Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Numbers of the Jews

There's a fellow in Israel who was born a Muslim Arab in Hebron, and eventually crossed the lines to become an orthodox and very right-wing Jew. There's another one whose great grandfather founded the Red Army and called himself Trotsky, and the descendant is also a far-right hothead (he used to live in Hebron, but I've lost track of him).

People have free wills, and this can lead them to some of the most peculiar places, irrespective of where they started.

But most often, it doesn't. Statistically most people more or less end up being what you'd have thought. When they don't, it's often because history intervened. The Postwar Germans don't resemble the society of their parents and grandparents; the fact so many of them do resemble each other in not resembling their gradparents, is no coincidence. Most people don't deviate all that much.

The Forward has published another rumination on the declining number of American Jews. The thesis: the Orthodox are multiplying, all the rest aren't, not at all. Surprise!

I've taken a wee bit of flak by some commenters as I've touched upon this topic in recent weeks. So here's an attempt to clarify.

Many Christian denominations have it pretty simple in the identity department. If you believe the right things, you're in; if not, you're probably out. Belonging to the right community - as in, going to the right church - is also helpful.

It's different these days with Jews. The belief part of it was never particularly important; the belonging was simple when everybody did it but then got more complicated. Roughly speaking, I'd say there are four ways to tell who's a Jew.
1. By what the antisemites say.
2. The Halachic way (traditional Jewish law). If your mother is Jewish, so are you. Interestingly, this works for children, perhaps for maternal grandchildren, but not for great grandchildren. If your mother and grandmother were not Jewish enough to marry Jewish men, the rabbis probably won't easily recognize you, either.
3. The religious way. This means living a life in which Jewish ritual plays an important and consistent role. I'm being careful, please note, and not saying it has to be orthodox ritual, though any empiric measure I can think of would indicate that orthodox ritual has greater staying power than the other forms, at least statistically. But if your form of non-orthodox ritual keeps you firmly in the fold, most other Jews won't doubt you (the Orthodox, however, will want to be certain your mother was Jewish before they marry you).
4. The cultural way. This is where I've been censured a bit, so I'll be clear about what this means. Being Jewish has always been a significant componant of an individual Jew's identity. For the past 200 years or so, it has been possible - at least theoritically - for being Jewish to be central even while not being religious. Or at any rate, it has repeatedly been tried.

The anecdotal evidence in the column cited above is yet another illustration of the probability that the cultural way works for a generation or two, but not much longer. Jews lucky enough to live in lands where the antisemites don't care (because they're gone, or because they fixiate on Israelis, not local Jews), who see no problem with marrying non-Jews, and who aren't religious, won't have Jewish grandchildren. Except in Israel.

Israel is the one place where being culturally Jewish may be statistically feasable. The language spoken by the Israelis is the Jewish language, the public holidays are the Jewish holidays, and the war with the neighbors has significant elements of rejection of things Jewish, so it fits the first catagory. Not to mention that most marriages will be between Jews, obviously.

So yes, I'm saying clearly what some of you have taken exception to: if you want to stay Jewish abroad your best bet is to be orthodox. If you don't want to think about being Jewish overmuchly while remaining strongly Jewish, you need to be in Israel.


Fabián said...

I agree.

Avi said...

I agree too.
I left the UK over 30 years ago and am an active member of a Masorti community in Ramot, Jerusalem. As hard as I try to be objective, skeptical and empirical about things, if you are not so keen on Orthodoxy and want to try and keep the Jewish People, culture and religion alive, Israel is by far the best bet as the place to bring ug up your kids.

Avigdor said...


Empress Trudy said...

As someone involved in Jewish education I have to say that cultural Judaism is no different than having grandparents who came from Ireland. It's rather meaningless. Either you know something about your Judaism or you don't. Either you go to shul more or less regularly or you don't. Either you send your kids to Jewish education or you don't. Otherwise you're just another person who had ancestors who were Jewish. No more no less.

Avi said...

"This is hell" hi, what you say is true more or less, unless you live in Israel. Then it is a totally different ball game.

IMHO is has to do with the lazyness of normal human beings (I am a good example) and the fact that if you are Israeli you are automatically fluent in Hebrew and you have much greater access to your culture than if you speak only English or Russian or Spanish. In Israel, Jewish is the norm. What that norm is, is up to us to compete and decide. That is what we are doing here.

Unknown said...

It is hard to argue with the points made here. I live in the US, belong to a synagogue, send my son to religious school on Sunday and Wednesday (about 2 hours each), public school otherwise. I hope my son develops a sense of jewishness so that his children will be raised as Jews, but its far from certain. My wife's brother raises his kids Catholic.

sparrow said...

Never thought of it like this before, but I believe you are right. I have a few "secular" friends in Israel, and they are much more Jewish in their practices / allegiances / language than my friends here.

Ash said...


Been reading your great blog for a while but rarely comment.

However, another writer I'm a fan of has written about Demographic and I thought you'd be interersted.

"You two should meet" as they say.

Tamar said...

Agree with everything you say. Interestingly, I was just noting to someone that my Palestinian friend and contractor (whenever I need building or repairs around the house he does them and has for about 12 years) knows more about Judaism than the vast majority of non-Israeli Jews. For one thing, he speaks Hebrew fluently, and knows all the holidays. He calls and comes around before Sukkot (wothout reminding) to ask when we want him to shlep the Sukkah materials out of the machsan (storeroom) for my husband to build, and he comes to take down and put away the Sukka thereafter.
Etc. As for Jewish Israelis -- everthing you write is of course true - unless they make yerida :(.

Tamar said...

I do have one question for Yaakov, though. I never heard the halachic allegation that you made in your way #2 of being Jewish -- i.e., that "If your mother and grandmother were not Jewish enough to marry Jewish men, the rabbis probably won't easily recognize you, either."
While it presumably doesn't come up so often - tho probably does come up among the former Jews of the USSR -- it was my understanding that one could go back by the maternal line pretty much forever if it were reliably trackable (leading me to wodner further about using maternal-line DNA), so I was wondering what your source for this assertion was, please?

Yaacov said...

Hi Tamar -

My source for the great grandmother thing is simple experience. I know a number of cases - unrelated to each other - where people with Jewish great grandmothers who wished to rejoin, were required to go through some sort of conversion. It may have been easier or less bumpy than the typical conversion course, but it was there. In one case, a German woman had an Israeli partner, and he was much more disturbed by the requirements than she was. He claimed, as you do, that the whole thing was unneccessary; she felt the requirements were reasonable, given the span of time since her forbears really had been Jewish (Her great grandmother had married out, so it was closer to five generations).

Tamar said...

Dear Yaacov:
That's interesting. I would still guess (without any particular knowledge) that the halachic issue here was the difficulty in being sure at this point that the Jewish great-grandmother herself was in fact halachically Jewish.
I did just read a psak of Rav Aron Soloveitchik zt'l's that amazed me: he apparently ruled that we should count anusim to a minyan even without conversion (!and that's hundreds of years after their ancestors converted to Christianity albeit under duress ...) and require giyur l'safek -- conversion "to be sure" WITHOUT a bracha - if and when the anus(a) wants to marry a Jew.

Yaacov said...

Tamar -

I have no pretenstions - totally none - at giving a psak, on this or on anything. It was merely an observation of the reality.

Tamar said...

Dear Yaacov:

Understood. Me either. I just found both your observation, and Rav Soloveitchik zt"l's aforementioned psak, puzzling and interesting.

Shavua Tov.