Off the shelf | Why Jews depart from the family tent, or ruffle the folds

Fears of Jewish departure — of defection to foreign gods and foreign nations — are as old as Judaism itself, and are deeply entwined in our beliefs and anxieties. And our tendency to demonize those who depart from our tent can compromise our impulse and ability to understand the sources of their actions.

Todd Endelman’s excellent new book, “Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History,” may be the first rigorous historical examination of Jews who have abandoned their heritage.

The book focuses primarily on the Jewish experience in Western and Central Europe since the Enlightenment, although it begins with a sobering survey of efforts to convert Jews from the earliest years of Christianity onward.

Endelman, who recently retired from the University of Michigan, is emphatic that Jews have rarely embraced Christianity out of religious enthusiasm. Although there were certainly conversions inspired by faith (and there is a chapter devoted to them), Jewish conversion to Christianity generally constituted “a secular rather than a spiritual act,” motivated by the desire for a ticket out of the poverty, restrictions, abuse and shame that often came with being Jewish in a hostile climate.

That hostility was much more profound than most of us can appreciate, and it is haunting to read of the failure of liberal innovations of the 18th and 19th centuries to do away with the prejudices that kept Jews as second-class citizens through most of Europe. In fact, following Jewish political emancipation in Germany, resistance to Jewish integration in Germany only increased, leading to a spike in Jews opting for conversion. However, as Germans came to view Jews less in religious terms and increasingly in racial ones, these converts often remained as outcasts. This evolving attitude would see its ultimate realization in racial laws under the Nazis that ignored baptism in determining who was Jewish.

If Endelman indicts European anti-Semitism, he also highlights the ambivalence with which many Jews have regarded their tradition. Particularly interesting is the impact of the Haskalah (frequently referred to as the Jewish Enlightenment), with its tendency toward universalism and its de-emphasis of ritual behaviors. For those who embraced these innovations, there was simply less to keep them attached to Judaism, particularly when the cost of doing so was high.

Of course, those who rejected Judaism did not always embrace Christianity. The book includes a chapter on universalist movements, such as Ethical Culture, Marxism and even Esperanto, which sought to supersede Jewish particularism. Endelman explains the disproportionate Jewish involvement in developing and supporting these movements, noting that Jews had much more to gain than Christians in the erasure of social borders.

In moving to a consideration of the United States, Endelman notes the lack of widespread conversion to Christianity, reflecting the fact that Jewishness has presented fewer obstacles to success and mobility. Indeed, for Endelman, the high rate of intermarriage after World War II is a “testimony to the success of Jewish integration” into the country’s social fabric, evolving from an act of social climbing into a much-less-charged behavior whose purpose is not necessarily to swap out one’s Jewish identity.

This last thought is consistent with Keren McGinity’s thesis in her new book, “Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood.” McGinity, a researcher at Brandeis University, rejects the traditional perspective that equates marrying out of the faith with leaving the fold.

Conducting interviews with intermarried Jewish men, she finds that many remain engaged with their Judaism and Jewish identity. And, in fact, the need to define these issues in the context of their marriages and families often stimulates increased Jewish behaviors and commitments.

McGinity describes some of the obstacles intermarried men experience in the realm of transmitting their Judaism — a goal already complicated by the fact that their children will not be considered Jewish by traditional standards. She notes that intermarried men are often hampered in the project of transmission by society’s gender roles — particularly when they are the primary breadwinners and have less opportunity to engage with their children. A greater share of the children’s upbringing is left to the non-Jewish mothers, who have a formidable challenge in stimulating their children’s developing Jewish consciousness and behaviors.

University of Kansas professor Lynn Davidman’s “Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews” tells a different leaving-the-fold story — about Jews who separate from their deeply observant communities.

The book consists of compelling, and occasionally painful, excerpts from interviews with dozens of men and women, along with Davidman’s analysis. She identifies several factors that contributed to the interviewees’ departure from the Hassidic world: exposure to secular society through the media or through non-religious relatives; upbringing in a family that deviated from their community’s standards or was not fully accepted; and discomfort with the limited opportunities available to women in the community.

A sociologist by training, Davidman embraces an insight from one of the field’s founders, Emile Durkheim, that religious myths “cannot be understood or sustained if they are not embedded in a system of bodily ritual practices and techniques.” Davidman calls attention to how the interviewees, “in shedding one identity and learning another, perform that transformation through the medium of their bodies” — through profoundly altered practices of dressing, bathing, hairstyling and/or beards, and eating. The very practice of going through daily activities enacts awareness of having departed the world in which they were reared.

“Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History”
by Todd Endelman (440 pages, Princeton University Press)

“Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood”
by Keren R. McGinity (290 pages, Indiana University Press)

“Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews”
by Lynn Davidman (272 pages, Oxford University Press)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.