Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism. By Jennifer A. Thompson. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014. x + 200 pp.
The bombastic claim that intermarriage poses the greatest threat to the American Jewish community is finally and cogently laid to rest by author Jennifer Thompson's astute delineations between rhetoric and reality. Through her close examination of lived experiences, she is able to offer a new understanding of Jewish peoplehood and religious transformation, drawing on Emile Durkheim's definition of religion as beliefs and practices that unite people into a single moral community. She asks: If common wisdom about intermarriage does not correspond to the lived experiences of intermarried Jews and their families, why is it "such a prominent part of American Jews' conversation in public media, between pulpit and congregation, and among individual Jews?" (x).
In Jewish on Their Own Terms, Thompson persuasively argues that American Jews' anxieties about assimilation (demographic breakdown, loss of distinctiveness, and disconnection from Jewish communities amid successful integration into mainstream culture) are essentially projected onto intermarried Jews so that these fears can be expressed and discussed without recognition of the fact that all Jews--not just the intermarried--face them. Thought-provoking insights about the discourse of discord abound between the covers of this book, illuminating how statistics about intermarriage, Jewish media representations, and communal leaders have consistently reinforced a narrative of intermarriage as assimilation, evoking much hand wringing in the process. This book should be considered a clarion call to look beyond conversations among Jewish institutional leaders and syncretic theories about intermarriage to the actual experiences of intermarried couples. Rabbinic informants use the same vocabulary to discuss intermarriage, disguising in the process their disagreement about the meanings of certain terms, while also perpetuating ideas that do not reflect the extent to which innovation is occurring.
In contrast to quantitative survey research, Thompson's ethnographic approach enables her to place intermarried people at the center of an investigation into how traditional ideas about Judaism, Jewish identity, and Jewish community intersect with American ideals about individualism, universalism, and fairness. She analyzes interviews with...