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Jewish Journal

Marriage, family pressure and Jewish geography

by Pini Herman

March 14, 2012 | 6:04 pm

What is the difference between a pit bull and a Jewish Mother? The pit bull eventually lets go.

It’s an old joke, but one that speaks to the role of familial connections among Jews, which play a large role in how we consider the Jewish geography of weddings and marriage. Where your wedding takes place may be the first of several geographic considerations that arise for Jewish and interfaith couples.

After the wedding, the next foray into location is whether the couple actually chooses to share the same geography. The alternatives can include international or bicoastal living arrangements.

Just moving in with each other and forming a household is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

In our case, my wife’s training as a sub-specialist physician and my ongoing career commitments as a demographer complicated our geographic options. We spent the first few years commuting to each other’s residence on different coasts and then different cities, until we had our first child. He was almost a year old and had earned free frequent-flier flights on Southwest Airlines by the time we were living as a family in one house in one city.

We wanted to live close to our parents and families, which is how we eventually chose our home in Los Angeles.

Family pressures have been found to be relevant not only to where we locate geographically, but — since even before “Romeo and Juliet” — to whether a wedding actually takes place.

In the past half century, U.S. marriages have been much more infrequent. A report issued by the Pew Research Center at the end of 2010 revealed that marriage in America was at an all-time low, with only 51 percent of American adults 18 and older currently married, as contrasted with 72 percent in 1960.  

One-fifth fewer married couples doesn’t translate into a lot of people forgoing the couple life; it just means that there has been a huge rise on cohabitation and to what demographers refer to as “non-marital unions.”

Demographers have long noted that non-marital unions are more likely to be interracial than are marital unions (i.e., married couples). And according to Stanford demographer Michael J. Rosenfeld, interracial couples and same-sex couples are more likely to live away from the community in which their parents reside.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion demographer Bruce Phillips has found that this also applies to Jews when he looked at non-marital unions in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Respondents under 30 were the most likely to be cohabiting. Phillips found that persons of mixed Jewish/non-Jewish ancestry (i.e. one or no Jewish parents) are far more likely to intermarry than those of single Jewish ancestry (i.e., two Jewish parents). Almost all of the mixed Jewish ancestry respondents under 30 had a non-Jewish partner, regardless of marital status. Among single Jewish ancestry respondents, however, those who were cohabiting were almost two and half times as likely to have a non-Jewish partner as those who were married (73 percent versus 30 percent).

Phillips pointed out that Jewish cohabitation resembles interracial cohabitation.

For both Jews and African-Americans, non-marital unions are more likely to be interfaith/interracial than are marriages. Young Jews in cohabiting interfaith unions apparently have reservations about their parents’ reaction and/or the complications that arise from an interfaith marriage.

One of the complications of interfaith marriage was the likelihood of the Jewish partner experiencing more anti-Semitism. The 1997 L.A. Jewish Population Survey found that 27 percent of the respondents overall had reported personally experiencing anti-Semitism in the past five years, with half of these people saying that the experience was “being singled out unfavorably as ‘Jewish.’ ” Intermarried Jews reported high levels of anti-Semitic experiences (37 percent) as compared to in-married Jews (19 percent). This finding shouldn’t be surprising to married people who have experienced arguments that got out of hand and unpleasant experiences with extended families.

In Los Angeles, Jews are the only geographically identifiable white non-immigrant community left in the area; there are no Little Italys or other white ethnic enclaves besides the Jewish Fairfax, Pico-Robertson, Valley Village or the stretch of Ventura Boulevard between Encino and Tarzana. When looking at the residential patterns of intermarried Jews, they tend to live in the peripheries or outside of these local Jewish concentrations.

There are many reasons for Jewish geographical areas — one factor is that Jewish multigenerational families often utilize or find comfort in convenient Jewish communal institutions such as synagogues, schools, Jewish centers (when they were robust in this community), and even senior and skilled nursing facilities when the proximity of family caregivers isn’t enough.

The geographic choices begin with schools, college selection and career choices. Weddings are only a stop, but a very indicative stop, along the way. Jewish geography is not only whom one knows along the pathways of their life, but also the choices of where they choose to live their life and whether they can find a partner to form households within that Jewish geography.

Pini Herman has served as adjunct research professor at the University of Southern California’s geography department, adjunct lecturer at the USC School of Social Work and research director at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To e-mail Herman: pini00003@gmail.com.

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