Beyond Chrismukkah

The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States

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Samira K. Mehta
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , March
     2018.
     274 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469636368.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE

What do the TV shows Little House on the Prairieand Sex in the City have in common? According to Samira K. Mehta, author of Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States, both shows—despite their origins in different decades (1970s vs. 2000s) and diverse geographical and historical foci (19th c. Minnesota vs. 21st c. Manhattan)—share a plot line in which a Christian main character marries a Jew. These shows’ solutions to the interfaith marriage “problem” (assimilation and conversion, respectively) represent two ways Americans have attempted to navigate the tricky waters of Christian-Jewish marriage since its burgeoning in the mid-20th century.

One strength of Beyond Chrismukkah is that it examines images of American interfaith families through time, drawing on a wide range of sources including media depictions (film, television, children’s books), consumer products (holiday cards), oral history interviews, as well as more traditional sociological data and formal theological documents. (Chapter 1 even covers Catholic Church documents on interfaith marriage, but interestingly, the book makes no mention of the 2000 Jewish text Dabru Emet, which reassures Jews that an appreciation of Christianity will not lead to an increase interfaith marriage.) While other sources on this topic consider Christian-Jewish marriage in the context of US Judaism or with a focus on theology alone, this book is unique for placing its discussion of interfaith marriage within the context of trends in US history overall, such as increasing religious diversity, decreasing religious affiliation, combining practices from multiple religious traditions, the rise of the nones, and so on. 

The book approaches the topic creatively by alternating between history and lived religion. Chapter 1 discusses the rise of interfaith marriage in 1960s America (an issue all three major religious groups of the time—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—were facing). Chapter 2 describes various popular media depictions of interfaith marriages and the “assimilation” solution presented by some shows (for example, on Little House on the Prairie, when the Protestant Nellie marries the Jewish Percival, and after only a little struggle with the grandparents, he easily transitions into Midwestern family life, leaving much of his New York Jewish identity behind). Chapter 3 turns to the 1970s and 1980s with questions of Jewish identity (matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent) and practice (Jewish leaders encouraged interfaith families to establish “single-religion” homes—meaning Jewish homes—a task which often fell to the Christian mother). Chapter 4 turns to lived religion, with a focus on the lives of interracial, intercultural Jewish-affiliated families, including one that identifies as “Southern Jewish African-American” and another as “Puerto Rican-Jewish.” The author notes that these families find it more difficult to blend into traditional Jewish communities than whites do, but they also have more flexibility in combining traditions and heritages. Chapter 5 examines the multiculturalism of the 1990s and includes descriptions of Chrismukkah practices and consumer products, discussing the “logic” behind this blended holiday and the families that celebrate it. Chapter 6 focuses once again on case studies—this time, four families who have rejected the single-religion home idea and instead have combined aspects of faith and multiculturalism in unique ways: an interfaith farm homestead with a focus on sustainability, a Unitarian-Universalist family, a Mormon-Jewish family, and the Interfaith Family Project (the IFFP is a new hybrid religious community produced by Jewish-Christian marriages). The author found that these blended households were not confusing to children, but rather such families “often developed a cohesive family narrative or sense of who they were as a family beyond denominational constraints” (164). Chapter 7 ends the book by suggesting that interfaith marriages are “most definitely an American story,” as evidenced by high-profile Jewish-Christian couples such as Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky (not to mention Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner). The author argues that the many questions facing these couples “can only be understood in the context of a broader American religious narrative” (204). In fact, these blended couples are not only a part of the American religious landscape, but they are helping to shape it going forward. Beyond Chrismukkah is a dynamic and illuminating introduction to this new reality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rita George-Tvrtković is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samira K. Mehta is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College.

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