I have seen these same Jewish girls go with gentile fellows and it is nothing but if any other girl goes with a gentile, why they are considered the worst girls in town.
– Excerpt from a letter to Teddy Levine from Molly Zeitman, Feb. 25, 1912
Throughout the 20th century, there is a noticeable rise in intermarriages that may be attributed to four specific factors. The first is a stress on assimilation. Since Eastern European Jews felt anti-Semitism upon their entrance into the United States, they worked doubly hard to assimilate into American society. Some of the most prominent methods of assimilation were schools and clubs that introduced genteel ideas to Jewish children. Secondly, Jewish communities attempted to work closely with the gentile community and this increased interaction between Jewish and gentile children. With increased interaction came relationships between Jews and gentiles that ranged from friendship to courtship. Also, as Jewish youth found out, the small communities where children were being raised meant that there were few eligible partners for two important reasons: 1) many of the children were related and 2) since the children grew up together, they had no interest in dating each other. Finally the generational divide created a community more conducive to intermarriage. While the first generation Jews often did not approve of their children marrying outside the faith, the second generation Jews were much more accepting of interfaith partnerships.
Of course, there were still families that were extremely and unwaveringly against intermarriage under any circumstances. For some Jewish families, intermarriage was comparable to death and as a result some Jewish families sat shivah for a family member who intermarried. Other reactions to intermarriage were severe ostracism and avoidance of the couple. Judith Goldstein remarks in Crossing Lines that “Jews could abandon other aspects of Jewish observance–the Sabbath, kosher rules, wearing a hat or yarmulke all the time–but never intermarriage.” Goldstein goes on to tell the story of future Maine senator William Cohen, whose parents were intermarried: his mother was Irish and his father was Jewish. The synagogue in Bangor refused him a bar mitzvah ceremony because his mother had not converted to Judaism. Instances of discrimination such as Cohen’s story were common during the first half of the 20th century.
With more interfaith participation, the occurrences of Jewish/Gentile relationships increased. Since within a small town, residential and social proximity tends to backfire in the sense that it turns off youth from eligible marriage partners within their own community, intermarriage became a much more acceptable institution. Small communities also displayed a trend towards intermarriage because they began to recognize the lack of a dating population within their own community and, as Peter Rose points out in Strangers in their Midst, small town Jews were more apt to approve of a great deal of social interaction with non-Jews for their children because “due to the nature of small-town living, the lack of opportunity to have day-to-day contact with Jews coupled with close proximity to non-Jewish neighbors would lead to intimate socializing to a degree unparalleled in larger communities.” Therefore, the communities and families were forced to become more progressive as a result of the realization that small-town life did not provide adequate opportunities for dating and marriage.
Fore more information on intermarriage in Jewish communities see: John Mayer’s Jewish-Gentile Courtships, Karen McGinity’s A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, and Peter Rose’s Strangers in their Midst. Consider as well the following statements by Jews who grew up in small communities in Maine.
Ken Slosberg (b. 1944, Gardiner):
My town was so small that, I know just in general, the big fear was intermarriage. It’s what parents didn’t want to happen, you know. They didn’t want their kids dating non-Jews and if they did date non-Jews they were very nervous that something serious might develop. So, seems like we started dating in sixth grade, fifth or sixth grade, we had boy-girl parties, real dates maybe in junior high. And I know that my mother always referred to it as, it seemed like when I dated non-Jewish girls they were always, “Ken’s little friends,” “Kenny’s little friends,” “little girlfriends.” I dunno, it was some kind of way of putting them down I thought. And she was always a little less enthusiastic about greeting them and hosting them when they came over than if they were Jewish. But in my high school I didn’t date any Jewish girls, so the only dating of Jewish girls that I did was through that Center Youth organization… In general, I think that probably the Jews in general in Gardiner dated less because of our parents’ fears of intermarriage. And I know that I always heard stories from kids in Portland about how they would always sneak around to date non-Jews…
Irene Friedman (b. 1931, Augusta and Bath):
My grandmother’s family, my mother’s mother, had a sister in Gardiner whose husband was my grandfather’s brother. It was two first cousins marrying two first cousins. I doubt if they would allow that today. But, in those days there were a lot of cousins marrying cousins, because I guess they wanted to make sure that they stayed within the faith. That was very important to them…
So we got a touch, a good touch of Jewishness, but we didn’t know a great deal about the religion. In fact, we always thought that it was a crime to marry out, because that is the way we were made to feel. No Jewish person would marry out in those days. And of course, this went for every town in Maine…
But the one thing that really stuck with us and stuck us, to be very honest about it, was when we were old enough to date and to go out. Jewish boys, that I knew in my school—this is when I got to high school—didn’t date Jewish girls. And therefore you went out with non-Jewish guys, if you went out at all. Now its true, the Greek girls didn’t go out, and most of the Jewish girls didn’t go out. But we did occasionally go out, and I did meet a young man, who to this day I still hear from and see occasionally at class reunions. The religious thing became a very, very sore spot with me. Everyone told us that there was no such thing as conversion to Judaism. That’s how we grew up. We were told that nobody married out. If they married out they were excommunicated from the community. We have a distant cousin who lived in Augusta all her life and she was a dancing school teacher. And I must tell you that we went to dancing school. She went around with a non-Jewish fellow for years and finally married him, and had a daughter. I don’t know what her life was like. You see must of us who grew up there didn’t have a lot of religion. We had it only in the home and three days a year at the synagogue. So that it was a thorn in our sides when we learned that if we brought home anyone who wasn’t Jewish (and here my father was Americanized, he was born and raised, like both my parents, in this country) but this was a taboo that you couldn’t touch. And I once read a book called Crossing Borders about Penobscot County where he lived as a young kid, and it was the same thing there. It was Maine. Every small town had the same problem and intermarriage was a taboo. And I think what really bothered me was when I grew up and found out that one could convert to Judaism. And here I’d told this young man there was no such thing. When he said to me, “I’ll convert,” I said, “you can’t, there’s no such thing as conversion.” It bothered me that I didn’t know my religion. And it bothered me that it had this taboo, even though I understood why and I still understand why and I can see that it was a necessary thing. But it was done in such a way that it was really an abomination. And I know that I’m not the only one in that town that grew up and felt that way. Although most of us married Jewish people, but we had to leave Maine in order to do it.