McGinity on Mehta, 'Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States'

Author: 
Samira K. Mehta
Reviewer: 
Keren R. McGinity

Samira K. Mehta. Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 274 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3635-1; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-3636-8.

Reviewed by Keren R. McGinity (Hebrew College, Brandeis University, and Hadassah-Brandeis Institute) Published on H-Judaic (April, 2018) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51859

Hybrid Family Identities and Race in American Religious Life

Samira K. Mehta’s first book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Family in the United States, is a welcome addition to the scant qualitative scholarship on interfaith marriage. Focusing her research and analysis primarily on Christian-Jewish families, which she argues are the archetypal kind, Mehta uses contemporary ethnography to advance understanding of lived experiences that are considerably more complex than the word “interfaith” implies. She uses data gleaned from interviews with fifty families and religious professionals; explores the Jewish Reform movement’s institutional positions, Catholic policies and theologies about marriage, and The Christian Century magazine of the Protestant mainline; analyzes select advice and children’s literature; and looks at key examples of television and film. The result is a multilayered narrative that illuminates how, in her words, “thinking about religion and culture as strategic terms provides a new paradigm for understanding interfaith families, but it also advances our understanding of how American society defines and uses those concepts and encourages scholars to continue to explore and question how we draw those boundaries” (p. 3). Amen, sister.

Unlike most monographs about Jewish intermarriage, this volume is not concerned with the continuity question, that is, whether marriage outside of the group will lead to loss of identity and a decline in the population, and therefore free from trying to determine whether interfaith marriage is “good or bad for the Jews.” This flexibility allows the author to venture into unchartered behavioral waters and to see with fresh eyes how religious institutions that prioritized education and affiliation outside of the home neglected to provide for “children of interfaith marriage raised in homes that saw themselves as Jewish, but existed outside of institutional structures” (p. 90). Moreover, the Reform tendency to mark Jewish identity by the absence of Christian practice (such as having a Christmas tree) as much as the presence of Jewish practice (lighting Shabbat candles) did not account for the reality of Christian-Jewish families who created “their own pastiche of practices” and a “moral framework that anchors their choices” (pp. 13, 110; see also p. 141). Mehta effectively illuminates and defines for her readers a new category of interfaith families, as it relates to American culture, including consumption of food and objects, which is “inherently hybrid” (p. 13). “When previously religious objects—like a menorah or a crèche—become cultural,” she writes, “they then become equivalent, within and across groups” (p. 140).

While the fourth chapter titled “Chrismukkah” likely inspired the book’s title and has the best explanation of this new holiday that I have had the privilege to read, the previous chapter is actually this work’s greatest contribution to intermarriage scholarship. Mehta explains the advent (no pun intended) of Chrismukkah as follows: “Two trends allowed interfaith families to draw selectively from their Christian and Jewish backgrounds in order to create a mosaic of household practices that formed new, hybrid identities: the development of a ‘seeker’ mode of religion and the rise of multiculturalism as a theoretical and lived concept intersected with a consumer-based mode of identity formation to create new possibilities for interfaith families. Specifically, the seeker religion model enabled a shift between religious traditions that combined practices from multiple religious traditions, a religious reality that was deeply shaped by consumption.... Chrismukkah itself, then, serves as a (sometimes minimally) reconfigured holiday that points to ‘cultural’ heritages rather than ‘religious’ truths, allowing interfaith families to shape a family-based, multicultural practice” (p. 137). The multiculturalism of the 1990s played a definitive role, although, as Mehta explains, the rhetoric of multiculturalism first arose earlier in 1960. Somewhat surprisingly, the author does not emphasize the unprecedented high rate of Jewish intermarriage in 1990, 52 percent of Jews according to the National Jewish Population Survey, which likely contributed to a larger volume of interfaith families needing to find ways to avoid conflicts and find a family identity—a point she emphasizes along with the individualism ethos and lack of community.

Beyond Chrismukkah is a good example of a book whose title does not do it justice. Or perhaps the word “beyond” is meant to convey much more than it actually does. Unless one believes that the United States is a post-racial society, the word “race” belongs in the title. Mehta’s research and analysis of interracial interfaith families, specifically black and Latino, is both pioneering and timely. The construct of race and racism in America, and within the Jewish community despite growing awareness of Jews of color, creates a power imbalance and process that is different for interracial interfaith families than for white interfaith families. Since Jewish privilege is white privilege, for families in which the “Christian spouse was not white, however, the Ashkenazi Jewish parent often lost the status as the singular religious or ethnic minority in the family” (p. 113). Because the church is a significant element of the construction and understanding of blackness, “the minority culture/majority culture dynamic imagined for interfaith marriages was disrupted ... by the racial dynamic” (p. 128). Similarly, a Jewish-Puerto Rican family may partake in a meal of pork and plantains on Christmas Eve out of deference to the non-white Christian parent. Interracial families, therefore, transformed what the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “religion” mean and make boundaries considerably more porous. 

As a gender historian, I cannot help but wish that the gender analysis had been consistently carried throughout Mehta’s engaging book. The importance of the statement that “gender is a dominant factor in shaping the experiences of interfaith families” (p. 114), which is absolutely true, gets lost later in the text where there is no comment when wives prepare their husbands’ family recipes, nor in the discussion about young adult literature in which both protagonists have Jewish fathers. Previously published scholarship about interfaith marriage (by me and other scholars) makes it reasonable to suggest that the I-told-you-not-to-marry-a-shiksa joke, the Sex in the City (1998-2004) dialogue, and scenes from Annie Hall (1977), Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) be omitted or relegated to footnotes rather than rehashed in Mehta’s book with little gained. Moreover, given the importance of the multicultural turn of the 1990s that the author analyzes, why not focus on television and films contemporary to that time period and since? Most striking about what is missing from Beyond Chrismukkah, however, is an invitation to know its author and her relationship to the topic. There is one fleeting reference in the concluding chapter about Mehta’s background—“My own Unitarian-Hindu parents like to say that ‘all Unitarians are Hindus; sadly, all Hindus are not Unitarian’” (p. 210)—but I was left wondering: Who is Samira Mehta? How did her family of origin and identity inform the questions she asked, the way she asked them, and the interaction with her respondents whose lives she studied? These complaints aside, Beyond Chrismukkah is a must read for everyone who wants to understand the dynamics of Christian-Jewish families in an increasingly multicultural American landscape, especially the children of interfaith families, the “bridge builders” who hold the future in their hands.

Citation: Keren R. McGinity. Review of Mehta, Samira K., Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51859

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