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Book Review : Mixed Signals on Jewish Assimilation

October 15, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Mixed Blessings: Jews, Christians and Intermarriage by Paul Cowan with Rachel Cowan (Doubleday: $17.95, 269 pages)

Perhaps the greatest irony in the history of the Jewish people is that assimilation threatens to accomplish what millennia of exile and countless oppressors have failed to achieve--the obliteration of Jewish identity, and perhaps the Jewish people, too.

Thanks to the security, prosperity and liberty of our American homeland, our beloved goldeneh medinah (Yiddish for golden land), American Jews have been tempted to abandon not only the practice of their faith, but virtually all meaningful identification with the Jewish community. And the most alarming measure of the assimilation of American Jews is the rate of intermarriage--today, about 35% marry outside the faith. That's why "Mixed Blessings" by Paul Cowan, co-written with Rachel Cowan, promises to be such an important book for Christians and Jews who find themselves in love with each other.

Cowan, raised in a privileged and highly assimilated family that had mostly forgotten its Jewishness, chronicled his own return to Judaism in his well-regarded and influential book, "An Orphan in History." He married a non-Jew who not only converted to Judaism, but is now a rabbinical student. Together, Paul and Rachel Cowan conduct interfaith workshops for couples whose relationships have been shaken by what Cowan calls the "time bomb" of religious and ethnic conflict. Sometimes the trigger is the decision to marry, the birth of a child, the death of a parent or maybe just the "December dilemma"--whether to celebrate Christmas, or Hanukkah, or both, or neither. "Mixed Blessings" is the Cowans' course in consciousness-raising for interfaith couples: some witnessing, some counseling, and some practical ideas for confronting and resolving the contradictions of intermarriage.

Former '60s Activists

The Cowans are former '60s activists who appear to embrace precisely the kind of bland ecumenicalism that has encouraged assimilation. "Couples can often work out creative arrangements which involve one partner's yielding on the religion, and the other's yield on something else of great value to the partner," Cowan suggests. "One man took a women's studies course when his feminist wife began to study Judaism." But I question if Paul Cowan really believes it. As a Jew who has ardently embraced his Jewishness, Cowan realizes that halfway measures are mostly meaningless: "I'm half Jewish," one child of mixed marriage is overheard to say, "and half nothing."

And Cowan acknowledges that each loss of a Jewish man or woman, a potential Jewish parent, whether by assimilation or intermarriage, is a grave threat to the tiny Jewish community, which numbers only 6 million in a nation of 250 million. "The Jewish community is preoccupied with intermarriage," he observes. "The Christian world barely notices it. From the point of view of all the Protestant and Catholic denominations, the number of Christians marrying Jews is a statistical blip."

Among observant Jews, the only acceptable solution to the problem of intermarriage--and an increasingly popular one--is conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. Among the various approaches to intermarriage that are explored in their workshops and their book, I suspect that conversion is the most appealing to the Cowans themselves.

"We feel like neutral mediators whose job is to help each person in the workshop discover where his or her deepest loyalties lie," Cowan confesses. "But we are also committed Jews. So it is especially satisfying to us when Jews discover the depth of their loyalty to Judaism. . . . We feel a special responsibility to help these couples find ways to enter the Jewish community."

A Basic Yearning

In one sense, the revelation of "Mixed Blessings" is not necessarily a Jewish one--the Cowans have come to recognize that the yearning for identity and community and faith animates all men and women, whether Jewish or otherwise. "We dreamed of raising children with rainbows in their souls," Cowan writes. "We still believe in that ideal. But we have come to think that children need to feel immersed in one strong color before they blend in with the others."

Of course, the ultimate contradiction in intermarriage is that one spouse calls the other into his or her own faith. The Cowans concede, at least in principle, that the beckoning faith might not be Judaism. But Cowan, as a self-identified and observant Jew, cannot easily countenance the departure of a Jew from Judaism. So he writes warmly and persuasively of his own journey of return to Jewishness in the company of his wife, a modern Naomi, and that's why "Mixed Blessings" is really more concerned with the rescue of Jews from assimilation than with the conversion of their non-Jewish spouses.

"At the important moments in your life you'll be grateful for this sturdy religion, the wise ideas and the brave history it embodies, the quiet times it allows for prayer, the joyous moments it lets you burst into song and dance," Cowan writes. "A congregation of Jews that reads from the Torah every Saturday, that combines babies and grandparents, the memories of Holocaust survivors and the enthusiasm of converts, that shelters the homeless, will show you that you need not live and die on your own island of time."

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