Book Review: Interfaith Families: Personal Stories of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage

Kaplan, Jane, Interfaith Families: Personal Stories of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004, 237pp., $39.95 hardcover.

Marriages between Jews and Christians are fairly common place in North America’s secularly oriented societies. Indeed, in some quarters, especially within the Jewish community, such unions are a continual cause for alarm. Jane Kaplan’s nuanced interviews suggest that interfaith relationships can be tricky terrain for couples, whether both partners are religiously observant or secular in orientation.

The compelling economic, cultural and social factors–including discrimination, which centred religious identity and practice in the reproduction of cohesive communities in past generations, have gradually given way to a more outward looking relativistic perspective. While this assimilationist argument is true enough, it glosses over the very real difficulties and adjustments couples face in interfaith relationships. As Ms. Kaplan’s interviews suggest such relationships often bring in tow expectations from extended families, friends, communities of origin, as well as questions which arise as couples begin their own families. Religious identity is composed of many components. It is not unusual for individuals to discover, sometimes disquietingly, the significance and intensity of their religious identity only when it comes into friction with another set of equally significant and intensely held beliefs.

Both a strength and weakness of this book are its interviews. A more substantial introductory essay, mapping out some of the issues and alerting readers to what they might look for in the text, would have been helpful. The same is true for the inclusion of long term statistical data on interfaith marriage and divorce rates in Canada and the United States. We are left instead with a brief introduction followed by the interviews. In fairness to Ms. Kaplan, the interviews are divided into sections with deal with choosing one religion or the other, working toward shared religious practice, seeking alternatives, and the decision to convert to a partner’s faith.

What makes these interviews so compelling are the variety of entry points individuals bring to interfaith relationships and marriages. There is the woman who makes her companion promise in a late-night diner on their first date that if they fall in love and get married the will raise the children in Judaism. There is a the Rabbi’s grand daughter who converts to Catholicism, eventually divorces, and than begins the process of sorting out her religious beliefs and offering her Catholic children something of her Jewish heritage. There are the non-observant as well, those with little feeling for religious practice until confronted by the needs of a spouse with more strongly held beliefs. If couples can bridge these gaps fairly well when left to their own devices the process becomes more complex with children. Whether parents choose to promote or deemphasize religious belief and education, the children are indeed learning about religion. As these adult interviews demonstrate, these early beliefs and examples are carried into adulthood and form a first line of response to a partner or spouse’s religious concerns.

In all, this is an interesting and useful book, although not a “book” in the traditional sense. Certainly couples concerned with Jewish-Christian interfaith relationships will find this volume valuable. The interviews offer some good starting points for discussion among a broader audience or students of the Sociology of Religion. Interfaith relationships can work, but couples have to have clear (and honest) communication about their religious beliefs and feelings. Nor should they expect a resolution that looks like their neighbour’s. The interpretation of religious practice and belief are unique to the couples who struggle with achieving a satisfactory solution to the issues of faith and practice.

*Director, School of Family and Consumer Sciences, The University of Akron, Akron, Ohio 44325-6103, U.S.A.


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