For the past several decades, mainstream Jewish institutions have obsessively studied and worried over Jewish marriage patterns, which have gradually tilted away from favoring in-group relationships. The latest large-scale findings, from a 2020 Pew study, were released last month. Unsurprisingly, they showed that the trend toward “intermarriage” has continued: 61% of American Jews who tied the knot between 2010 and 2020 married a non-Jewish partner, up from 45% between 2000 and 2009. Overall, 41% of American Jews are now married to non-Jews (though among Orthodox Jews, the number is just 2%).
While a similar finding in 2013 unleashed broad panic among Jewish leaders that the American Jewish population was fading away, this year’s reaction was more muted, as American Jewish leaders have increasingly reconciled themselves to the fact that American Jews are unlikely to revert to earlier marriage patterns and that embracing interfaith families might be a better strategy for keeping Jews engaged. But broad resistance remains: The Conservative movement still prohibits rabbis from conducting interfaith marriages, and Reform and Conservative seminaries will not accept rabbinical students who are married to non-Jews.
Shortly before the release of the new Pew survey, a spontaneous, surprisingly impassioned conversation among Jewish Currents staffers about navigating Jewishness in dating and marriage tipped us off to the fact that we were both eager to have it out on the subject, and worried about what we might hear ourselves say. After doing some background reading together, we formally convened to discuss our feelings about “intermarriage,” “Jewish continuity,” and how to reconcile our own interest in preserving the amorphous idea of “Jewish culture” with our distaste for exclusive communal boundaries.
Arielle Angel: We know how we don’t want to talk about “intermarriage”—the Jewish establishment provides some truly terrible models. But it seems we don’t have a sense of how we do want to talk about it. There isn’t a way to have a conversation about what it might mean to either want or not want a Jewish partner without feeling gross. What makes this conversation so scary?
Joshua Leifer: If this conversation were taking place even just a few decades ago, we would almost certainly have to contend with [the post-Holocaust theologian Emil] Fackenheim’s idea of the 614th mitzvah. Fackenheim argued that after the Holocaust, Jewish communities should incorporate a new commandment [on top of the traditional 613]: that it is “forbidden to hand Hitler yet another posthumous victory” by “letting the Jewish people perish”—widely interpreted as forbidding Jews from marrying non-Jews. For a long time, this is how the stakes of the continuity discourse were described—and in certain Jewish communities, how they still are.
To me, this notion has always seemed self-defeating, one that itself could be said to give Hitler a posthumous victory, by modifying the core of Jewish tradition in a secular, almost eugenicist way. Even beyond that, this idea as applied to Jewish continuity has some resonance with contemporary white nationalist discourse and its own stridently survivalist rhetoric. After all, is the logic of denying Hitler any posthumous victories by enforcing endogamy on the community so different from, say, the white nationalist’s “14 words,” about “securing a future for our white children”? I think this resonance is part of what makes the conversation scary today.
This conversation also looks somewhat different in halachically observant communities. For an Orthodox Jew, marriage is important in part because there are commandments, divinely ordained, that you have to observe. Waning endogamy as such is a problem particularly in the context of liberal, secularized communities, because we can’t justify its importance in terms of divine commandments or transcendent first principles. And so for non-Orthodox Jews, the endogamy question is fraught because its logic mirrors the worst exclusionary logics of 20th-century secular ethnonationalism.
Mari Cohen: All of us can very eloquently refute the often misogynistic, homophobic project around the nuclear Jewish family. But I think it’s also fair to say we share an interest in aspects of Jewish culture, what it means for them to continue over time, and what it means to feel culturally “at home.” What do we mean when we define “Jewish” as a cultural mode or type? It’s an uncomfortable question because it necessarily draws boundaries of exclusion.
Given the inherent exclusion, I don’t really have any moral justification for this type of boundary-drawing project. At the same time, I have this strong sense of what it means to come from this Jewish culture and some sense of loss around what it might mean not to preserve that.
AA: It’s worth noting, when we talk about the preservation of a nebulously defined culture, that non-European or non-white Jewish communities have lacked certain white, Ashkenormative cultural signifiers and have therefore been designated “not Jewish.” There was a time when Sephardi–Ashkenazi marriage would be considered “intermarriage,” and in some communities, it still is. That seems useful in underlining what’s so uncomfortable about this. These “cultural signifiers” are themselves arbitrary and not necessarily about what makes someone “Jewish.”
JL: I wonder if our handwringing about this issue is, in a way, a symptom of its waning relevance, not only in our own lives, but in American Jewish life generally. Because if we zoom out to global Jewish life more broadly, most signs suggest that by 2050 the center of global Jewish gravity will have shifted from North America to Israel. By 2050, it’s very likely that more Jews will live in Israel and the occupied territories than in the rest of the world combined, for the first time in 2,000 years. Viewed this way, the so-called continuity crisis shouldn’t matter to American Jews: If you were worried solely about the numerical disappearance of Jews, then—barring a true catastrophe—Israel has basically solved the problem. That’s another reason why this conversation feels out of step with reality in the US: We’re living in a period of transition between the dominant, fundamental assumptions about what defines Jewish life—and, more specifically, in a period of uncoupling between the American and Israeli Jewish experiences.
Ari M. Brostoff: It’s interesting to think about what that uncoupling looks like even now. There’s something that feels specific about the American Jewish community adopting biopolitical practices, like obsessive mass data-gathering as a means of assessing the “health” of a population, that are usually a function of the state. Not being Jewish in the US doesn’t actually change your legal rights. In Israel, it does. But the continuities can be seen through, for instance, the existence of Birthright and other cross-national attempts to try and meld the two.
I’ve often thought that, in an American context, enthusiasm about non-Jews with Jewish partners converting to Judaism reads as an exemplary liberal attempt to gloss over this problem of trying to do biopolitics from the position of a minority population. It’s a way of saying that we are not trying to create a state within a state; we’re not trying to become a separate community that nobody can ever leave or enter. Instead, we have this open pathway. It also raises a different set of questions for Jewish communities that aren’t rooted in observance. Can you convert to secular Jewishness?
Nora Caplan-Bricker: My problem with talking about the decline of endogamy as a secular Jew is that there’s no clear sense of stakes. It makes me wonder if by even having the conversation, we’re trying to find a problem where there isn’t one. After all, marriage between a Jewish person and a non-Jewish person is now the norm in non-Orthodox Jewish communities. I’m a Jewish person married to a person who is not Jewish. But I’m also a white, straight, middle-class US citizen who isn’t religiously observant, married to another person who fits all those same categories. There are so many ways in which that’s a very easy experience.
That’s not to say that I don’t think about the fact that my partner isn’t Jewish. If we have children, I want them to feel like they are part of a Jewish family, in some sense that I feel unable to articulate even to myself. After two drinks, I’ll tell my husband that our kids would need to have my last name because his last name is Welsh, and I want them to be read as Jews in some way. Those are real feelings, but I’m not sure they constitute a real problem.
Nathan Goldman: I’m also married to someone who wasn’t born or raised Jewish, and conversations about intermarriage often make me feel both defensive and angry. I’ve seen the ways that attitudes about intermarriage, even in ostensibly very liberal Jewish spaces, are subtly exclusionary. I was raised Reform, and I think in that community this subject is often discussed as if it’s solved—“We’re so welcoming and inclusive!”—when actually the exclusion remains, just in less explicit ways: vibes and jokes and stray remarks rather than dictates. And it’s uncomfortable even to acknowledge that these spaces might have this problem. Part of me thinks it’s better to be consistent, as Orthodox Jews are, about just being a kind of closed, homogeneous society, rather than trying to have it both ways—pushing people out while insisting the door is wide open. There’s also something condescending and inauthentic about the way certain segments of the community have come to accept intermarriage just because it’s a reality on the ground. That’s not real open-heartedness—it’s begrudging pragmatism.
MC: This tension emerges in our own work at Jewish Currents, where, even if we don’t believe that we only write for Jews or that only Jews should write for us, we are trying to figure out how to form and sustain a community around Jewish cultural production. What does it mean to do that?
I agree with Nathan that it’s almost more frustrating to hover on this border between proud insularity and liberal universalism, and it creates more opportunities for hypocrisy. It might be better to go one way or the other, but if that’s true, what are we doing here?
AA: I want to draw a personal distinction with you, Nathan, if you don’t mind, because Jewishness functions very differently in each of our marriages. You are married to a non-Jewish person who practices Judaism with you. I’m married to what for lack of a better word I’ll call a technically Jewish person—a person with a Jewish mother, but who was raised in a Buddhist household in a town without many Jews, and who is generally hostile to all religious expression. When we had a staff candle lighting on Zoom for Hanukkah, I was really struck that at your house, Nathan, there’s Channukiahs for both you and your partner, who joined us. In my house, I light candles by myself. That does make me feel alone sometimes. So it’s hard for me to entirely dismiss the endogamous desire in others as mere ethnonationalism. It’s not unreasonable to want to be on the same page about ritual, or to expect a Jewish person will be better able to share those things with you. And, it’s interesting that, in our cases, the identity of our partners has not been the determinative factor as it relates to the practice of Jewishness in the home.
I guess given my circumstance, the question for me becomes whether Jewish cultural reproduction needs to be rooted within our individual family units, or whether there are other containers for communal continuity that could be healthier. We’re not going to have kids, so that makes the question all the more central.
NCB: The family has a history of obstructing rather than nourishing a lot of the movements that we all care about—of reproducing a capitalist vision of private life and property, and a heteropatriarchal set of gender relations, that have long driven leftist, feminist, and queer movements to seek alternative modes of care and sustenance. A continuity discourse centered on the family seems similarly inhospitable to the kind of Jewishness that interests us. We know, for example, that the biological imperative to carry Jewishness forward provides an excuse to discipline women to conform to heterosexuality and to prioritize fertility and motherhood over everything else.
I don’t think there is a way to square a family-centered Jewishness with openness—to intermarriage, or to larger forms of social change. If the family is the site of Jewish identity and continuity, then it has to remain both recognizably a family and recognizably Jewish. To embrace the idea that people can create families that look a lot of different ways—not to mention families that involve non-Jewish partners—would require having another institution that can perpetuate Jewishness. I think that would be a good thing. But, currently, I don’t see many Jewish institutions that I think could hold my Jewishness in a way that makes sense to me, which leaves me with my own family to fill that role.
AMB: It seems to me like part of what we’re orbiting around here is some vertigo-inducing questions about scale, the kind that come up whenever we talk about relationships between the state, which is incomprehensibly large, and the family, where dynamics are immediate and intimate—even though we know that in fact, these institutions do so much to determine each other’s shape. So in this case, one thing we’re talking about is the way Jewish continuity becomes a framework for telling people they have to have a proper kind of procreative sex and bear children who will grow up in a proper nuclear family. Needless to say, it’s really difficult to divorce oneself from those expectations, or to create spaces where people in your community can live outside of them. But then—and this is the rub, I think—opting out can also become a trap.
This is something I’ve learned from having spent a lot of my life in queer communities, where this is a major point of contention. By definition, queerness poses a challenge to heteropatriarchal social arrangements. But when queer people attempt to just opt out of these arrangements, without engaging in larger political struggles, they overlook the ways in which we all participate in the reproduction of the social order, or collectively refuse to, regardless of the shapes people’s intimate and domestic lives take. So I completely agree that we need institutions that make Jewish life feel sustainable in ways that don’t center the family, and also think it’s useful to zoom out even further and frame the question as, “What do we and what don’t we want to reproduce?” It might turn out, for instance, that creating anti-Zionist Jewish education programs for kids would wind up challenging continuity frameworks in a signifcant way, because it would challenge these underlying ideas about population management. And that comes as a stark contrast to the various forms of pinkwashing that tout the opportunity to opt out of the nuclear family while still helping reproduce violently policed barriers to ethnic mixing.
JL: I want to acknowledge here that I do feel slightly provoked—though not in a bad way!—by where this conversation is heading because I am the sole person on this call whose partner is both Jewish and actively practicing, and that this is something we do together. What I mean by this is that I am confronted with my own hypocrisy. Politically, I’m a left-wing universalist. But I’m unwilling to be even a mushy liberal multiculturalist in my home. I have red lines: I’m not going to have a Christmas tree or observe Easter. I’d prefer to avoid the risk of religious compromise that an interfaith household might involve because I feel like observing the holidays of other creedal faiths—like Jesus’s birth or resurrection—would require me to violate some of the commitments that are foundational to my Jewishness. And on a personal level, my Jewish identity is formulated very much in opposition to the American Christian mainstream, so having Christianity proximate in such an intimate way is not something I feel is an option in my own life. Of course it’s not impossible to practice Judaism with a non-Jewish partner, but for me I think it would probably make things more difficult.
NG: My experience runs counter to yours, Josh, because my Jewishness actually feels quite bound up with my marriage to someone who wasn’t raised Jewish. I don’t think it would be so central to my life if not for that relationship—all the conversations we’ve had over the years, her interest in and provocations about Jewish ideas. Part of what you’re getting at, and what we’re circling in general, is the fact that being Jewish is relational: It’s not only an individual identity, but also a form of interpersonal and communal observance, practice, inquiry. But while my situation—in which neither of us practices another religion, and in fact my wife is starting the process of converting—avoids some of the tensions you point to, I think it also shows how it can be restrictive to think of intermarriage as in conflict with “continuity,” understood not as whether individuals identify as Jewish or not, but in terms of whether Jewish practice, culture, and inquiry remains live, and also continues to transform.
MC: Josh, I’m interested in what you said about formulating an identity in opposition to the Christian mainstream. I find being Jewish psychologically exhausting, frustrating, and—to be honest— existentially disastrous most of the time. And yet, in a society defined by mass alienation, Jewishness is one of the only things I have—culturally, spiritually, and communally—that I can hold onto. I’ll probably dump that on my children if I have them.
But I wonder whether, if we were living in a more utopian moment or society, maybe I wouldn’t need it. What do our particularities look like when structures of domination are not making them necessary as forms of resistance? If we’re not doing Jewishness as anti-Christian hegemony, maybe we don’t need to do Jewishness. And on the other hand, maybe there’s a version of our ultimate utopia in which the pressures to assimilate are alleviated, and we are actually more attached to our particularities.
JL: I used to think there was something almost anti-capitalist about emphasizing endogamy, because capitalist rationality and American consumer culture are centered around actualizing the infinite marketplace of choice, so accepting the immutability of Jewishness was a way of opposing that culture. That may have been my own idiosyncratic framing. But I am struck by how we are all still liberals in this conversation—we have a fundamentally voluntarist approach to Jewish identity and Jewish life. It’s up to us to choose, we have volition.
AA: Yes, this entire system is made up of personal choices. And yet, I found the literature on the difference between American and Israeli Jewish biopolitics illuminating, in that in America, the lack of national tools to engineer less intermarriage among American Jews means that it really isn’t a question of “choice” on the broadest scale. American Jewish behavior regarding marriage is being shaped by larger social and economic factors. One of the reasons not to worry about this issue is that in an American diasporic context, there’s literally nothing anyone can do about it—except perhaps try to make Jewish life more meaningful for the people who might want to engage in it.
NG: Last night, preparing for this conversation, I was kind of spiraling: “Why am I Jewish? Why do I care about this? Is Jewishness just this inescapable trap?” As a teenager, I rejected being Jewish. Religious school didn’t interest me, and I convinced my parents to let me stop going not long after my bar mitzvah. But you know, here I am. And I want to have kids, but I have no idea how to think about passing on something that’s important in my life, but that has also been something I’ve resented and fled.
When my wife and I were looking for a rabbi to marry us, we found that most—even those open to intermarriage—require couples to promise to raise their children Jewish. Even though we do plan to do that, the demand really got under my skin. It felt like an attempt to claim our family and hypothetical children in the name of “the Jewish people,” rather than understanding Jewishness as something to which people have fraught and fluid relationships. I was like: I can’t even promise you that I will consider myself Jewish tomorrow, let alone that I’ll mandate it for my children in perpetuity!
The idea of Jewish continuity often seems bound up with a notion of eternality. But I find more meaning in a Jewish tradition of finitude. The Kafka story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” which Judith Butler wrote about for us, ends with the claim that the central figure—who is probably a mouse, and maybe a Jew—will one day “rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.” It’s a provocative idea, that to be forgotten would be a kind of redemption. It feels like an inversion of a Jewish understanding of memory as sacred.
I also often think about Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood, in which the narrator wrestles with whether or not she wants to have a child. Her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, and the narrator, as a Jewish woman, feels this imperative to repopulate the earth. But she resists that, and at one point she extends it beyond Jewishness and says, “I don’t really care if the human race dies out.”
There’s a hubris in believing in some indefinite continuity that Kafka and Heti puncture. The fact is that Judaism will not exist forever, the same way humanity and the earth will not exist forever. Nothing we do will be remembered forever because there will not always be people to remember it. How might our relationship to Jewishness change if we asked not how to preserve it forever, but instead what it means for us now, and how to pass that on while understanding that it, like us, will someday die and be forgotten?
Jacob Plitman: That resonates with me very deeply. I actually think there’s very little in Judaism about the desire to be remembered. We’re commanded to remember, not to do something worth remembering. And I think that’s good.
Martin Heidegger had some very useful thoughts about confronting the inescapable presentness of death, which he saw as a powerful thing—both the cause and antidote to anxiety. This attitude to death may seem pessimistic, or even nihilistic: A lack of futurity leads to a darkness that is sad and disturbing. But, as Heidegger pointed out, the looming “end of the possibility of all possibilities”’ is the only condition in which meaning can exist.
Continuity’s pathological obsession with infinitude makes real meaning—and beauty—impossible. So you’re left only with anxiety. You’re conscripted into building a monument that will last forever, but you can’t do it, because nothing lasts. It’s morbid to make it one’s mission to turn our collective life into a mausoleum. It privileges survival beyond death over actually living; it reduces us to our biological organs and our genome or whatever it is that we’re trying to preserve—even though we all know it will not be preserved.
I don’t think we need to stridently reject this obsession with continuity. I think if we approach it with vulnerability—and an understanding of the fear of extinction that gives rise to it—we can receive it, and calmly put it away.
MC: I think this is very helpful. Jewishness has been a rock for me, but I find it hard to embrace fully because it feels inconsistent with other types of commitments. But maybe it’s okay to say that I can do this now and also pass it to the children I may or may not have with whatever partner I may or may not have of whatever background, and that doesn’t mean I’m saying that people should do it forever in this specific way. I find that kind of comforting.