by Dr. Keren McGinity
If I had eighteen cents for every time someone told me, “McGinity? That’s not a Jewish name!” I’d be a wealthy woman. The statement is based on two assumptions: Jews have distinctive Jewish names and someone with an ethnically “other” name couldn’t possibly be Jewish. OK, so how does a nice Jewish girl end up with a name like McGinity?
I am the daughter of New York Jews. My parents’ acrimonious divorce illustrated that two Jews marrying each other was not a guarantee of happiness. I still figured I’d end up marrying a nice Jewish boy but when a cute Irishman popped the question, I said “yes!” I married young but mature enough to make one critically important deal: we agreed that I’d take his name and we’d raise any children as Jews.
Being intermarried forced me to ask: What does being Jewish actually mean? Becoming a mother meant figuring out: How do I transmit Judaism to my child? My Jewish identity deepened along the way and I became more involved in the Jewish community. I wondered: Am I an anomaly? I wrote about my experience and that of many other women who wed in the twentieth century in my first book, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America. Turns out, my experience was not unique. I had it relatively easy: as a Jewish woman, my child’s identity was never questioned.
What about intermarried Jewish men? My new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage & Fatherhood is a contemporary history, 1945-present. A current argument regarding intermarriage in America is that Jewish husbands are ambivalent about Judaism and less proactively vocal than their wives of other faith and cultural backgrounds about how children will be raised.
During my research, I learned that some men are actually “deciders,” insisting that their children be raised Jewish. Like women, men’s Jewish identities intensified when they intermarried and became fathers. As one intermarried man explained, he wanted to raise his kids Jewish and knew that mothers tend to play an important role. Since there wasn’t a Jewish mother, he said: “it’s almost like an overreaction to make sure it gets done.” That said, the structural realities in which men live are shaped by traditional American gender norms. Men are caught between wanting to spend more time with their families and the “rules” of masculinity that encourage them to win, to get ahead, to make more money. While some of our best “Jewish mothers” are Christian or becoming Jewish, the disproportionate responsibility for Jewish parenting has ramifications.
Policy discussions fueled by Pew’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” abound. Is the glass half full or half empty? What to do once Birthright participants come home? The organized Jewish community has yet to address the troubling fact that millennial children of intermarriage are less likely to be raised Jewish if the father is Jewish than they are if the mother is Jewish.
I founded the Love & Tradition Institute to help equalize Jewish parenting and identity building. The Jewish people will grow and the Jewish future will strengthen if we build communities that are not only pluralistic and inclusive but also emphasize egalitarian Jewish parenting. Enabling Jews of all genders to parent Jewish children is essential. Men can and do assume proactive roles raising Jewish children, but they need communal support and education about the value of their Jewish identity work inside the home. Jewish clergy, lay leaders, and Hillel directors alike will benefit from educational programs designed to make explicit the relationship between Jewish intermarriage and gender. In order to truly understand intermarriage, we need to hear everyone’s stories. Intermarried Jews, our partners, and children: we’re all part of the Jewish future.
Dr. Keren McGinity will be sharing more of her research and perspective on these topics during a talk and Q and A session, entitled “Intermarriage and Gender in American Jewish Life” on Sunday, January 24th from 3:30 – 5:30pm at Mayyim Hayyim. Register online today.
Keren R. McGinity is the founding director of the Love & Tradition Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to accessible education about Jewish intermarriage and gender. She is also affiliated with the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. She lives in West Roxbury with her daughter, practices yoga, and frequents J.P. Licks.