Interfaith Marriage in the late 1800s USA
April 21, 2020 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for demographics as well as societal feelings on interfaith marriage in the US in the late 1800s. I'm specifically interested in marriage between Jewish and Protestant people.

In this case the Jewish person is male and the Protestant person is female. They were both descendants of German immigrants and lived in NYC. I'm trying to understand how rare this would have been and how it would have been seen by their families as well as society. He was a wealthy lawyer, she was the daughter of a journalist. They were married after having two kids out of wedlock. I know that his mother disapproved strongly and I have one source that says that the wife converted, but I don't know if this is correct or not.

I am Jewish and aware that the children of such a marriage, if she had not converted, would not have been considered Jewish.
posted by sciencegeek to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Jews who were adults in the late 1800's and born in America, descended from German Jews, were very assimilated and did intermarry. They were typically highly educated and relatively liberal, these are the folks who "founded" what became the Reform movement. In the 1800's several prominent liberal rabbis noted that while intermarriage generally was not valid as a Jewish/religious marriage, that it was valid civically and should be treated as such. So, not common, but not unheard of. More common in secular Jews.

Most people disapproved of bastards at that time in American history so the fact that the woman wasn't Jewish was probably the least of his mother's worries; if the mother herself was a widow, her son was probably responsible for supporting her financially. Property in America as well as wealth was owned 100% by men and having bastards was a liability.
posted by juniperesque at 9:07 AM on April 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Anglo-American society around that time was anti-Semitic in that peculiarly gross way in which wealthy Jews might be tolerated at the margins of the wealthy for the services they could perform but never really considered "one of them." Have you ever read The House of Mirth (1905)? The treatment of the Jewish character there really gets at the nuance of the bigotry-ambiguity. E.g., I suspect that, as wealthy as he might have been, he probably did not belong to the New York clubs that men of his wealth would ordinarily have belonged to. However, if the wife's social status derived from her father's--not particularly reputable--then it might not be seen as excessively scandalous from the Christian side.

The Jewish POV I don't feel really qualified to speak to.
posted by praemunire at 9:12 AM on April 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

(It should also be noted that for every generalization of this kind, there is some counterexample of someone who defied or worked around convention, more or less successfully, so one should be cautious in reaching definitive conclusions in any individual case.)
posted by praemunire at 9:14 AM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might find this book useful. I also found this thesis [PDF] (it's about Germany rather than the US, but I think it would still shed light on your question).

I'll echo juniperesque that this was fairly common, and praemunire that you can find examples in Edith Wharton - as well as in Anthony Trollope's books - that address Jewish characters who intermarry or attempt to, and how it was simultaneously completely acceptable and also seen that doing so was to the Protestant character's detriment. Or you can read George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, where the main Jewish character [spoiler] rejects such an alliance in favor of his newfound faith. And even in that book, that was the happy ending more because it spared his Anglican love interest than because he returned to his people. But even in those books, it was seen as something you could do -- just as British nobility stooped to marry American heiresses for the influx of cash (see Trollope and Henry James), even America's rising upper classes could acceptably stoop to marry Jews if the business end made sense.

Meanwhile, both because Judaism discourages conversion, and because systemic anti-semitism was so constricting, it was far more common for the Jewish partner to either formally convert (generally to Catholicism, which required it) or assimilate and effectively become Christian than the other way around. While I'm sure there were Protestants who converted to Judaism, the combined societal snobbery, outright anti-semitism, lack of educational and social opportunities, and Jewish ambivalence (and sometimes hostility) toward converts, it was really unlikely that someone would choose that route.

From an overarching Jewish perspective, there are easily thousands of publications and essays bemoaning Jewish intermarriage because it is demonstrably linked to assimilation and ceasing to identify as Jewish into every subsequent generation. And - presumably - because given a choice, a large percentage of Jews intermarry every year, and presumably always have. There really are few barriers against it, and Jews are such a tiny minority that finding a Jewish spouse in a secular community is literally against the odds. That would have been every bit as much the case then as it is now.
posted by Mchelly at 12:42 PM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also, she's a bit earlier than the time frame you're asking about, but you might be interested in reading about Rebecca Gratz (the inspiration for Rebecca in Ivanhoe). She had family members who intermarried and multiple non-Jewish suitors and, but she chose to remain single rather than marry them. I haven't read her letters or biography, but I know both have been published.
posted by Mchelly at 12:50 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of flavors of Protestants. The WASPy "society" of the time was very much an Anglo-Anglican microcosm*, and it's extremely unlikely that a middle class German family ever had anything to do with it at all or that it was in any way material to this marriage. My guess is she was a member of one of the "low" protestant sects, that could have been very conservative or very liberal, there was a ton of variety as there is today. If you know what church she was christened in you could tell what sect she was. It would also be interesting to know how old she was when she got pregnant for the first time, that might explain the mother's objections and the delay in her being able to convert. The idea that her daughter had a child out of wedlock with a man with societal pressure not to marry her likely gave the mother palpitations. I do know that converting takes some time too, it's not instant you have to complete a course of study so the couple may have planned to marry all along.

*I blame Merchant Ivory for making people think that the only high society in existence in all of human history was 18th and 19th century English people or white American's pretending to be English. That simply wasn't true.
posted by fshgrl at 5:47 PM on April 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

The WASPy "society" of the time was very much an Anglo-Anglican microcosm*, and it's extremely unlikely that a middle class German family ever had anything to do with it at all

OP specifies that husband was a "wealthy lawyer." Even in today's NYC a "wealthy lawyer" is not middle-class, and a very successful lawyer's relative economic weight in late nineteenth-century NYC would have been substantially higher. In this case, his social standing would have been mediated/limited by his Judaism, but it's hardly "extremely unlikely" that a wealthy lawyer interacted with wealthy businessmen in his city. (I used to be a history grad student, I'm not super-confused by Merchant-Ivory.)
posted by praemunire at 9:02 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm referring to the people referencing House of Mirth etc. It would have affected how that kind of high society viewed their marriage if they weren't part of high society, which they almost certainly weren't given their backgrounds and out of wedlock children. How their own circles viewed it, particularly her mother opposing the marriage probably depends a lot on her mothers background (not given) and her age when the affair began. It would be odd for a mother to oppose marriage for an daughter with out of wedlock children in those days I'd think.
posted by fshgrl at 10:41 AM on April 22, 2020

Response by poster: It was his mother who objected not hers.
His mother, a widow, was a financially independent woman who owned and ran boarding houses.
He was an exceptionally wealthy lawyer who worked in the US doing corporate law (and in England too).
posted by sciencegeek at 1:00 PM on April 22, 2020

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