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Jewish on Their Own Terms

How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism

Jennifer A. Thompson

Publication Year: 2013

Over half of all American Jewish children are being raised by intermarried parents. This demographic group will have a tremendous impact on American Judaism as it is lived and practiced in the coming decades. To date, however, in both academic studies about Judaism and in the popular imagination, such children and their parents remain marginal.  

Jennifer A. Thompson takes a different approach. In Jewish on Their Own Terms, she tells the stories of intermarried couples, the rabbis and other Jewish educators who work with them, and the conflicting public conversations about intermarriage among American Jews. Thompson notes that in the dominant Jewish cultural narrative, intermarriage symbolizes individualism and assimilation. Talking about intermarriage allows American Jews to discuss their anxieties about remaining distinctively Jewish despite their success in assimilating into American culture.

In contrast, Thompson uses ethnography to describe the compelling concerns of all of these parties and places their anxieties firmly within the context of American religious culture and morality. She explains how American and traditional Jewish gender roles converge to put non-Jewish women in charge of raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples are like other Americans in often harboring contradictory notions of individual autonomy, universal religious truths, and obligations to family and history.

Focusing on the lived experiences of these families, Jewish on Their Own Terms provides a complex and insightful portrait of intermarried couples and the new forms of American Judaism that they are constructing.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

During the nine years I spent working on the research and writing of this book, I received help from many sources. I want to express my sincere gratitude to the many people who made this project possible.
My work has been shaped in important ways by the mentoring and guidance of Don Seeman, Eric Goldstein, Gary Laderman, Bradd Shore, Steve Tipton, Nancy...

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pp. 1-22

It’s not enough,” said Abe in a pained voice. His daughter had married a non-Jew. While Abe, an active member of a Conservative synagogue, hoped that she and her husband would become actively involved in organized Jewish activities, he did not have a great deal of hope that his descendants would carry on Jewishness. He asserted that the number of intermarried couples raising Jewish...

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1. Defining Judaism by Debating Intermarriage

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pp. 23-50

The narratives about intermarriage in contemporary discourse echo those of the mid-twentieth century, despite significant changes in American Jews’ lives since then. A narrative of intermarriage as assimilation was born from a convergence of sociological theory about assimilation, immigration, and ethnicity with Jewish historical and religious understandings of intermarriage. These...

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2. American Contradictions: Conversations about Self and Community

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pp. 51-80

As my intermarried informants developed their self-understandings and practices, they took into account a wide range of factors: intermarriage discourse; their own feelings and experiences; and American cultural ideas about religion, community, the self, and gender. Couples and individuals combined these factors in ways that were sometimes contradictory but responded to their needs and experiences...

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3. “What You Are” and “What’s in Your Heart”

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pp. 81-112

While both the universalist individualist and ethnic familialist perspectives draw from Jewish and American cultural and religious orientations, they weave together the various strands in different ways. Families who adopted an ethnic familialist perspective generally were more closely connected to Judaism than to Christianity and often followed patterns that more closely resembled those...

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4. Translating Jewish Experience

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pp. 113-134

Jewish outreach professionals, the religious experts who specialize in programming for Jews who do not affiliate formally with Jewish institutions, face the same tensions of universalism, individualism, ethnicity, and family that intermarried couples do. But as representatives of the subset of Jewish institutions that actively reach out to these couples, they also participate in—or actively...

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5. Sovereign Selves in a Fractured Community

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pp. 135-162

Navigating the conflicting cultural and religious values and themes in discourses about intermarriage challenges religious experts as much as laypeople. In interviews and participant-observation with these experts—rabbis, Jewish educators, and other clergy—I discovered that their shared vocabulary of Jewish traditions and symbols obscured deep divisions. For some clergy, as for some...

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6. Moving Forward, Inconclusively: The Crisis of Jewish Identity

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pp. 163-176

In intermarriage discourse, Conservative Rabbi E, history professor Jack Wertheimer, and others have raised the question of whether Jewish institutions’ limited financial and human resources ought to be directed toward outreach to intermarried couples when they could instead be directed toward endogamous couples (see, for example, Wertheimer 2001). They feel that intermarried Jews’...

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pp. 177-180

American Jews’ engagement in discourse about intermarriage is a form of collective experience as Jews. Engaging in debate about intermarriage allows American Jews to behave as if we are one community despite our deep divergence over important theological and practical matters. Yet examination of this debate has shown that there is no consensus even about the definitions of its...


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pp. 181-182


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pp. 183-194


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pp. 195-200

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About the Author

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Jennifer A. Thompson is the Maurice Amado Assistant Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement at California State University, Northridge. She previously taught at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She earned her Ph.D. in 2010 from the Ethics and Society Program of the Graduate Division of...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813562834
E-ISBN-10: 081356283X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562827
Print-ISBN-10: 0813562821

Page Count: 214
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 865335164
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Jewish on Their Own Terms

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- United States -- Cultural assimilation.
  • Judaism -- United States -- 21st century.
  • Marriage -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
  • Jews -- United States -- Identity.
  • Intermarriage -- United States.
  • Interfaith marriage -- United States.
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