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   Spirituality & Traditions

 WINTER ISSUE 2005  SUBSCRIBE

How Interfaith Families Handle the Winter Holidays Has a Lasting Impact on Their Children's Religious Identity.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is a professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University, and also co-directs The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her newest book, Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage (Brandeis University Press, 2004) should be read by anyone interested in the future of Jewish life in America. She is currently completing two additional studies, due to be published in 2006, on Jewish education for teenagers and on conversion. She is the author of many articles on Jewish education, the American Jewish family, the changing role of Jewish women and American Jewish literature.

Q: How does the way an interfaith family handles Christmas, and to a lesser extent Easter, influence the development of the family's religious identity?
A: In the U.S. the most common pattern for interfaith families is to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah; both Passover and Easter. Very often interfaith families explain this by saying that the Jewish part is religious and the Christian part is cultural. They are not necessarily doing more Jewish things. This message doesn't transfer itself necessarily to the children. Most teenagers who come from interfaith families where there has been double observance feel that they have a legacy of two religions, that both Christianity and Judaism are part of their birthright and cultural heritage. Having many different religious options is seen as a benign and delightful aspect of living in America, in an open society.

When children grow up to believe that they have many different religious options, they are very unlikely to identify with a minority religious option in any meaningful way. The reason that the Jewish community is concerned about this religious syncretismreligious intermixinghas nothing to do with good or bad. What it has to do with is the way it makes it less likely that Judaism as a religious culture will be transmitted to the next generation.

Q: That means, then, that interfaith families have to choose Chanukah over Christmas?
A: Yes, if the family cares about having children identify as Jews and notas many college students tell me they arehalf-Jews (the name they gave themselves) then their home has to be unambiguously Jewish, not mixed in with other religious observances.

Conversionary households offer a very interesting comparison because they also have non-Jewish relatives and non-Jewish grandparents. The way these families usually handle it is to say, "We're going to visit grandma and grandpa to help them celebrate their holiday. It's not our holiday. It's like when you go to someone else's birthday party, you help them celebrate their birthday; it's not your birthday." That's the typical strategy that conversionary households use to be family-spirited and show their concern and affection for other family members who have a different religion. Children who grow up in that way are much more likely to identify as Jews. It's a clear demarcation; this is our religion and that is their religion.

Q: How are interfaith families changing the face of Judaism?
A: We really don't know the answer to that question. It's something that I would love to do research on. There are suggestions that there is a tremendous impact and in terms of cultural transmission it's not necessarily such a positive impact. There are some congregations now where more than half of the member families are interfaith families. In my new conversion study one of the things that people who chose to become Jews by choice complained about is that when they went to their rabbi to say that they wanted to become Jews by choice, the rabbi discouraged them. The rabbi wasn't actively promoting conversion because he or she didn't want to make the interfaith families feel like they are second-class citizens.

In terms of cultural transmission, things are turned inside out. There is such a concern about being inclusive and about not upsetting interfaith families that, instead of encouraging conversion, which we know tens to produce highly identified families, conversion is sometimes discouraged. [Also,] American Jewish parents don't tell their children that they would be upset if they married non-Jews. They don't speak to their children about inter-dating and intermarriage because they feel it to be such a widespread phenomenon.

Intermarriage is now the new cultural norm. That's why it's so ironic to hear interfaith families say that people are prejudiced against them when, in fact, what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "tipping point" has been passed and interfaith families are actually very much accepted in the liberal Jewish community. People who advocate for in-marriage are the new transgressors. People who try to encourage single Jews to marry Jews are looked at as being prejudiced and sometimes even racist.

I want to emphasize that this isn't about being a nice person, but about cultural transmission. The communal norm of in-marriage, which used to be very important in helping Judaism survive in all kinds of situations, has been replaced and it's really problematic in terms of cultural transmission and the survival of Jewish culture.

Q: In doing your studies what impact did you find that a mother's Jewish identity have in shaping the religious identity of her children in an interfaith marriage?
A: Statistically we know that mothers have a greater impact in the likely identification than the father does. This is not just true of Jews, it's true of people of all religions: mothers play a different role in socializing the family. Specifically, I think it's important to place the Jewish American experience into the context of other religions and to understand that this is not something that's specific to Judaism. Sociologically it has to do with the impact of a mother's role in the family.

To speak about Jews specifically, mothers are more likely than fathers to be responsible for arranging most of the social life of the family. So in terms of the other families that the family interacts with and the role models they have, if the mother is Jewish, either a born Jew or a Jew by choice, she is more likely to seek out families that value Judaism and behave in Jewish ways.

I am just finishing up a study on conversion into Judaism and one of the things I'm finding is that if you compare families where the mother is a Jew by choice with families where the mother is not Jewish, where the mother is a Jew by choice she is much more likely to arrange for the family to have Shabbat dinners or holiday dinners with other Jews. The conversionary family learns from the Jewish behaviors of the other Jews. They learn the skills, as well as having the experiences themselves, and become empowered to repeat those experiences even when the other families aren't around. Non-Jewish mothers often feel more comfortable either with mixed married Jewish families or non-Jewish families, so they are less likely to create [these opportunities for] Jewish experiences.

One of the big differences [I've found in my research is that] Jewish mothers are much more likely to enroll their children in Jewish schools. Where the mother is not Jewish the child is much less likely to be enrolled in any kind of a Jewish school. This may be partially because women are still more responsible than men in driving to supplementary schools, but I think it goes deeper than that.

A study of Jewish college freshmen found that when children come from mixed married families, when the mother is Jewish, 40 percent of the students identify as Jews; where only the father is Jewish, 15 percent identify as Jews. Jewish education is a big piece of this, as well as all of the home-based Jewish observances such as lighting Shabbat candles and having special meals for Shabbat and for the holidays. These are things that are often second nature to women who are raised Jewish and are learned by women who become Jews by choice, but not particularly significant to women who are not Jewish.

This has nothing to do with being a nice person or not a nice person. It has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with people tending to replicate experiences that they grew up with and found pleasant. There are many different factors that contribute to the fact that Jewish mothers are much more likely to produce Jewish children than non-Jewish mothers. It's not a matter of Jewish prejudice, but a sociological fact that mothers from a religious tradition do a much better job of bringing up children in that tradition. It's not specific to Judaism.

Q: What is your formula for raising a Jewish child?
A: There are three things-I call them the three P's: pedagogy (education), parents and peer group. Statistically, formal classroom education through the teenage years is one of the most important predictors of whether or not a person will identify as Jewish as an adult. And this doesn't mean necessarily day school education; this could be supplementary school education also. But it is very important for it to last through the teen years because that is when people start maturing into their adult attitudes.

The second P is parents. Family observances, family attitudes, family conversations and what goes on in the household have an enormous influence on what people will be like when they become adults.

The third P is peer group. In fact, peer group-having mostly Jewish friends in high schoolis the single most significant predictor of how a person will identify as an adult.

Those three things together-formal classroom education; family activism and observances and having a Jewish friendship network in high school-those three things together help to embed the growing child and adolescent in Judaism and to make Judaism significant in their life. This would be true of a child in an intermarried family, an in-married family; a gay or lesbian household or a single-parent family. That's the formula for raising a Jewish child. There are no guarantees, of course, because you aren't planting a vegetable, you are raising a child.

Q: Did you find that grandparents help contribute to the Jewish identity of grandchildren?
A: Not only that they can but that very often the couple wants them to. The couple kind of depends on them for a place to have Jewish holiday celebrations and the occasional Shabbat dinner. Very often grandparents can play a critical role in providing Jewish enrichment for the children of intermarriage.

Q: What did you discover about today's parents' attitudes when a child marries someone who isn't Jewish?
A: American Jewish parents tend to try to preserve a relationship with their children. Some of them are upset when their children marry non-Jews. The people who are openly upset when their children marry non-Jews are in a minority. The majority of American Jewish parents today are very accepting. Many of them do try to encourage the new family to have Jewish observances. Many of them try to serve as a religious enrichment resource for the new family. It's much more common for Jewish parents to be accepting than to be rejecting.

Q: What role does the Jewish spouse's passionor lack of passion-about Judaism play in shaping the way aninterfaith family's religious identity is shaped?
A: The Jewish spouse is extremely important in helping to shape the religious atmosphere in the household. When the Jewish spouse very much wants to have a Jewish household, the non-Jewish spouse is more likely to convert into Judaism. And even when the non-Jewish spouse does not convert into Judaism, the non-Jewish spouse is much more likely to help facilitate Jewish observances if the Jewish spouse is not ambivalent about Judaism.

What often happens is that the Jewish spouse is ambivalent about Judaism. In many cases that is one of the factors that led to the intermarriage in the first place. When the Jewish spouse is ambivalent, even when the non-Jewish spouse wants to convert, the Jewish spouse discourages him or her with comments like: "If I had wanted to marry my mother, I would have married a Jewish woman." Conversion is discouraged and even where there is conversion, the ambivalent Jewish spouse sometimes undermines the Jewishness of the Jew by choice. And sometimes it's the Jewish spouse's family who helps undermine that commitment with comments like: "What do you have to be so crazy for? We don't do that, what do you want to do it for?"

The Jewish spouse's ambivalence gets played out in the behavior of the non-Jewish spouse. What the Jewish spouse can't bring him or herself to do, he or she depends on the non-Jewish spouse to do in terms of reducing the Jewish nature of the household.

Q: What impact did you discern that negative stereotypes about Jewish women have on Jewish men's decision to marry someone of Jewish faith or outside of the faith?
A: If you ask the typical single Jewish man to describe a typical Jewish woman, very often what you will hear is a litany of Jewish stereotypes. These are negative stereotypes that have been around now for about half a century. They were introduced to the American public with the novel and the film, Marjorie Morningstar. They were reinforced by the novel and the film Good-bye Columbus and they have been recycled, again and again in television programs, movies, and novels, as I said, for over 50 years. These negative stereotypes portray the Jewish mother as being controlling, overwhelming, stifling, domineering, and a person who stands in the way of her children's freedom and development, especially her son's freedom and development.

The spoiled Jewish American daughter, called the Jewish American Princess, is also spoiled and demanding. It's interesting to me that the fact that vast majority of Jewish women work outside the home for pay has not reduced the virulence of those negative images but has, in fact, just added to the list. So the spoiled Jewish woman, in addition to demanding diamonds and furs and a beautiful house and a luxurious lifestyle, now also demands a man who helps supports her career and is sensitive and caring. So, in other words, all the feminist expansion of women's roles has not decreased this stereotype, but has added to the list of what it is that Jewish women ostensibly want. There is research that's been done, using focus groups, that looked at the impact of these stereotypes and found that, old and tired as they are, these stereotypes still influence the way Jewish single men and women look at each other and especially the way Jewish men look at Jewish women.

In addition to [it coming up in] the research on singles, in my research on intermarried couples, I found it was very common for Jewish men to have these negative stereotypes of Jewish women.