Friday, October 25, 2013

Are America's Jews still Jewish?

OK, I admit, that title was a wee bit provocative. Not nice of me.

On the other hand, given the story of my family, which isn't new, and the PEW survey of American Jews, which was published earlier this month, along with a slowly-broadening fissure opening between the world's largest Jewish community and the second largest, I think it needs to be asked.

My family's story isn't important, were it not for the fact that I've been watching it happen all my life, and I've always assumed that it was typical. My great-grandparents moved to the Goldene Medina in the first years of the 20th century, as is true about most of America's Jews. I no longer have contact with quite a number of my cousins, especially the 2nd and 3rd ones, but so far as a I know, a clear majority of them are no longer Jews. Some are quite open about this (the Pew survey found more than a million descendants of Jews who define themselves as not Jewish); others are too lazy about the issue to make any declarations.

The Pew survey has been dissected, discussed, and dismissed with much fanfare since its publication; it has also caused much dismay. It's also more than 200 pages long, so many of the people who've been discussing it avidly may not have read it all. (I skipped the almost 100 pages that focused on methodology). You don't need me to analyze what's in it; indeed, all I'm going to offer is a very small nutshell. In one brief sentence: America's Jews are disappearing, but until they do, they mostly feel good about being Jews.

Not all of them, and not equally, of course. The 10% who are Haredi, and the 5% who are Modern Orthodox, are mostly flourishing. This wasn't always so, of course, and traditional Jews who moved to America usually lost some or all of their commitment to a halachic lifestyle, but those who held onto it now live in a strong community with little attrition.

All the rest, however, are losing numbers and losing commitment. Households with two committed Jews are losing less than households who aren't like that - but a large and growing number aren't like that. Back in the early 1970s there was a spate of articles in Israeli newspapers, I remember, about how intermarriage in America was going to result in the disappearance of America's Jews. This then didn't transpire, and the Israeli smugness abated - except that it has happened, and is happening, and while it's taking longer than the Israelis expected, it looks inexorable.

Yet the survey also shows that large numbers, and clear majorities, of America's Jews are proud to be Jews. How then to resolve those two characteristics?

The answer, I fear, is in that well-worn issue of what being Jewish means. Is what America's Jews are proud of, really Judaism?

Jewish identity was not complicated since before the Common Era all the way up until the beginning of the 19th century. For the past 200 years however, it has become very complicated indeed. I'm not going to offer a magic bullet to make that complexity go away. Are Jews the people who believe in a certain set of beliefs? Well, sort of, but not really, so no. Are they the people who live according to halachic precepts? Of course not, except when they do. Are they an ethnic group? Walk down the streets of Jerusalem and you'll be hard-put to say what a Jew is supposed to look like. (I remember the exciting moment some 20 years ago when I saw, for the first time, a Jew who really looked exactly what the anti-semitic caricatures said we're all supposed to resemble. I haven't seen him since, however).

Having said all that, there are things that can be said about what being Jewish is, and to ask if most of America's Jews share those characteristics to a significant extent.

The first, sadly, is that often being a Jew was something you were willing to die for. Not eager to die for, or course, but committed to the Jewish way of life to the extent that you'd not abandon it no matter what, come hell or high water or rampaging pogromists or devious designers of laws against Jews. Or suicide bombers on buses or in supermarkets. Like it or not, today's Jews are essentially all descended from forebears who responded to the willing-to-die question in the affirmative. Most of them weren't called upon to make the personal choice, but it was often there, in the near or distant background, and they, their grandchildren and their 10th and 20th generation descendants all answered in the affirmative. Those of their descendant who didn't may still carry the odd gene inherited from them but they're long since not Jewish.

The PEW researchers didn't ask their respondents if they're willing to die for being Jewish, but the answer is clear; they're not willing to make some considerably lesser requirements of themselves and their children.

The second, of course, is the matter of religious lifestyle. I'm carefully staying away from the question of religious belief, because dogma and theology have usually played only a minor role in Judaism. The Protestant concept of belief as an indicator of belonging is rare in Judaism, which means that even if some American Jews believe in a set of Jewish beliefs, if they're not committed to a recognizable way of Jewish life, it's not clear what help the belief is. What has always been important is a Jewish way of life. Since we're way beyond the days when this had to mean a halachic lifestyle it's harder to define, but it still has to be there.

Israelis have a Jewish lifestyle of a sorts by definition: they live in Hebrew, according to the Hebrew calender, in a society which understands itself as having important Jewish elements. Do America's Jews have a parallel phenomenon?

Not that I could find in the survey. In what was to me probably the single saddest finding of the survey, page 55 tells of what American Jews think is essential to their being Jewish. The totals are as follows:
Remembering the Holocaust - 73%
Leading an ethical and moral life - 69%
Working for Justice/equality - 56%
Being intellectually curious - 49%
Caring for Israel - 43%
Having a good sense of humor - 42%
Being part of a Jewish community - 28%
Observing Jewish law - 19%
Eating traditional Jewish foods - 14%.

Of course, there's not a single one of those qualities which contradicts being Jewish. Indeed, it would be fine if all Jews shared them all, so that the response would have been 100% down the whole line (assuming there are any consensual Jewish foods, which I doubt there are). But are these the essentials to being Jewish? The Holocaust happened 70 years ago, which means that for the first 30-plus centuries of Jewish history that element was absent.  The ethical and justice stuff reminds me of the time a German friend told me how proud he was of his Christian values, and I pointedly asked if there were any of them I couldn't also claim, without being a Christian. Intellectual curiosity and a sense of humor? As defining characteristics of Jewishness? Really? Isn't this a bit parochial and arrogant at the same time?

Which leaves us with belonging to a Jewish community, which the section of the survey which deals with the demographics informs us is weak and weakening, and the matter of Jewish law, which leaves no room for a secular form of Judaism.

I was astonished - or at least, I should have been, were I not such a pessimist - that Jewish learning didn't even appear as an option. In about two weeks I should finish my first cycle of Daf Yomi, which means I will have spent about 45 minutes a day racing over a blatt (double page) of the Talmud, every single day. Now, after 7 1/2 years (from summer of 2006 onwards), I am finally about to be able to say I've looked at every single page of the Talmud. Do I know the Talmud? Of course not. Not remotely. But at least I've acquired an idea about what's in it and have a somewhat better conception of what a Jewish scholar, a Talmid Hacham, spends his life at. The fact that a survey of American Jewry didn't notice that being an educated Jew might be an essential element of Jewish identity, at least for a minority, or at least as an ideal most people don't live up to, is devastating. At least it is to me. There was probably never a generation of Jews with a majority of scholars; but to the best of my knowledge all Jewish generations venerated learning of the Jewish canon.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Jews have been a diverse bunch for a very long time. Yet in their diversity, there has always been among them a core of people who were committed to their Judaism at almost any cost, which gave them a staying power unique in the annals of Man, and thereby an unparalleled cultural longevity; and they have always shared a common ground, be it religious or linguistic or social, which formed a bond of commonality. When the first  Ashkenazi disciples of the Vilna Gaon's reach Jerusalem 200 years ago and found only Sephardi shuls, they deliberated joining the Sephardis or holding out for a minyan of their own. How many secular Israeli Jews would recognize many American Jewish synagogues? This would matter less if America's Jews were creating a viable and recognizably Jewish form of life. But are they? In what way?

So tell me where I'm wrong. So far as I can tell, the 22nd century will see a vibrant and diverse Jewish center in Israel, with small satelite communities in many places in the world, including in America. I appologize for being an arrogant Israeli.


Aaron Gross said...

Well, I do think you're wrong on one minor point. When you ask what Jews are supposed to look like, you're confusing ethnie with race. The people Israel is (among other things) an ethnie, despite the fact that it's multiracial. That is, it's a largest group having a myth of common ancestry.

I think that for most Israelis, unlike Americans, ethnicity is the primary element of Jewish identity. In that way Israeli-Jewish identity fits comfortably into the category of national identity in the 21st century. Not so at all with American Jewish identity.

Ethnicity, like learning, was another option that wasn't even listed on the survey question. That should be surprising. There was no answer "Belonging to the children of Israel (Jacob)," i.e., belonging to the people descended from the Patriarchs.

Anonymous said...

re: "How many secular Israeli Jews would recognize many American Jewish synagogues? This would matter less if America's Jews were creating a viable and recognizably Jewish form of life. But are they? In what way?"
I assume you're not being facetious, so I shared your query with a wide range of folks in the USA. Maybe, just maybe, a few will respond. We'll see.
>> Arieh Lebowitz

Unknown said...

I would say that I am as much a Jew as you are -- albeit an American Jew. I practice the many of the Jewish practices as you do -- albeit not at the same scholarly level as you. At a much more vocational level... I married a Jew, my children are growing up as Jews, receiving Jewish religious education, have become part of their Jewish community, become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The difference is that we live in America and have different way of observing and practicing our Jewish faith. Perhaps most important to the arrogant Israeli, we encourage our government to support Israel and its Jewish experience (even if it is not our own) to a degree no other nation on the planet is willing to do. So next time you are in NYC, look around and see the community of American Jews that support your approach to Judaism. Reach out, shake their hand and say Thank You.