Go Figure: Feminist Sociological Analysis of Diverse Jewish Households

Abstract

Recent scholarly articles and popular op-eds assert that male scholars employing demography dominate Jewish family studies, and that scholarly analysis of marriage and fertility reflects controlling male scrutiny. This paper presents a very different factual intellectual history of female scholars’ pioneering and ongoing contributions to Jewish family studies since the 1980s, including the study of fertility and marriage patterns along with a broad range of household types. It demonstrates female scholars’ explicitly feminist approach to family research and shows that contrasting scholarly views of the sequelae of intermarriage have not been particularly divided by gender. We argue that the intellectual fissure is not about feminism per se, but rather about epistemology: current criticisms of quantitative research on the Jewish family draw heavily on feminist standpoint theory, while many scholars of the Jewish family operate with the alternative tradition of feminist empiricism. The paper concludes by addressing the so-called “paradigm wars,” arguing that comprehensive and useful discussions about the interests of Jewish women require both quantitative and qualitative methods of inquiry. Finally, it recommends that social scientists studying Jewish populations utilize the term “households,” which functions more inclusively than the term “families.”

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Steven M. Cohen, along with Calvin Goldscheider and Charles Silberman, was regarded as a “transformationist,” who believed that the changing nature of Jewishness was not problematic as long as Jews were a distinctive group; however, he gradually came to view intermarriage as problematic for Jewish cultural transmission after the publication of the 1990 NJPS.

  2. 2.

    Jewish cultures developed in diverse ways in differing locales and circumstances across the centuries, from the earliest references to Judaeans in ancient Greek writings until the present day. Despite sometimes dramatic changes, specific behaviors have frequently been distinctive markers of Jewishness (Cohen 1999). Accompanied by lively lendings and borrowings in both directions, and hewed to with greater or lesser punctiliousness, such distinctive markers include (but are not limited to) the Sabbath, Jewish dietary traditions, Jewish liturgy and music, Jewish arts and crafts, and Jewish sacred and vernacular languages. Many Jewish locales created communitarian institutions expressing Jewish social ideals, e.g., groups who visited the sick, funds for the poverty-stricken in general and indigent brides in particular, and burial societies (Elazar 1995). Not least, many Jewish societies revered the process of education as well as cherishing sacred biblical and rabbinic texts; Jewish communities differed broadly in this regard, but many included significant minorities of men and fewer women who were literate enough to read Jewish texts and were familiar with Jewish folkways (Umansky and Ashton 2009).

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Correspondence to Sylvia Barack Fishman.

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Fishman, S.B., Shain, M. Go Figure: Feminist Sociological Analysis of Diverse Jewish Households. Cont Jewry 39, 407–425 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-019-09308-z

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Keywords

  • Feminism
  • Fertility
  • Intermarriage
  • Jews
  • Epistemology
  • Demography