What's On The Back Burner In Your Intermarriage? A Book Review

September 19, 2013

I love to read, and I need to stay up to date on a variety of fields related to my work.  I am sure many of you also want to stay up to date on the subjects that matter to you. This is why you will periodically see book reviews on this blog.These may help you be better informed.  But please know this: just because we review a book does not mean that we recommend it!  Nor does it mean that we don't. So, when in doubt, read the review!

Today's reviewed book  is  Inside Intermarriage:  A Christian Partner's Perspective On Raising a Jewish Family (New York: URJ Press), 2006, by Jim Keen. Unknown-2

The author is a middle class Protestant from Scottish Presbyterian stock who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He met his Jewish wife Bonnie when they were both students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and live there now.  She is from a Conservative Jewish family in Boston, but their family now holds membership in Temple Beth Emeth (Reform), Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Robert Levy is Rabbi.

The back matter of the book includes a puff from prominent Jewish author Ann Diamant, and two forewords are included, one by Eric Joffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and the other by Kathy Kahn, Director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism. These facts plus the fact that the book is published by the Union of Reform Judaism Press underscore that the Reform moremenv views Keen’s attitudes and experiences to be a desirable template for others to apply in their own lives.

Throughout his book, Jim Keen recounts his experiences, offering guidelines for how the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage might best acclimate to a new culture and accommodate the demands that raising a Jewish family makes upon his household, his family of origin, and himself. At no point does he substantially struggle with with nor does he appear to worry that his Christian faith might atrophy under the demands of raising his children in a Jewish one-faith home. He and his wife take the perspective that although one of the them is a Christian and the other Jewish, this is a one-faith home—where the children are not in any sense being raised as “both” as so many naively imagine to be possible. When published, it was the only book written by a Christian partner in a home where Jewish kids are being raised.

Each brief chapter concludes with a postscript that further illustrates its content, offering suggestions for implementing the insights gained. These twenty-three brief chapters are divided among five parts of the book: Part I - Interfaith Dating: Let the Issues Begin; Part II – Negotiating Life-Cycle Events; Part II - Parenting; Part IV -  Celebrating the Holidays; and Part V – Meeting My Own Needs.

Part I on Interfaith Dating deals with the first issues likely to come up in an interfaith romantic relationship, and seems to cover all of the major ones, among these are the Jewish imperative not to marry out, the issue of how to raise children of the union, defending and defining the developing relationship to both families of origin, and, presciently, considering what it would be like to raise children in a culture other than one’s own so that one would experience a sharp disconnect between one’s own childhood experience and that of one’s children.

The next part offers a light but insightful survey of Jewish life cycle events and how these might impact the non-Jewish spouse and his family. This begins of course with finding a clergyperson to do the wedding, usually an atypical clergyperson in an atypical locale.

In the chapter on parenting, Keen is clear that the goal is not to raise children as “both.”  Children need to be given a unified identity. His are Jewish children, raised as Jews, with a Christian father in the house. He and Bonnie also hold that both Jews and Christians worship the same God, and that this creates a basis for unity. Not everyone would agree, and even those who agree, would say, “Yes, but.” There are no “Yes, buts” here in Keen’s book.  Holidays are another area of potential conflict, and again, Keen is for the most part a tour guide for the potential or actual Christian partner in a Jewish family unit.

He finishes the book by addressing his own needs, to honor Christmas and Easter in some manner, to go to church occasionally, and to feel a holistic sense of identity. He claims to have found that in a congregation where the Rabbi, Robert Levy, wholeheartedly embraces him.

This book deals with its subject matter in a generalized and light manner. Those seeking substantial theological discussion will find nothing here. Although Keen says that he values his Christian identity, his account is more a chronicle of his refusal to abandon his Christian label rather than chronicling any investment in growing or nurturing that identity. One wonders about the proper relationship between claiming an identity and investing in it. He continues to call himself a Christian but in that regard says not a word about a growing edge. His church=going, and his Christian holy day observances are minimal, one might even say "vestigial," demonstrating more a reluctance to jettison his Christian identity rather than a desire to warmly pursue it. Readers will need to look elsewhere to find a Christian partner whose Christian faith and practice is a central and growing aspect of his/her life.

This puts both Jim Keen and his wife Bonnie at cross purposes with the core question we at Interfaithfulness encourage inter-dating and interfaith couples to ask: “Considering our life situation what will it mean for us to serve God to the best of our ability?” The purview in this book seems entirely horizontal, and the vertical dimension is either not considered or not discussed.  Our interfaithfulness question remains unasked and unanswered.  But shouldn’t matters of religious identity have both a vertical and horizontal dimension? And shouldn't they also have a familial and communal dimension, rather than be restricted to matters of personal experience and personal choice?

The book is a quick read, and good for presenting an overview of intermarriage issues to Christian parties who are naïve and uninformed about Jewish life and community. Keen also ably paints the ways in which non-Orthodox Jews demonstrate and nurture their social and religious identities in their home and synagogue lives.  Finally, he succinctly describes how a couple like the Keens can work together to create familial religious unity in an intermarried context. All of these matters are treated in an introductory fashion, but beyond these light and rather comprehensive overviews, there is not much else here.


For further thought and discussion:

  1. How do the inherent challenges of intermarriage change when one or both partners has more than a nominal commitment to their religious identity, community and experience?  How about when their family of origin has this level of commitment? ["Nominality" refers to bearing a religious label while minimizing one's investment in related spiritual, religious, and communal commitments."]
  2. Is reducing one’s level of spiritual investment, thus becoming more nominal in one’s religious identity, a desirable means of lessening possible tensions in an intermarriage?

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