- Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America
The phrase "still Jewish" is a double entendre, containing nearly opposite meanings in different historical contexts and vantage points. On the one hand Jewishness can be a stain you cannot escape—making you "still Jewish" no matter your efforts to the contrary. On the other hand, no matter how far away you travel, you can still stay Jewish; it remains part of your life and practice, even if your husband is not Jewish. One is a stain (in the eyes of many) that cannot be erased, and the other is a flame that is not necessarily extinguished. While not using these particular images, this is the story Keren R. McGinity tells: how the experiences of Jewish women who married Gentiles changed and the valences shifted, against the backdrop of the changing sociology of Jews and of women in America.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the rate of Jewish-Christian intermarriage started off as being quite rare, so much so that, when Rose Pastor Stokes intermarried in 1905, it made headlines. The rate remained very low from 1900 through 1960, after which it increased sharply. By 1985 and continuing into our time, about half of Jews who were marrying wed partners who were not Jewish. Based on these demographic facts, what McGinity does in her fascinating book is to tell the story of the Second Sex as it encountered intermarriage (with the unspoken mental comparison being the iconic stories of Jewish men, à la Woody Allen, who pursued their blond shiksas as a lifejacket from their confining Jewishness).
The scaffolding for her study comes from arranging her historical cases and oral histories according to four different periods: 1900-1929, 1930-1960, 1960s-1970s, and 1980-2004. In each she presents voices [End Page 189] of individual women who married "out" and unpacks their personal stories by layering them against the socio-cultural backdrop of the era. Her focus on Jewish women allows her to examine the ways intermarriage interfaced with ideas about marriage more generally, and also with women's changing aspirations for education, work and defining their own lives. She locates these against the backdrop of historical changes affecting intermarriage and the Jewish community's responses to these changes. McGinity provides an extensive review of existing literature, citing the work of a wide array of scholars (including this author) from many fields who have written about American religion and American Jewry, intermarriage, Jewish identity, and women and gender.
The first chapter of her book considers the cases of three well-known immigrant Jewesses—Mary Antin, Rose Pastor Stokes, and Anna Strunsky—who all famously married "out." Their exceptionalisim at the time proved the rule: Their marriages involved crossing over what sociologist Richard Alba calls "bright boundaries" between groups, actions that were otherwise imponderable, so much so that two of the weddings were deemed worthy of front page headlines.1 By their own accounts all three women met their future spouses in the course of their own political and intellectual pursuits and shared with them many ideals. They viewed their own Jewishness as being a feature of their backgrounds more than constituting the main stage of their lives. Nonetheless despite their own view of their marriages as being about personal freedom, these nuptials were read as having intergroup significance.
Over the course of the subsequent decades, the latitude of action open to Jews and to women widened tremendously. Intermarriage became more possible for individuals because, with each passing generation, opportunities for casual interaction between Jews and non-Jews increased. In the 1930-1960 era intermarriage was rare, but not inconceivable. Yet in the face of the reigning negative views of Jews, the women who intermarried had a hard time crafting a positive sense of Jewishness for themselves. By the 1960s and 1970s the bright boundary that had defined Jewish as "Other" had blurred significantly; the women of that period rebelled against their bourgeois parents, and, through the larger drama of women...