Chapter 4: The Contemporary American Jewish Family

By Jay Y. Brodbar-Nemzer

Jay Y. Brodbar-Nemzer, “The Contemporary American Jewish Family,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 66–87.

Chapter 4: The Contemporary American Jewish Family

Jay Y. Brodbar-Nemzer


Jay Y. Brodbar-Nemzer was a Jerusalem Fellow in Israel when this was published. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin. His published research has focused on the American Jewish family. His research interests center on Jewish and family education.



This volume is but one of several manifestations of a growing desire to better understand the link between religion and the family. In the past several years there has been an increase in interest in encouraging the exploration of this connection by social scientists. Thus, D’Antonio and others (1982) calling for greater attention to religion in the study of the family, the National Council on Family Relations creating a section on religion and family, the publication of a special section on religion and the family in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in May of 1985 are but a few examples (see Thomas and Henry [1985] for a fuller treatment of this point). Much of the impetus to this renewed interest has been the perceived role of religion as both buttressing traditional family values and combatting the tide of family instability and dissolution. Thus, family, in causal terms, has been a focus of concern primarily as a dependent variable.

The study of the American Jewish family fits well with this growing interest, and, I argue, can elucidate and augment our understanding of the relationship between family and religion in several ways. First, similar to the growing emphasis on the relationship noted above, a concern with the family has been a dominant feature of the agenda of the Jewish communal institutional world (Rosenman, 1984). It is important to note, as Thornton (1985) reminds us, that the relationship between religion and the family is a reciprocal one. This is underscored by the typical emphases on this relationship in the Jewish communal world. There, the central concern is the role of the family in the transmission of Jewish identity and in the survival of the group (see, for example, Bubis, 1983). Issues of exogamous marriages, fertility and family instability are of more than academic interest. This has been part of the general trend in American Jewry since the late 1960s, shifting the focus of concern from integration—how American Jews can best contribute and be accepted into the mainstream of American society, to survival—how American Jewry can survive as a distinct, committed religious and/or cultural entity (Cohen and Fein, 1985). Thus, complementing the emphasis on the family as the dependent variable, the major focus of those concerned with the issue for Jews has been religion as the dependent variable, with family-related variables chiefly of concern for their impact on group survival.

Second, it is important to note that Jews constitute an ethnic or cultural category as well as a religious one (Parsons, 1975; Zenner, 1985). The disentangling of these two components at a conceptual, behavioral or social-psychological level is difficult and, in terms of the experiences of the vast majority of American Jews, probably futile. [1] However, it is this very comingling of variables that have either been traditionally associated with religion (for example, belief, worldviews, ritual behavior) or ethnicity (institutional infrastructures, for instance) that may prove especially instructive to those who are concerned with the family as a dependent variable. Finally, I shall give various illustrative examples of how the distinctiveness of American Jewish family patterns may serve to advance our theories of religion and family as well as the field of the sociology of the family as a whole.

This chapter, then, will be an overview of the sociological research on the Jewish family with particular emphasis on how that research is suggestive of trends or relationships that will advance our knowledge of the sociology of the family and the relationship between religion and family. Given such a focus, this review is selective rather than comprehensive. The reader is encouraged to consult other recent reviews of the Jewish family in order to construct the most comprehensive understanding of this subfield (Dashefsky and Levine, 1983; Farber et al., 1981; Herz and Rosen, 1982; Waxman, 1982; see Cohen and Hyman, 1986 for a historical perspective).

An Overview

A number of years ago, one of the leading sociologists of American Jewry, Marshall Sklare, observed that much of what is known or believed about the American Jewish family can be traced to its portrayal in contemporary American fiction (Sklare, 1971: 73). It is probable that Philip Roth has done more to establish the image of the American Jewish family in the minds of most of us than any social scientist. This is due not only to Roth and his peers’ considerable skills with language, but also to the dearth of sophisticated and/or analytically informed sociological research on the American Jewish family. A quick perusal of recent literature reviews on this topic reveals that much of the research in this subfield has been fairly unsophisticated, often guided by unarticulated normative assumptions or goals, with much of the empirical literature suspect (Cherlin and Celebuski, 1983; Brodbar-Nemzer, 1986a). Multivariate analyses with adequate controls are generally lacking (Goldstein, 1985). We are still waiting for an in-depth qualitative observational study of the American Jewish family, though it has figured tangentially in the work of some of our most skilled family ethnographers (e.g., Jules Henry). With a few exceptions, the studies that have been done possess little theoretical or conceptual underpinning.

To be fair, there are special methodological challenges in studying the family patterns of American Jews which make research especially difficult. Any enterprise that seeks to link Jewish commitment, religiosity and so forth with family-related variables runs into problems on both sides of the equation. With respect to the conceptualization and measurement of Jewishness, measurement strategies that are used with other religions (emphasizing statements of belief or creed, frequency of private prayer) often do not tap the full range of Jewish religious commitment which involves ritual and public behavior. As noted, the multidimensional aspect of Jewish identity, with its ethnic as well as religious components adds additional difficulties (see Himmelfarb, 1982, for a review of the issues in measuring Jewish identity). [2]

So too, when we look at the set of variables associated with family (e.g., fertility, household composition, marital formation and dissolution, family-related values), there are many difficulties (see Goldscheider, 1982; Goldstein, 1985, for excellent discussions of the technical problems, especially in demographic research). Much of what we know about family patterns comes from the census and other government studies which do not include religion as a variable. While this is true of other religions as well, the situation is exacerbated for American Jewry, since due to its small size, Jews almost always do not show up in sufficient numbers in general studies that do include the religion variable. [3] Although several creative alternatives have been tried, [4] more and more our knowledge of American Jewry depends upon community surveys undertaken by local Jewish communal organizations. Although the quality and sophistication of these surveys has been improving over recent years, these studies are often undertaken with programmatic and planning but not research issues in mind. Thus, in the main, our sources of data for researching family-related variables among Jews are limited and often inadequate.

Having presented the difficulties involved in the research enterprise, what can we say about family patterns of American Jews beyond the observation that our body of knowledge is problematic? We can paint the broad demographic picture with some confidence, though there is a great deal of controversy over variations in place and time. Thus with respect to intermarriage, there is a broad consensus that the rate has been rising since the 1960s, but the rate itself is a matter of debate. Similarly, there is a recognition that Jewish fertility levels are low but controversy exists over projections for fertility in the near future. Additionally, it is difficult to come up with national estimates of rates based on community studies, especially since the reasons for local variation are not always understood. Let us look at these broad findings in a little more detail.

American Jewry has participated in trends in the larger culture, and this certainly holds for family trends such as increased divorce, single households, lower fertility and so forth. The extent is often hard to determine for the reasons noted above. Indeed, the analytic challenge is to understand where Jewish patterns are similar to the trends in the surrounding culture and where they diverge. [5] I will outline some of these trends, especially where they distinguish Jews from other groups.

American Jews have been historically characterized by high nuptiality. Thus, Schmelz and DellaPergola (1982) report proportions of ever married as high as 98 percent at age forty-five. Jews, especially Jewish men, have tended to marry later than non-Jews. This seems to have been increasing recently, and there is some concern that the proportion of those who will never marry may be equal or even exceed non-Jewish rates. Whether current trends represent deferment or actual forgoing of marriage cannot be determined from the data at hand, and is a matter of some controversy. (See Goldscheider, 1986b; Schmelz and DellaPergola, 1986, for differing views.)

Although not usually conceptualized this way, changing marital patterns are at the core of the issue of fertility as well. Traditionally, American Jews have had relatively low levels of fertility. It is thought that Jews have been at replacement level (2.1) for most of this century. At the present, there are those who argue that the fertility level has decreased to as low as 1.7 or even 1.3 (Schmelz and DellaPergola, 1982). Goldscheider (1986b) and Cohen (1986) argue that the fertility of married Jewish women is still at replacement levels. Thus, as long as marriage is nearly universal, the overall rate should be near that of replacement—though with delays in fertility the spacing of generations can become more extended. However, here again, the debate then shifts toward trends in nuptiality rather than fertility per se.

With respect to marital instability, Jews have had relatively low rates of divorce when compared with Protestants and Catholics (Bumpass and Sweet, 1972; Cherlin and Celebuski, 1983). The divorce rate of all groups has increased over the last twenty-five years, but the gap between Jews and Protestants and Catholics has remained. This difference remains after controlling for education and other socioeconomic variables, though Cherlin and Celebuski (1983) report that the gap is biggest between Protestants and Jews. Marriage, divorce and remarriage patterns lead to Jews being described demographically as a “highly married population” (Kobrin, 1986: 179). [6]

The emphasis on marriage translates into differences in household composition. Kobrin (1986) presents a detailed national comparison, working with the Yiddish-mother-tongue subpopulation in the 1970 U.S. Census. She reports that Yiddish households are more likely to be husband-wife and less likely to be single parent, though such families are not exempted from overall societal household compositional trends. She finds that adults without immediate family of procreation ties (spouse or minor children) are less likely to live with other family members. Goldscheider (1986), analyzing data from Boston, [7] finds an exception to this difference among older Jewish women only. He also reports that Jewish and non-Jewish differences persist after controlling for education.

The emphasis on marriage is also reflected in Jewish communal concern over intermarriage. The general trend in the United States has been toward an increase in interfaith marriage, with many homogamous marriages resulting from denominational switching in conjunction with the marriage itself. (Glenn, 1982.) This trend has been seen as important in reflecting a secularization of marriage and the general society (Glenn, 1982) as well as evidence for ethnic assimilation (Hirschman, 1983). Glenn (1982: 556) has put the issue well:

A strong trend away from religious homogamy might reflect a continued secularization of the institution of marriage and a continued diminution of the influence of the church and the extended family on marital choice and on marriage relationships. When and if religious preference becomes no longer an important criterion for spouse selection, the importance of institutionalized religion . . . will almost certainly have declined.

Glenn (1982) presents evidence that such a decline may be in effect. Interestingly, the passage quoted above continues:

It is true, furthermore, that the continued existence of the American Jewish community and the perpetuation of the Jewish cultural tradition largely depend on Jewish outmarriage being much lower than it would be if marital choice took place without regard to religion or ethnicity.

American Jewry, then, has a special stake in the question. Historically, American Jews have had a lower rate of exogamy than Protestants and Catholics, outmarrying far below what would be expected if their religious ethnic status were not a factor (Glenn, 1982; Heer, 1980). There is evidence that the rate of Jews outmarrying has been increasing since the 1960s, but both the current rate and the amount of change are matters of controversy (Cohen and Ritterband, forthcoming; Schmelz and DellaPergola, 1986). Given the perceived importance of intermarriage to the survival of American Jewry, as the quote from Glenn suggests, there is a tone of urgency in the consideration of this issue in the Jewish community. The problems articulated with respect to research ont he Jewish family become exacerbated when studying intermarriage while rigorous methodological research is lacking (Godscheider, 1986b).

It is difficult to arrive at a national rate, though most responsible estimates range between 24 and 30 percent (Schmelz and DellaPergola, 1986; Silberman, 1985). There is a wide range of local variation, with estimates varying from 11 percent in greater metropolitan New York (Cohen, forthcoming) to 61 percent in Denver (Phillips, 1985). While it is likely that local variation reflects differences in strength of endogamy norms and the strength of the local infrastructure in maintaining such norms, it is also likely that some of this variation is due to differential migration patterns. Moreover, due to the general state of the research, which includes sampling methodology and the lack of comparability across local studies, it is often impossible to know to what degree local variation is spurious. (Goldstein, 1985.) There is also controversy about whether the increase in intermarriage has been leveling off, with some scholars noting that the social factors associated with intermarriage, for example, remarriage and migration to areas of lower Jewish concentration, are expected to remain influential (Schmelz and DellaPergola, 1986). These controversies extend to the consideration of the consequences of intermarriage for Jewish commitment, with a number of scholars calling into question the traditional assumption that both those who intermarry and their children are “lost” to the Jewish community (Cohen forthcoming; Goldscheider, 1986).

The Sociology of the American Jewish Family: Issues and Exemplars

As we have seen from this broad overview, the stress on marriage runs through any review of the American Jewish family. Kobrin’s (1986:182) conclusion about Yiddish-mother-tongue differences in family patterns is a good summary of what we know in general:

The extent and duration of marriage is clearly greater, while fertility is lower. Couple bonds are strong, relative to the U.S. total. Other bonds are less strong, at least in terms of residential decisions, and thus family extension is rarer. Although relationships can be very strong without coresidence, it seems likely that issues of privacy and independence in the relationships between parents and children might be more acute in Jewish households.

Kobrin’s observations are instructive in several other ways. First, they are based on Jewish versus non-Jewish comparisons. Although much of the interest in Jewish family patterns has been concerned with distinctiveness, precious little research has systematically compared Jews and non-Jews. Second, Kobrin suggests a reason for the difference in coresidence patterns. Lamentably, the general literature suffers from a lack of analytic research and frameworks that try to tackle such issues directly. In this case, there is some indirect evidence that Kobrin may be on a fruitful path. Cherlin and Celebuski (1983), analyzing NORC data, report that Jews are more likely to stress values of independence in their children than are Catholics or Protestants, even after controlling for education. Ironically, the theme of intrafamilial independence has received most consideration by many of the leading American writers of our time as shaped by the experiences of the immigrant generation (Howe, 1976:180–83), recalling Sklare’s lament about the dearth of sociological studies on similar themes.

To rectify the situation and to add to our understanding of the American Jewish family vis-à-vis its usefulness for the field as a whole, we need two types of effort. First, there needs to be a greater degree of specification in our studies. Second, there needs to be a broader range of research strategies that sees the study of process as central. Let me deal with the latter first. Many of the types of issues that are central to the evolving concerns of this subfield, such as the consequences of intermarriage on Jewish identity of children, require longitudinal research. Relatedly, the desire to augment the state of qualitative research on the sociology of family as a whole (LaRossa and Wolf, 1985) is especially true for the study of Jewish families. I shall return to this point later, but it is clear that the conceptual issues involved in understanding the relationship between Jewish identity and family processes require in-depth, largely qualitative approaches. In short, the state of the field is such that we require studies that attempt to understand process. Therefore, longitudinal studies, studies that explore the various dimensions of Jewish identity, studies that tackle qualitative issues in a sophisticated manner, are sorely needed. Whether these processes are conceived of at the structural level (Goldscheider, 1986a) or at the social-psychological level (Brodbar-Nemzer, 1986a), much more work needs to be done that places process at its center.

What do I mean by my second concern—my call for greater specification in the study of the American Jewish family? First, as suggested above, we need studies that attempt to specify actual processes at work. What this might mean, by way of example, is specifying how Jewish families might be different, examining whether particular relationships that are true for families in general exist among Jewish families and whether to the same degree, and inquiring whether such findings are equally true for various specific subgroups of American Jewry. What we do not need are general claims about Jewish families that are unsubstantiated by research. Much more useful would be research informed by theory that specifies particular relationships among particular variables relevant to Jewish families. I can probably best illustrate this point by describing several studies that can serve as exemplars of specification in the study of the American Jewish family.

Specification of Distinctiveness. As noted above, much of the sociological concern with the Jewish family has centered around the question of distinctiveness. Unfortunately, there is a lack of cumulative knowledge about that distinctiveness. Some of the reason reflects the conceptual and methodological issues noted earlier.

Additionally, the lack of consensus in the social science literature about whether there are differences between Jewish families and other families is traceable to two factors—a conceptual confusion about what differences ought to exist and a lack of solid empirical research on the topic. On the second point, Cherlin and Celebuski (1983) have recently reviewed the empirical literature on Jewish familial distinctiveness and have correctly concluded that much of this work is flawed. On the conceptual level, analysis is difficult because it is not clear what properties among Jewish families ought to be distinctive. Thus, the putative differences range from queries as to whether Jewish families are “more closely knit” (Balswick , 1966), happier (Cherlin and Celebuski , 1983), more familistic (Bardis , 1961), and so forth. It is clear that this concern with distinctiveness needs specification.

Values. Elsewhere, I have treated in more detail the question of specificity of distinctiveness on a general level (Brodbar-Nemzer, 1986a). There, I have suggested that an exploration of distinctive features would do well to start with the most obvious—that the family as an institution would be of particular import to Jews. Threats to the viability of the family would be perceived as threats to the group. Family stability would be emphasized. Whether families are more closely knit, happier, and so on would depend on particular circumstances of history and place. What would be primary would be a valuing of the family as an institution. Indeed, it could be argued that under certain circumstances the aggregate level of marital happiness could be lower among groups who value the family. Dissatisfaction that might lead to marital dissolution among couples who do not have a similar valuing of the institution might be tolerated by couples who do. Similarly, a perception that one is particularly dependent on the family for nurturance and support might lead one to maintain a stronger commitment to that family and families in general, even in the face of discord and dissatisfaction.

We find that on the normative level, Judaism assigns a major role to the institution of the family (see, for example, Brayer , 1968). Specifically, both the family as a source of support and nurturance and the importance of family stability are especially valued. Indeed, Farber (1984) has recently argued that nurturance “is a central feature in organizing Jewish family life . . . [and] family and kinship norms are continually transformed in ways which are consistent with the nurturance principle.” Farber traces this emphasis on nurturance to the fact that Judaism is an ascriptive religion, which therefore relies on the socialization and retention of its progeny rather than wholesale recruitment for its continuity as a group. In terms of their traditional values and their historical experience, Jews would value the family in view of its contribution to group survival and individual support and nurturance .  [8]

The issue becomes, then, whether this view of the family still operates normatively in contemporary Jewish American life. That is, how might we empirically test the claim that Jews, in comparison with Protestants and Catholics, are disproportionately likely to value the family as a source of support and value family stability? There is little empirical work that examines this directly. We do know, from the work of Rokeach (1973), that Jews ranked “family security” higher as a terminal value than any other religious group. I examined the valuing of the family on the part of Jews on the social-psychological level, arguing that the incorporation of family values in a person’s self-concept structure would result in that person’s self-esteem being more tethered to the family. Using a NIMH sample of Chicago, I found that, controlling for education, sex and age, the self-esteem of the Jewish respondents was affected more than the self-esteem of Protestant and Catholic respondents by changes and perceptions of marital support, marital stress, concern about the future of the marriage, seeking professional help for marital problems, being married, and the length of marriage.

Demographic Variables. The specificity of distinctiveness is needed not just with respect to values, but in understanding demographic trends as well. A good example is Goldscheider’s (1986) discovery that among Jews, the relationship between education and fertility operates in a specifically distinctive way. In the general population, education has a negative impact on fertility. Thus, those who are concerned about the low level of fertility among Jews have cause for concern in light of the high educational attainment of American Jews (Goldstein, 1981). Goldscheider (1986), however, finds that Jewish women with postgraduate education have higher family size expectations than similarly educated non-Jewish women. Thus, although for the general population it is the less educated women that have the largest family size expectations, among Jewish women the opposite is true—it is the women with the highest levels of educational achievement that have the largest family size expectations. Although this finding needs to be replicated in other communities, Goldscheider has alerted us to a possible process operating uniquely among Jewish women and, by specifying a relationship among variables that operates differently among Jews, has saved us from unwarranted projections based on mistaken assumptions.

Specification of Intra-Group Differences. In addition to specifying the parameters of differences in the comparisons between Jews and non-Jews, it is often useful to specify intra-group differences as well. For example, we have noted that Jewish divorce rates are below the rates for Catholics and Protestants. To further understand the source of this distinctiveness, I analyzed intra-group variation in divorce among the Jews of metropolitan New York, with the specifying variable being group commitment (see Brodbar-Nemzer, 1984,1986b). Utilizing a wide definition of Jewish commitment, incorporating both religious and ethnic or associational measures, I found that the Jewishly committed were about half as likely to have been ever divorced as Jews with low levels of commitment. Although the differences were most marked for the religiosity measures, it was still the case that among nonreligious Jews, associational measures (such as proportion of friends who were Jewish) halved the ever-divorced rate. The rationale developed to explain such differences, which I will refer to later, concentrated on the networks and associational life of committed Jews—that their commitment to a group attenuates the individualizing tendencies of modern life, of which marital instability is one manifestation. (See Brodbar-Nemzer, 1986b, for a full discussion.)

Another issue which needs specification is the understanding of the causes and consequences of intermarriage. Here too, intra-group analyses specifying the patterns of associations are crucial. For example, similar to his specifying the relationship between education and the fertility expectations of women, Goldscheider (1986a ) found that the general positive relationship among Jews between education on the one hand and attitudes of indifference toward intermarriage on the other did not hold for young adults. In addition, he found that households which are intermarried are not as Jewishly committed as are nonintermarried households. As a general trend, this held across age groups. However, when looking at the nature of the Jewish commitment, he found a pattern reflective of the multidimensional aspect of Jewish identity. Specifically, the differences were most marked for items measuring private worship and formal synagogue membership and least marked for proportion of Jewish friends and neighbors. Such specification is important in times where the bases and manifestation of Jewish commitment may be undergoing transformation. Analyzing these patterns of Jewishness by age, Goldscheider (1986a :26–28) specifies three models of convergence. One type of convergence results from a decrease in Jewishness in younger cohorts of the nonintermarried . This he finds to be the case for the proportion of friends Jewish. A second type of convergence is due to the increase in younger cohorts of the intermarried. This he finds to be true of the proportion of Jewish neighbors. The third type results from the co-occurrence of the two trends together. This he finds to be true of the proportion who endorse Jewish values.

Specification of Changes in Jewishness. Among all American Jews, family variables become an important specifying factor in understanding patterns of religiosity and Jewish commitment. This is especially true of attempts at understanding change in these patterns. In view of the lack of longitudinal data, nearly all such studies use cross-sectional surveys and analyze patterns of Jewishness by age cohort or generation. Practically all such surveys find that young adults are least active Jewishly. One might conclude that there is a diminution over time, with the youngest cohorts becoming less Jewishly active. However, when one further specifies the relationship between age and Jewish involvement by the introduction of family variables, the situation is clarified. Specifically, the relationship is largely a function of family cycle. One of the more in-depth treatments of this topic is to be found in Cohen (forthcoming) in his analysis of the 1982 Greater New York Jewish community study. He finds a very different relationship between age and commitment when he considers family cycle. The basic relationship varies to such an extent that there were instances in which young parents were more Jewishly active than their older counterparts. This relationship was not explained by a possible later marriage by the older parents. In general, by taking family cycle into account, he finds that parents with school-age children are the most active, whereas the never married are the least Jewishly active. Indeed, the differences are striking enough to lead these researchers to suggest that “parental status is a virtual pre-condition for involvement in Jewish communal life.” (Cohen and Tenenbaum, forthcoming.) Thus, family cycle specifies the more general relationship between age and Jewish involvement in important ways.

Cohen (forthcoming) also demonstrates the importance of specifying patterns of change in his treatment of the congruence of parent-child Jewish involvement over time. He finds, in keeping with common wisdom, a parent-to-child decline in religiosity. Again, this gives the impression of an overall decline with successive generations of American Jews. However, in specifying the analysis by considering age cohort and the degree and nature of Jewish commitment of the parents of respondents, a more complex picture emerges. A complete discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, but he does find, for example, that among the younger respondents, those whose parents were not very ritually observant actually exceed their parents’ observance levels.

The difficulty in understanding change over time is especially true when we try to project into the future. Goldscheider (1986b ) cautions us not to project on the basis of straight-line assumptions using period data. This is especially true of groups in which change is occurring and rates are unstable. It appears that fertility and marriage rates are fluctuating, thus projections based on them may be misleading. Another example is the study of the consequences of intermarriage. We know that the grandchildren of intermarrieds are, on the whole, less Jewishly committed than their peers (Cohen, forthcoming). However, projecting a large future decline in Jewish commitment based on rising intermarriage rate may be an unwarranted straight-line prediction (Goldscheider , 1986b ; Cohen, 1986). The historical circumstance was sufficiently different that it is likely that the intermarried grandparents of current adults were motivated by a desire to escape from Jewish affiliation. In contrast to those times, today intermarriage is more common, involving the conversion to Judaism of a significant number of non-Jewish spouses (Mayer, 1985). A “flight from Judaism” is less likely a motivator today. Predicting patterns for a future generation of grandchildren based on what appeared to be true for those in similar circumstance two generations earlier (for example, grandchildren of intermarrieds at the time that their own grandparents intermarried) is questionable in general, but more so when the historical conditions are very different.

In this section, I have presented a number of exemplars of analyses which attempt to specify family-related processes at work in contemporary American Jewry. Such specification is necessary to understand best how and why they work. More such analyses are required to advance our level of knowledge about the American Jewish family. In the final section, I will suggest how this greater sophistication might benefit the field as a whole.

The Sociology of the American Jewish Family: Potential Contributions

In this article, I am calling for advances in our understanding of the American Jewish family through studies that specify particular relationships at work as well as research designs (longitudinal designs, observational studies) appropriate to the study of process. Such studies are important, I claim, because our general understanding of the American family (including the relationship between the family and religion) will be advanced through such research. At the global level, our theoretical models must account for cultural diversity. Any model of family process or structure or of the role of religion that does not take account of cultural or structural variation is severely limited. Thus, American Jews would be one of the many groups whose variation in family patterns we would explore and analyze. In addition, any general theoretical model, to the extent that it is viable, must also show how different subgroups manifest or reflect the imputed general cultural patterns. In a sense, this view is complementary to Lipset’s (1968), who argued that one cannot truly understand patterns of American Jewish life without a conceptual framework which locates those patterns in the dominant social structure. I am arguing that one cannot truly understand dominant or “typical” social patterns without exploring their reflection in the mosaic of subgroup experience. Thus, our understanding of the American Jewish family would serve that goal as well. Indeed, Upset (1968:27) reports that Robert Park, one of the early giants of American sociology, argued that “the Jews are the most American of all groups in the nation, that they exhibit the predominant American traits in a more integrated fashion than any other group.”  [9]

In addition, especially promising is work that goes beyond illustrating and elaborating theory, but rather transforms that theory. This is often done by studying phenomena which pose challenges and are often anomalies to the prevailing theoretical models. We have encountered this possibility in the anomaly of the positive relationship between education and fertility expectations among Jewish women. As we better understand the extent and reasons for this reversal, we may gain additional sophistication as to the workings of this relationship in the general society. As another example, the dilemma posed by the Jewish family to the widely held belief of a negative relationship between economic advancement and kinship ties was raised by Lenski (1963) and by Adams (1968) in the 1960s , and still has to be addressed by the mainstream sociological literature. (See Berman, 1976, for an attempt.) This issue can be framed in a larger theoretical question, to which we shall return—why do Jewish Americans, while at the forefront of social innovations often associated with alternative family structures (high level of education, female employment, especially self-employment, egalitarian family values, etc.) still manifest, in their patterns of divorce and childlessness, for example, traditional family patterns?

Finally, studying the American Jewish family is of importance because it may have some unique attributes or emphases which provide a “laboratory” for the development of theory on the family as a whole. Thus, Strodtbeck (1958) saw in American Jewry a unique opportunity to explore the role of values and family patterns in adaptation to the dominant social system. This point is especially salient when one takes a historical perspective. Thus, with respect to fertility, for example, Ritterband (1981:3) has suggested that the onset of the emancipation of Jewish communities in Europe “offers the scholar a unique quasi-experimental design” to study cultural variation in family formation.

I think that the American Jewish family offers a unique opportunity in at least one other way. In the mid-1970s , a telling critique was launched at sociology by such scholars as Scheff , Hochschild and Kemper , among others, of sociology’s neglect of emotion. [10] How seriously have sociologists of the family taken emotion as a variable? Very early in the discipline’s history, W. I. Thomas suggested that variance in modes of expression of emotions was a sociologically significant phenomenon and used the Jewish family to illustrate his point (Bressler , 1952). Thus, studying the meaning, use of, and rules governing the display of affect in the Jewish family could lead to a greater understanding of cultural variation in families. This focus on affect would also add to our understanding of cross-generational transmission of religious identity. Although the role of the family in this process is crucial, it is poorly understood. This is an important area where sophisticated processually oriented family studies are required. To the extent that researchers combine the study of the sociology of emotion with the study of cross-generational transmission of religious identity, our general understanding of the family’s role in socialization and cultural transmission will benefit.

The special contributions that can be made to the affective aspects of family life through the study of the Jewish family have also been noted by the historian Paula Hyman . She calls for scholarly historical study of the affective dimensions of Jewish family life. In addition, in an argument complementary to ours, she argues (1986:231) that, historically, Jews often anticipated “some ‘modern’ family traits before such characteristics were widespread in the larger population.” She singles out the degree of emotional attachment to children, fertility, and attitudes toward marital sexuality as examples of such anticipatory trends. She recommends, as we have, the further exploration of contemporary Jewry in view of its participation in the forefront of social change. In particular, she singles out such issues as the relationship between social mobility and family life and the coping and adaptation of immigrant families. [11] Hyman (1986:233) echoes a theme we have encountered, suggesting that many interesting issues have remained largely unexplored by social scientists:

Family historians and sociologists have left to novelists such questions as how the Jewish family selectively legitimated values from the larger society, how it perpetuated a measure of assertiveness among its women, how it secularized its values, and how it succeeded in sending forth its children to do battle in the world while keeping them closely attached, not the least by guilt, to the parental hearth.

In conclusion, there are numerous ways in which the study of the American Jewish family can contribute to our general understanding. In particular, in their retention of certain traditional patterns of family life while at the same time being at the vanguard of change, Jewish families may help provide a clue to solving one of the dilemmas of contemporary life: how to maintain individual integrity and human and social connectedness. Naturally, the pattern of Jewish family life does not have a unique answer, but rather, where Jews have been able to balance distinctiveness with accommodation, individualism with group commitment, we would benefit from greater understanding of how or why such processes occur. It is likely that such explanations would be found in the interaction of historical, structural and ideational factors. For example, in appreciating the link between the family and group survival the Jewish tradition has stressed the importance of family stability and cohesion (Brayer, 1968; Bressler, 1952). However, although Judaism emphasizes the importance of family stability, it also recognizes the importance of individual dignity. Thus, historically, Jewish law on marital dissolution has been relatively liberal; divorce has not been proscribed, but rather viewed as a “calamitous necessity.” (Brayer, 1968:19.) Goldberg (1968), in a historical demographic analysis, demonstrates that it is likely that as recently as the end of the last century European Jews had a higher divorce rate than other groups. However, non-Jewish divorce rates were climbing faster than Jewish divorce rates, and after World War II the situation reversed to its current status: lower rates for American Jews. This reversal may be best understood in light of Western liberalization of divorce. In the past, a sense of balance required protecting the rights of the individual; today, societal increase in divorce requires greater vigilance on behalf of family and group stability. It is possible that among Jews, in this century of threat and dislocation, it is the valuing of group commitment that is balancing out the dominant forces of individualism.

The concern with individualism and declining social solidarity locates us squarely in the central concern of both family and religion. The work of Bellah and associates (1958) is a good example of an analysis that tries to come to grips with this very concern. They decry the proliferation of a “culture of separation” as the outgrowth of unchecked individualism. This is reminiscent of Bakan’s (1966) warning about the dangers of separation (“agency”) untempered by integrative forces (“communion”). With respect to the family itself, the implications of this drift toward such individualism have been drawn out by Goode (1984).

Social integration, often manifested both within families and in families’ relation to broader institutional structures, stands in opposite relation to the forces of individualism, separation, and fragmentation. As we have seen, American Jews continue to commit themselves to the institution of the family, both on behavioral and social-psychological levels. This makes them theoretically interesting. As Goldscheider (1986a) notes: “Jews have tended in the past to be in the forefront of major socioeconomic revolutions. American Jews are located in social statuses and geographic locations that are most responsive to changes in marriage and the family.” They are doubly interesting because of their apparent ability to maintain some traditional patterns (such as nearly universal marriage and relatively lower divorce rates) in spite of their involvement in secular culture. Perhaps it has been this comingling of religious and ethnic variables, noted at the outset, that has made social integration a crucial dynamic of American Jewish life—resulting, in part, in placing religion and group cohesion and perpetuation, as well as family life, at the center. As I have been suggesting, processual studies that specify the links between social integration and the family are sorely needed. By tying together, at conceptual levels, features of religious life such as social integration with various processes and outcomes of family life, we might gain insight into the important question of how to balance the seemingly incessant drive toward individual attainment and separation with interdependence and coherence. To advance our understanding of this and other issues, the further exploration of how religion and family life interrelate among American Jews is a worthy endeavor.


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Assistance for the writing of this chapter was provided by the Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.


[1] This can be seen by examining Thornton’s treatment (1985) of religion as a dependent variable. His concern is in terms of “religious teachings and programs” whereas the concern here is broader—the perpetuation of a social group.

[2] Many researchers try to solve these problems by including a broad variety of ritual, behavioral and attitudinal items in their surveys to assess Jewish identity, including measures of communal affiliation: friendship patterns, charitable giving, organizational involvement, visits to Israel, etc. These are imperfect solutions, since they tend to ignore the largely cognitive and social-psychological aspects of identity as opposed to the more behavioral component of identification. (Himmelfarb, 1982.) In addition, there is not always consensus about the comprehensiveness of such items, their representativeness and their relative weight, especially in an era where the meaning and manifestation of Jewish commitment may be transforming (Goldscheider, 1986a; Silberman, 1985).

[3] For example, Gallup no longer routinely reports data on Jews because of the low incidence of Jews in their samples.

[4] A number of investigators have attempted strategies to circumvent these limitations, including the use of Yiddish-mother-tongue subgroup in the U.S. Census (Kobrin, 1986) and the concatenation of surveys repeated over time so that the pool of Jews approaches an analyzable number (Cherlin and Celebuski, 1982). Such approaches, though innovative and valuable, are limited.

[5] See for example, Cohen (1983), chapter 6, for such a perspective.

[6] Traditional Judaism has stressed marriage as a value. It is beyond the scope of this paper to treat the textual and ideational corpus of Jewish tradition. For a brief recent introduction to traditional Jewish values, see Linzer (1986).

[7] The Boston community studies are unique in that they systematically surveyed non- Jewish as well as Jewish households for basic demographic comparisons.

[8] An analysis of the historical and structural forces underlying these values is beyond the scope of this paper. Although the recent history of the American Jewish experience has been relatively benign, much of that experience is informed by a tradition and circumstances that encompass a larger historical frame. Thus, for example, in the history of American Jewry, which was formed largely within the immigrant experience, the emphasis on the family may also be seen as an extension of the East European experience and applied adaptively to the immigrant experience (Bressler, 1952).

[9] Lipset goes on to note that Park “urged more than forty years ago that courses on the history, culture, and behavior of the American Jews should be included as a required part of the curriculum of all American high schools, that by studying the American Jews in detail, Americans of all backgrounds could learn to understand their nation and themselves.”

[10] For a review of the sociology of emotion literature see Gordon (1981).

[11] This was one of the main reasons that W. I. Thomas was interested in Jews—as exemplars of coping and adaptation to the immigrant experience. It is this interest in their “definition of the situation” that led him to learn Yiddish and to read and abstract hundreds of letters to the editor requesting advice. (See Bressler, 1952; Metzker, 1971.)