was found that in 13.1 per cent of the households including a married Jew, either the husband or wife was Gentile. This percentage is probably somewhat higher than the average for middle-sized Jewish communities—Washington’s Jews not being known for the intensity of their Jewish commitment. But that does not really modify the import of the figure, particularly since there is reason to believe that the current rate of intermarriage in Washington substantially exceeds 13.1 per cent. Rosenthal himself does not offer a current rate, but he does provide tabulations on the rate for successive generations: 1.4 per cent for the first generation; 10.2 per cent for the second; and 17.9 per cent for the third. Since it can be assumed that the great majority of Washington’s Jews who are marrying in 1964 belong to the third generation, the 17.9 figure is probably very close to the current rate.

Besides offering a sharp corrective to Jewish complacency about the rate of intermarriage today, these statistics provide an occasion for calling into question a good many dated notions about the psychological and social conditions under which intermarriage now takes place. One traditional view, for example, holds that the Jew who marries a Gentile often does so to escape the social disabilities of being Jewish (the prototype here is someone like August Belmont). Though this motive was no doubt decisive in the marital choices of a fair number of mobile, nouveaux-riches, or socially ambitious Jews of an earlier period, it seems to have much less force in the present age when many traditional status distinctions are being swept away and the old-time social arbiters are becoming increasingly ineffective. And as the hospital boards, country clubs, suburbs, and corporations that were once the exclusive preserve of the Protestant upper class become more democratic in their admission policies, we can expect that this reason for intermarriage will become even less significant. One can already observe from Rosenthal’s data on Iowa that social-climbing is probably not an important element in intermarriage in that state. Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians comprise the three largest Protestant denominations in Iowa, in that order, and in the marriages contracted between Jewish men and Protestant women these three denominations rank in the same order; furthermore, Iowa Jews marry into the plainspun society of the Baptists about as frequently as they do into the prestigious milieu of the Episcopalians. Such inferences are, of course, less than precise, but it seems clear that if social climbing were a leading cause of intermarriage, Jewish men in Iowa would ignore many of the girls they choose to marry.



Along with the habit of interpreting intermarriage as a form of status-seeking, there is still a tendency to view it as a form of escape from the burdens of Jewishness and the harassments of anti-Semitism—as, in short, the most effective method of assimilation. This explanation, too, undoubtedly had some relevance at an earlier period in American Jewish history (though never nearly as much as it did among European Jewry), but it is increasingly beside the point at a time when the penalties and risks of being Jewish are obviously on the wane. Indeed, if intermarriage were a response to the threat of anti-Semitism, particularly in a state as remote from the scenes and memories of Jewish persecution as Iowa is, there should currently be less, rather than more, of it.

Other standard explanations of intermarriage take psychological rather than social factors as the governing ones, finding the source of the impulse to intermarriage not in the confrontation of the Jew with Gentile society, but in the early relationship between parent and child. Serious conflicts at this stage—so the notion goes—will be expressed later on in the attempt by the child to avoid a marital pattern similar to that of his parents. In its more simplistic form, this theory holds that marriage to an outsider is a gesture of hostility toward the parents, the point being to rob them of the pleasure they would obtain from a “suitable” match, shame them before relatives and friends, and deprive them finally of the consolation of Jewish grandchildren. The more complex form of the same theory regards intermarriage as part of a syndrome of general revolt from the mores and aspirations of the parents, often manifesting itself in bohemianism, political radicalism, or other types of identification with socially alienated and/or dissident groups.

But were this theory particularly pertinent, one would expect Jewish-Gentile marriages to be most prevalent in the second generation, where the trauma of acculturation was most decisively experienced and the generational conflict was at its most intense. However, intermarriage rates, as we have already noted, are clearly higher in the third generation; and in addition, as we shall soon see, Jewish-Gentile marriages are particularly prevalent among certain Jewish groups who are very much at home in the culture.

At best, the existence of a correlation between childhood conflicts and marital, choices is easier to assume than it is to demonstrate. In analyzing the data on intermarriage contained in the recent “Midtown Manhattan Study”3 the sociologist Jerold Heiss began with the standard idea that those whose early family life showed marked signs of disruption or had otherwise been unsatisfactory would be more likely to intermarry than those with relatively stable childhoods. But he discovered that this idea could not be sustained. The family backgrounds of the exogamous Jews in the study were not exceptional in terms of conflict, and actually showed fewer cases of parental divorce, separation, and desertion than did the backgrounds of the endogamous Jews surveyed.



In attempting to revise traditional perspectives on the causes of intermarriage, one is even more hampered by the scarcity of research that has been done into the sociological and psychological aspects of the problem than in trying to determine the current rate of intermarriage. The few studies and essays allowing one to draw certain limited inferences about the personal motives and social context that foster exogamy happen to involve professional groups—mainly in the academy—which are marginal to the community life of American Jewry. Therefore, one cannot regard these findings as telling us anything definitive about the “typical” behavior of American Jews who choose to marry outside the faith. On the other hand, there is good reason not to discount them altogether, since most of the people concerned are Jews who grew up in metropolitan Jewish communities, who lead fairly conventional lives, and who practice highly respected professions. It should also be borne in mind that as writers, teachers, scientists, psychoanalysts, and so forth, they serve as models to their younger contemporaries who in increasing numbers are forsaking the Jewish business and community ties of their parents’ generation and seeking careers in the professions. Thus, the influence of, say, the exogamous college teacher in legitimizing intermarriage can far outweigh the fact that his importance is statistically very small in relation to the total Jewish population.

According to a recent study conducted by Rabbi Henry Cohen, approximately 20 per cent of the Jewish faculty members at the University of Illinois—well over twice the national average—are married to Gentile women. This is a significant figure because Illinois has a reputation for academic and social conservatism, being neither particularly adventurous in its curriculum nor particularly “highbrow” in its faculty. We can therefore assume that the pattern here is more typical than it would be at experimental colleges like Antioch or Reed, or fashionable universities like Yale or Chicago. There is also a comparatively large Jewish student body on the Illinois campus; in contrast to a college such as Swarthmore, for example—which has been described as an “intermarriage mill”—the University of Illinois is a favorite choice of Midwestern parents eager to avoid this peril. (In fact, it was on the Illinois campus that America’s first Hillel Foundation was established some forty years ago.)

The Jewish population of Champaign-Urbana numbers about 250 families, which are almost equally divided between town and gown. One of Rabbi Cohen’s most suggestive findings on intermarriage was the unexpected disparity between the 20 per cent ratio for the faculty members and a 6.5 per cent ratio for the Jewish townspeople. The contrast between town and gown is even more striking in view of the respective family backgrounds of both groups, which, if anything, would have led one to expect their respective intermarriage rates to be reversed. Most of the Jewish faculty members (chiefly mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, and sociologists) arrived in Champaign-Urbana during the last few years; they are mainly sons of East European immigrants and grew up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods; almost all described their parents as affiliated with either Orthodox or Conservative synagogues. The townspeople, on the other hand—chiefly manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and professionals—include a group descended from “old” German-Jewish families who are firmly rooted in the community and whose predominant background is Reform.

What lies behind the disparity in the intermarriage rates of these two groups? Rabbi Cohen points out that many of the Jewish teachers and researchers at the University of Illinois (and presumably the overwhelming majority of the intermarried couples) hold to a point of view—“Academic Commitment” he calls it—which fulfills a function analogous to that of religious faith:

How many aspects of religious faith and fellowship we find in the Academic Commitment! There is the dominant philosophy of naturalism. Its method is scientific; its faith, that all being can be explained in terms of a single order of efficient causation in which a supernatural Deity has no place; its morality, the ideals of humanism rooted in finite human experience; its messianic hope, that man—through understanding the consequences of his actions—can build a better world.

As against the case of the Gentile society of Champaign-Urbana, there are a number of Gentile academicians on the Illinois campus who do not consider affiliation with a religious institution to be a necessary sign of respectability. Furthermore, Jewish life in Champaign-Urbana—ethnic, religious, or cultural—depends largely on the town community, most of whose members are attached in one way or another to Jewish organizations. The academicians, on the other hand, range, according to Rabbi Cohen, from “the strongly identified who are trying to preserve Jewish culture in a Midwestern cornfield [to] the cosmopolite who feels that there are enough barriers between people . . . without the clannishness of the Jews.” Once the memories of Jewish culture become vague, he writes, the town Jew can still find reasons to remain within the fold; he retains a latent supernatural faith, and the larger community expects him to be Jewish. By contrast, once the faculty Jew ceases to find meaning in the ethnic fellowship or the folkways, he has neither traditional belief nor strong social pressure to help him maintain his commitment.



If intermarriage among academicians on a campus as conservative as the University of Illinois is so high, it should not surprise us that there are cities with larger and more active Jewish communities where intermarriage rates among special segments of the Jewish population are even higher. New Haven is a good example. Champaign-Urbana has many Jewish physicians, but New Haven also has a fairly substantial group of psychoanalysts. In a study which appeared several year ago under the title Social Class and Mental Illness: A Community Study, A. B. Hollingshead and Frederick C. Redlich studied the therapists as well as the patients. They found that 83 per cent of New Haven analysts “came from Jewish homes,” and of these some 64 per cent were intermarried. This startling figure exceeds even the current level of the geographically isolated Jewish community of Iowa, and is, of course, many times higher than the general rate in New Haven itself. What accounts for such a high rate of intermarriage among individuals who, like their counterparts in Illinois, were born and raised in communities thickly settled by Jews, whose families were active in Jewish affairs, and who practice a profession second only to the rabbinate in its proportion to Jews? One answer is suggested by Redlich and Hollingshead who point out that the great majority of the New Haven analysts “consider themselves representatives of classical psychoanalysis; when the discussion turns in that direction they look down their classical analytical noses at their colleagues who have a Jungian, Horneyan or Sullivanian orientation.” Thus the psychoanalysts, of New Haven have an even more sharply defined, “commitment” than the academicians of Champaign-Urbana (so much so that they maintain virtually no contact with their psychiatrist colleagues in New Haven who are directive or organic in orientation), and this professional commitment probably is as binding as that of the Illinois professors.

In our context, perhaps the most interesting fact to emerge from the New Haven study is that apart from marital choice and the lack of religious affiliation, the analysts do not appear to be alienated in any profound sense from the culture in which they live. Far from exhibiting any left-wing political beliefs and sympathies, they tend toward the attitudes of the old-fashioned American who started from humble beginnings and achieved success as a result of hard work. Living in the best residential areas of New Haven, enjoying high incomes which they have earned (unlike many Protestants in the same area) “largely through their own efforts and abilities,” their individual social mobility has been such that 73 per cent of them have won a higher station in life than their fathers, 79 per cent have surpassed their brothers-in-law, and 83 per cent have outdistanced their brothers.

Their essential conformity to middle-class ideals is nowhere better shown than in their attitude to their children’s education. While denying any desire to impose their own values upon their offspring, their typical response to the question “How much education do you want for your children?” was: “As much as they want; college is the minimum.” On the whole, they have no contact with Jewish life, yet as Hollingshead and Redlich put it: “Doubt and confusion is apparent in their response on how they would like to have their children trained religiously.” Presumably the rate of intermarriage among the children of these analysts will be very high, although the children’s motives will obviously be different from those which led their fathers to intermarry. But even where both parents are Jewish, there will no doubt be a high rate of intermarriage among the children in this group.

Thus far we have concentrated on the behavior of the Jew in relation to intermarriage, but perhaps the newest factor in the situation is the change in the position of the Gentile. Once we shift our focus to the Gentile, it becomes evident that intermarriage is increasing not only because the Jew is moving out into the general society, but also because the tastes, ideas, cultural preferences, and life-styles preferred by many Jews are more and more coming to be shared by non-Jews. In the Herzl Institute volume referred to above, this process is commented upon by Richard Rubenstein, a well-known Hillel rabbi currently at the University of Pittsburgh. As Rubenstein sees it, in the course of “emancipating” themselves, many of the bright middle-class Gentile girls who attend the better colleges are attracted by the political liberalism characteristic of Jewish students or by their equally characteristic avant-gardism in intellectual and aesthetic matters. To the allure of the “Jewish” cultural, style is added the fact that Jews are in, but still not completely of, the society. In other words, where Jewish alienation used to inhibit contact with Gentiles (several decades ago, the heavily Jewish radical movements on the college campuses experienced considerable difficulty in appealing to the rest of the student body), it now operates in a subtle way to foster them. For, as Rabbi Rubenstein says, it is precisely this delicate balance between acceptance and marginality which is sought after by girls who do not want Bohemian husbands but rather respectable ones who are somewhat “different.” In addition, the marked rise in egalitarianism on the college campuses following World War II has done much to promote a climate in which dating, and in some cases marrying, outside one’s social group is no longer regarded as deviant behavior, and on the more “advanced” campuses even confers some degree of status. And finally, these changes in the social atmosphere of the college community run parallel, to developments in the occupational, world, for to a greater extent than ever before, Jews are now working with Gentiles as colleagues instead of serving them as merchants or free professionals.



What all this suggests is that the old notions about the causes of intermarriage are beginning to look as outmoded as the causes themselves. Both on the folk level and in more sophisticated terms, these notions invariably involved the imputation of some defect in the contracting parties. If a Gentile girl agreed to marry a Jew, it must be because no Christian would have her, or because she had made herself sexually available as no Jewish girl would deign to do. Similarly, if a Jewish man married a Gentile girl, it must be because no Jewish girl would have him, or because he was a self-hater or a social climber. Whatever their applicability to individual cases, it takes no great insight to realize that approaches like these—which stress the deviancy and inferiority of the person who intermarries—serve the dual function of reinforcing the practice of endogamy and allaying fears about the threat of intermarriage. By impugning the motives of exogamous Jews, or by attributing them to dark forces outside the Jewish community, the challenge that intermarriage poses to the prevailing values of the group is vanquished—at least for the moment. The difficulty, however, is that these assumptions of pathology—social or personal—no longer explain either the rate or the reasons for exogamy among Jews. This is not to say that intermarriage can already be considered a Routine phenomenon and that the motives which impel Jews to choose Gentile mates are basically no different from those which lead them to marry Jews. Nevertheless, from the evidence that has begun to accumulate, it is becoming impossible to view intermarriage as an indication either of personal, aberration or of social persecution. In a recent study of middle-class intermarried couples residing in the Boston area, Maria and Daniel Levinson conclude that:

intermarriage is not . . . a unitary phenomenon. It occurs under a variety of psychological and social conditions and has varying consequences. Psychologically it is not purely a neurotic manifestation, although neurotic motives may enter to varying degrees. Nor is it to be seen solely as an “escape” from the Jewish group or as a means of securing social or financial gain, although motives of this kind play a part in some cases.

Heiss’s analysis of the Midtown Study supports this conclusion. Surveying the mental-health rating assigned each respondent by a board of psychiatrists, he found that there was no significant difference between the mean rating achieved by those who had intermarried and those who had not.

It is precisely the “healthy” modern intermarriages which raise the most troubling questions of all to the Jewish community in general, and Jewish parents in particular. When his child intermarries, the Jewish parent guiltily feels that in some way he must be responsible. Yet how is he to oppose the match? Chances are that he believes that love is the basis of marriage, that marriage is the uniting of two individuals rather than two families, and that the final determination of a mate is his child’s prerogative. This complex of ideas (which constitutes a radical departure from the norm, if not always the practice, of traditional Jewish society) came to be embraced by some of the more advanced members of the first generation in America, by a majority of the second generation, and by an overwhelming proportion of the third. How then can the parent ask his child to renounce what he himself believes in? Moreover, the liberalism of the Jewish parent—his commitment to the idea of equality and his belief in the transitory character of the differences which distinguish people from one another—serves to subvert his sense of moral rectitude in opposing intermarriage. For if he is at all in the habit of personal candor, he must ask himself if the Gentile is any less worthy of the Jew than the Jew is of the Gentile.

The second-generation parent or adviser usually manages to escape this dilemma by falling back on the argument of happiness. Experience, he will say, is the best teacher, and what it teaches is that intermarriage seldom works out well. And he will cite figures to show that exogamous couples have higher divorce rates than those who marry within the fold. Thus the need to confront the painful, contradictions in his own position is evaded, and he can oppose his child’s intermarriage with a good conscience.



In the writings of such founding fathers of the contemporary American Jewish community as Isaac Mayer Wise or Solomon Schechter, the assumption is that Jewish survival is entirely possible in a free society. But having finally established themselves in such a society, Jews are now coming to realize that their survival is still threatened—not by Gentile hostility but by Jewish indifference. This is what finally makes intermarriage so bitter a dilemma to confront. On the one hand, it signifies the fulfillment of the Jews’ demand for acceptance as an individual—a demand he has been making since the Emancipation; on the other hand, it signifies a weakening of Jewish commitment. In short, it casts into doubt American Jewry’s dual ideal of full participation in the society and the preservation of Jewish identity. And once the rate of intermarriage is seen to be growing, the contradiction in the basic strategy of American-Jewish adjustment is nakedly exposed.

As the horns of this dilemma sharpen and press closer, the very least one can hope from the Jewish community is that it will eventually surrender the cherished diagnoses and nostrums that have come to obfuscate the true nature of the problem. A more realistic confrontation is necessary, and that requires a much larger body of research than we now possess on the current rate of intermarriage in the country as a whole. It also requires much more information about the Jews who intermarry and about the causes and consequences of their doing so. So, too, there is a need for studies to evaluate the various methods in use to combat intermarriage, particularly those involving Jewish education. And demographic research will have to be done at regular intervals so that a reliable trend line can be established.

A candid and pertinent discussion of intermarriage will also require a more critical examination of Jewish attitudes than we have had in the past. One immediately thinks of the issue of conversion, which many Jews seem to regard as a token, last-gap measure in a developing process of assimilation; but is it? There is also the obvious, but usually ignored, problem of birth-rate. One reason why a rising rate of intermarriage is of such pressing significance is that the birth-rate of native-born Jews has been so low. (This, in part, is why comparisons between Jewish and Catholic intermarriage rates have helped to confound rather than clarify the issue.) If a greater proportion of second-generation Jewish parents had permitted themselves to have even three children rather than one or two, the present situation would be far more hopeful so far as Jewish survival is concerned. But the fact is that the fertility rate of the second generation dropped catastrophically, and with hardly a word of discussion about it among Jewish leaders. Reform and Conservative rabbis decided, for all practical purposes, to exempt the question of contraception from the area of the sacred, implying that a decision about family size was of strictly private concern. Orthodox spokesmen were not prepared to go this far in the direction of secularization, but they preferred to concentrate on other issues such as maintaining the practice of kashruth.

The threat posed by intermarriage may change all this, and there is a possibility that it will also change the way most Jews think about their Jewish responsibilities. Typically, the American-Jewish notion has been that to be a good Jew means doing something for some other Jew; it means, in short, philanthropy. As the problem of intermarriage grows in urgency, however, the Jewish community in America will for the first time have to face an issue which is highly personal—almost anti-philanthropic—in character. And if the emphasis on philanthropic activism has allowed American Jews to avoid confronting the stark question: “What do you stand for when you wish to remain separate?”—the defense against intermarriage will necessarily involve a coming to terms, sooner or later, with what one is defending.

As the evidence accumulates that Jewish survival in America literally depends upon each individual Jew—and in an entirely different way than it did in the past—the answer to the question, “What do you stand for when you remain separate?” may well demand the development of a new consciousness in the community. This will not be the first time in history that social conditions have impelled a people to philosophical discussion and involvement. If the problem of intermarriage should engender such a consciousness—the kind which has been foreign to the activism of American Jewry—it will have had a positive effect on the quality of Jewish life. If it does not, the negative consequences are indeed ominous to contemplate.


1 According to the statistics of Arthur Ruppin, these rates were as high as 20 and 30 per cent.

2 Another work was also published last year—Intermarriage and Jewish Life, edited by Werner J. Cahnman (The Herd Press and the Jewish Reconstructionist Press, 212 pp., $5.00)—which consists of papers read at a conference organized by the Herzl Institute. This is the first book on the subject sponsored by any American Jewish organization.

3 It is worth noting that this study found 18.4 per cent of all marriages involving Jews to be exogamous.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.