Sunday, April 07, 2013

Intermarriage Studies

Sometimes an author's name's familiar, but you don't know why. If you have a touch of the graphomania, you can search your own since-2004 bloggings, and you're likely to dig up something. So it went with Naomi Schaefer Riley. Anyway, here she is! She's the writer who was fired from the Chronicle of Higher Education after she declared the field of Black Studies preposterous on account of the dissertations it produces... dissertations she hadn't read, and that sounded unremarkable, certainly no worse than dissertations in other fields.

Anyway, if the retort to her last intervention into the national conversation was that her own husband is black, she's now able to use the very same husband in (preemptive?) response to criticism of her latest project: a dire warning about intermarriage in America. But it's OK, because she herself is intermarried. (Anyone who thinks marrying out means overall positive attitudes towards intermarriage, let alone towards the group into which one has married, might want to check out Drieu la Rochelle's 1939 novel Gilles. An admittedly extreme example.) Whatever the case, the important fact here is that we can safely assume Riley would approve of my dissertation topic. (French Studies with a hint of Jewish Studies.)

While I haven't yet been able to track down her book, I did read her op-ed in the NYT, presenting her findings. Which leaves me with a bunch of questions to have at the ready for the book itself:

1) Why should "secular Americans" be upset that interfaith marriages "tend to diminish the strength of religious communities, as the devout are pulled away from bonds of tradition and orthodoxy by their nonmember spouses"? I guess one could argue (does Riley?) that even the secular might be upset by the no doubt disproportionate impact this has on religious minorities, but even so. If you aren't generically pro-religion, the waning of religiosity might seem a good thing.

2) "Religious leaders I interviewed — and not only Jewish ones — were broadly worried about interfaith marriage." Is this sentence merely a reaction to the information right above it re: the higher divorce rate Riley found among intermarried Jews (but not Catholics... but what about Jews married to Catholics?)? Or is it about the common assumption that Jews are the group most angst-ridden about out-marriage?

3) Is there even a meaningful category called "interfaith marriage"? Meaning: does the marriage of a Catholic and a Protestant (both of whom could be of English ancestry, or German, etc.) much relate to marriages that also cross ethnic or socioeconomic lines - marriages in which "religion" is less about piety and more a proxy for other such factors?

4) Why are we so concerned about what happens when children are born to "people who married between ages 36 and 45"? "Those who marry in their 30s and 40s, especially educated professionals, are often at the most secular points in their lives. These couples tended to underestimate how faith can grow in importance as they got older and had children." How much older are 45-year-old women going to get before having children?

5) If the older a couple is when they marry, the more likely they are to be interfaith, and if interfaith couples are more likely to divorce, that is interesting, given that we're always hearing that if you want your marriage to last, you should wait until the five remaining minutes of your fertility to say "I do." Is it that once you get to an older cohort, there are more people who had first tried and failed to marry in, and they (or their families-of-origin) see these marriages as somehow less-than?

6) Why this project, why now? People - OK, Jews - have been issuing the very same warnings about intermarriage since intermarriage first became legal/plausible.


Andrew Stevens said...

Anyone who thinks marrying out means overall positive attitudes towards intermarriage, let alone towards the group into which one has married, might want to check out Drieu la Rochelle's 1939 novel Gilles. An admittedly extreme example.

I was puzzled by this when I read it. It seemed like saying, "Anybody who doubts faster than light travel should watch the movie Star Wars." I've never heard of the writer or the novel, so I looked it up and I see it is an autobiographical novel, which very greatly helps your case.

On the other hand, his marriage to his Jewish wife ended in 1921 and he didn't embrace anti-semitism until the 1930s. I'm not saying there aren't such examples. I'm sure there are; the world is a big place. Just not sure you actually pointed to one.

Britta said...

Yeah, a nominal Catholic and nominal Protestant, while technically interfaith, aren't going to run into the same problems. If you both go through the major holiday motions without the religious component, it's no more incompatible than marrying within a faith and bickering over whose house you go to for what holiday, or weather ham or goose is the proper Christmas dinner. Where faith maps on to cultural/national/ethnic divides, it's somewhat a proxy for larger cultural differences. A Lebanese Christian and a midwestern white American might have the same sorts of frictions a Lebanese Muslim and white American might have. It's also possible to be inflexible no matter what: my great-grandparents were of the exact same religion and from neighboring countries, and they refused to attend church together, even for holidays, because they each wanted to attend the their home country's church. Their children we given a choice over which church to attend, and then were supposed to stick with it through confirmation.

The question of what counts as "interfaith" is also interesting. As someone raised in a Protestant high church religion and secular but not opposed to practicing my religious faith (which also maps pretty squarely on to an ethnic/cultural identity), I feel far more comfortable at a Catholic Mass, where I know the liturgy, the structure of the service, and all the hymns, than I would be at a low-church (non liturgical) Protestant service, where I would be completely lost. Culturally, I feel I have more in common with secular-ish Jews, Catholics, Muslims, than I do with Protestant religious fundamentalists. While there might be culture clashes due to interfaith issues with the former, there would be huge culture and worldview clashes with the latter.

Phoebe said...


So much to say on this!

First off, the science-fiction analogy doesn't hold, because not all fiction is equally irrelevant to all facts. Historians can, do, and should use fiction - esp realist, but not only - to suss out, for example, what the conditions of possibility were at a given time. You can't get the rate of intermarriage from how often it appears in literature, but you can get anxieties about it.

Anyway, there's no reason anyone not writing a thesis on this topic would know this, and this was an aside in a blog post, not a dissertation chapter, but... the whole phenomenon of anti-Semitism fueled by intermarriage is a big deal in French (and other) literature, and these tended to be stories at least purporting to reflect real-life events. There's a long version of these remarks, with primary-source citations and everything, but... you get the idea.


"Where faith maps on to cultural/national/ethnic divides, it's somewhat a proxy for larger cultural differences."

Precisely. Although I add "socio-economic," because there's often an old money/new money (or no-money) element.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe: I defer to your expertise on the matter. If it is not an isolated example, but common in the fiction of the time, I certainly accept that there is an excellent chance it describes a real phenomenon. (I do think it falls quite a bit short of proof just because literary tropes often acquire a life of their own and can be widespread even though there's nothing in reality for them to correspond to.)

Personally, I don't question your assertion that it is possible to be married to someone of a particular race or faith and yet in general dislike that race or faith. If I assumed a hypothetical person who did, though, I don't think she would be impressed by an example of a person who disliked Jewish people even though he was divorced from a Jewish woman as was the case with La Rochelle. It would take a real paucity of imagination to think that scenario implausible.

Phoebe said...


Literary tropes that take on lives of their own matter to history, but not because the presence of a whole bunch of them tells us that whatever the thing is was also present in reality. They tell us that the thing was/represented a real-life concern.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sure. Though sometimes it's nearly exclusively a concern of the literati. Anyway, I'm not at all saying that this is one of those cases.

Phoebe said...

I mean, how to best put this... is this something you know about? I'm not going to be all, I'm an expert in this and you're not, because what good is expertise if you can't back it up in the face of outside commentators confident enough to tell experts why they're wrong. But do you have examples of this "nearly exclusively a concern of the literati" phenomenon? I'll certainly grant you that there are "history" books that treat fiction as fact, and that refer to attitudes of characters as those of real people. But I believe that's fallen out of favor, if it ever was in favor to begin with.

Britta said...

I used to run anti-racism training workshops, and all the time we got people who would say thing like, "I'm not racist because my wife is Cambodian, and then go on to say some of the most offensive things about Asian people I've ever heard." There's a reason why in popular culture, "my best friend is black" or "my girlfriend is black" is a trope.

Also, self-hatred does exist, and there are people who enjoy being told that *they're* not like everyone else in their group. Some times the minority-group partner actively reinforces the other partner's negative views of their group.

Phoebe said...


The examples you cite make perfect sense. I'd only add that fetishization enters into it - sometimes one partner will want to 'conquer' the other, or some such neurosis, and a belief that a love interest comes from a group that's somehow less-than enters into the attraction. And... not to totally ruin Andrew Stevens's day, but there's a French novel about this as well - Enacryos's La Juive.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe: Sorry about the delay. I had to present at a conference this week and then missed that you had responded.

Anyway, I wasn't saying anything terribly profound or anything you wouldn't already have thought of, merely pointing out that the concerns of intellectuals are often narrow and may have almost no correlation with the concerns of society at large. E.g. the relationship of man to art is a major theme in literature, but it's not something the common man gives a lot of thought to. When Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice, what concerned him was not, I would guess, of particular concern to the average German plumber in 1912.

As I said, I don't think it particularly applies in this case. If there are lots of examples in the literature of the time of intermarriages where one partner was contemptuous of the race/religion/whatever of the other partner, I'm willing to stipulate that there were probably a number of such relationships at the time. On the other hand, that someone could become anti-semitic after divorcing a Jewish person would not be a revelation to even the hypothetical people who don't believe such relationships exist.