The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on October 2, 2013
Once Again, Jews Is News

Yesterday’s press carried the results of a Pew poll on “identity” issues among American Jews. The New York Times entitled its page A11 take, written by Laurie Goodstein, “Poll Shows Major Shift In Identity of U.S. Jews”—read it for yourself to get the full flavor of the story.

Now, those who have made their way through my 2009 book Jewcentricity: Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed and Used to Explain Nearly Everything (Wiley) will have been prepared for the new numbers. In the book I explained why this sort of thing was happening, although at the time the only data available came from a 2000 polling effort (not done by Pew) whose sample was small and whose methodology came under a cloud of dispute.

The new numbers, assuming for the sake of discussion (I have not seen the actual Pew study yet) that they at least sort of capture reality, validate my argument. But I have to admit that even for a cold-blooded realist (on these if not all other topics) like me, some of the numbers are shocking.

The statistic that 71% of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry is one of them.  (The numbers related to Christmas trees and to Jews who supposedly think they can believe Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jews are two other attention-grabbing items.) Assuming that this number means that Jews are marrying non-Jews who have not converted, it points to an irrefutable conclusion: Compound this number over just two generations, not to speak of three or four, and you see how fast the demographic bottom is dropping out from under non-Orthodox American Jewry. The result over time, as I discussed in the book, will be a significantly smaller but more Orthodox American Jewish community.

As it happens, a few months ago the editor of Tablet asked me to write something for him, and with his counsel I eventually chose a topic that contains but transcends this “identity” story. I wrote it before I saw yesterday’s paper or knew anything about the Pew project. The new numbers fit my argument like a glove. My guess is that the Tablet piece will run in one form or another sometime this month.  If and when it does, I promise to post a link here, for what it’s worth.

In the meantime, for those who care about such things (and no one can be blamed for not caring), see what you think the reasons behind the numbers are. Help me do an informal poll of my own.

  • WigWag

    As a fan of “Jewcentricity” (the book, not the obsession), Adam’s thesis has indeed been verified by the new data. Zionism, no matter how passionate, and a committment to secular ethical values is no substitute for piety and traditional learning and practice when it comes to encouraging Jewish continuity. As it happens, this is not only Adam’s thesis, it is widely shared on both the left and the right of the Jewish world; many in the Haredi community agree with Adam; so does Peter Beinart.

    With that said, the Pew findings are hardly surprising; they reflect the growing secularization of American society in general. Religious affiliation amongst all Americans is plunging; there’s nothing unusual that a community as well integrated into the American main stream as the Jewish community is, would be going along for the ride.

    Just ask the Espiscopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists about what’s happening to church attendance every Sunday; even the evangelical Christian denominations are experiencing the same thing. Of course unlike for the Christian sects, for the American Jewish community, it is a potential extinction event.

    The Pew study suggests that the Reform movement is still the largest Jewish denomination amongst “observant” Jews. The problem seems to be the same as the problem for progressive Christian sects; religion doesn’t work if the deity isn’t at its center.

    While religion may be in part about mankind’s relationship to other Homo sapiens, it is mostly about mankind’s relationship to the deity.

    Many American Jews have forgotten this; it’s no wonder that a feeling of Jewish communal identity is diminishing. American Christians are experiencing the same thing. It’s just that for Christians the consequences are so much less severe.

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Yup, too.

    • Micha Roded

      Zionism can help secular Israeli Jews keep a Jewish identity since it provides an environment where that identity is taken for granted (to some extent) as much as any other national identity (if in a peculiar Jewish way). But for American Jews Zionism doesn’t offer a deal which is that much easier than the religious Jewish identity. In either case it requires a conscious effort and extra work to keep the identity, whether national or religious or both.

      • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

        Agree; exactly right.

  • John Burke

    In addition to the 71% of non-Orthodox intermarrying, I’d say the most significant numbers are 32% of millenials declaring no religion and two-thirds of all Jews not holding any synagogue membership (even taking into account that lack of membership is not the same as not professing the faith).

    Surely, this is all part if the rapid decline of religiosity in American life, a trend in which Jews and “mainline” Protestants seem to hold the dubious distinction of being in the lead.

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Yup.

      • Anthony

        Previous comment was meant to be reply to John Burke’s observation.

  • Anthony

    “While millennials are walking out the front door of U.S. congregations, immigrant Christian communities are appearing right around the corner, and sometimes knocking at the back door. And they may hold the key to validity for American Christianity” – see Peter Berger (White Feminists and Korean Fundamentalists).

  • Micha Roded

    It seems to me that the combination of the power of the American melting pot + Jews’ adaptability + secularism + being a small minority with a non Christian religion + a distant and complicated concept of old country, makes it extremely difficult for Jews to maintain a distinct identity. It required a deliberate effort. Under the circumstances it’s actually quite remarkable that so many American Jews are still succeeding in keeping a Jewish identity of some sort despite it all.

    • John Burke

      Glad you mentioned “concept of old country.” i think many mostly secular Jews of my generation I have known (born in the 40s) derived their Jewish identity as much, if not more, from the immigrant experience of their parents (and/or grandparents), which often included a connection to the Holocaust or earlier pogroms as from religious practice. Jews of my children’s generation — third and fourth generation Americans — have a much attenuated connection to the European ghettoes.

      While different, other immigrant experiences exhibit parallels. My mother and her 11 siblings, all born in Ireland, all but one married other Irish Catholics (one married a Hungarian). When I was a kid in the fifties, one of my older cousins marrying an Italian Catholic was regarded with some suspicion by my relatives, but the 28 cousins of my generation married a wide variety of spouses (some two or three times apiece!). In my children’s generation, “Irishness” has been all but lost, and I hate to think how many describe themselves as “fallen away Catholics.”

      All in all, I can’t see why anyone would expect that American Jewish mellenials would be immune to this trend.

      • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

        Well, that’s right. For Jews in America to maintain their chosenness, which amounts in practice to self-chosenness, they have to make an effort because the culture is so tolerant and inviting. If they don’t, the path of least resistance is assimilation. There have been other historical cases where this has been true, and whenever it was true large numbers of Jews melted into the general population, while only a remnant stayed faithful and cherished the dignity of their own difference. So what is happening is not in the least surprising–to be sure. But a lot of American Jews want the best of what is universal without giving up their particularism, and this leads to all sorts of contortions that, in the end, do not avail. So despite how natural this is, it nonetheless causes great pain among people who expect the rewards of a particularist inheritance without investing much, or any, effort in learning what that inheritance is all about. You can’t have your chosen particularism and be oblivious to its obligations at the same time. But a lot of people just can’t face this truth; hence all the angst and hand-wringing and, in a few extreme cases, blaming others (anti-Semites, supposedly) for the problem.

        • Aram

          I think that blame ( and latent hatred)is not in just a few extreme cases and is directed towards Christians. Note how an overwhelming majority in the Pew poll rejected Jews who accepted Jesus.
          I think the angst you talk about must be profound.From the poll most Jews are secularist yet most celebrate Passover. How weird it must be celebrating God killing all Egyptian first born to set Jews free from bondage and yet not believing in God.
          How do they rationalize this??

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            No, hatred of Christians has nothing to do with these numbers. And no, no, no, the Passover seder does not celebrate the slaying of the Egyptian first born. Indeed, first-born Jewish males are supposed to fast the day of the seder in memory and sympathy for that event. The celebration is the liberation from slavery unto freedom. How secular, non-believing Jews can attend a seder is a more complex question than you suppose. It has to do with family ties, and there are many kinds of observances, traditional and not at all traditional. Most of all, you simply do not understand, apparently, the Jewish attitude toward the intersection of religious practice and belief. What is commanded overwhelmingly is practice, not belief. The system is very much unlike Christianity. Ah, but this is too complex to explain here…..

          • Micha Roded

            Re: Jews for Jesus

            It has nothing to do with hating Christianity. But for Jews who are invested in retaining a particular Jewish identity, not succumbing to the pressures to become Christian is a major part of it. From that point of view, Jews for Jesus is just another method to get Jews to give up on their identity and become Christians, and an especially underhanded method at that.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            Yes, all true–again.

          • Aram

            Christianity is a religion and not an ethnic identity. Irish Christians are still Irish, same with Italians , Germans,Russians etc. Here is where your angst is evident. You know that your real identity is very closely identified with the Jewish religion , but that is a heavy obligation to bear ( same applies to practicing Christians) so you come up with ersatz substitutes like the Holocaust is what defines (identifies?) Jews(what about all those Jews who came before the Holocaust, are they not true Jews)and some hokum about the “intersection of religious practice and belief”. Life is tough- not an easy ride
            Btw some of that latent hatred (fear?)for Christianity is showing in this thread.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            No. You are simply off course here.

            Jews are neither a religion nor a race or ethnicity; Jews are a people. You can be a Jew without being religious, and you can convert into Judaism. This is an unusual formula. It has no exact parallel, except perhaps with the Greeks and Armenians, where land-of-origin consciousness, even in exile, peoplehood and church are all combined. Jews have feared armed bullies for a long time whilst in exile, but not because they were Christians. To a lesser degree, Muslims have been problematic, too.

            This is a complex and rich topic. I cover it in Jewcentrity. Maybe you’d want to take a look at the relevant sections before opining further.

          • Micha

            “Irish Christians are still Irish”

            And what were the Irish before they converted?

            Answer: they worshiped certain tribal ancestral gods, and followed certain ancestral tradition. Now we call it the Irish mythology. Same is true of the Germans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Apache, the Uigers. They all followed ancestral gods and rites that were tied to their identity as a people, plus minus certain levels of syncretism.

            Jews are the same as these other peoples, except that we, instead of gods of our forefathers, had (at least from a certain point) one god, and unlike these people. And that god started getting more universal characteristics, and then it was adopted by religions that were not as particular — they were more universal in scope, namely Christianity or Islam. But we, unlike these people, did not accept these universal religions.

            The Irish, the Greeks, the Armenians etc. took the universal religion of Christianity and tied it, each in a very distinct form, to their particular identity as a people.

            Secondly, if you look at the story of the Jews going all the way to the bible, it’s a story of a people trying to keep their distinct identity and traditions in a hostile world and faced with the temptations of other more powerful traditions. In the bible the concern is gods like Baal and the Ashtoret. Afterwards it was Hellenism. And after that Christianity and Islam. So Jews don’t fear or hate Christianity as such. Jesus or Zeus or Baal, it’s all the same in the grand scheme of things. The story the Jews tell themselves doesn’t care much about the nature of these gods. Its inward looking. The story is about how Jews dealt with the pressure and temptation to accept these gods.

            “substitutes like the Holocaust”

            The identity of the Jews does not revolve around a belief. It revolves around shared history/mythology and shared tradition, with the tradition being tied to the history, as can be seen in the fact that the bible is both a book of laws, mythology and a historical narrative, and the holidays often revolve around events in the history/mythology. The holocaust is part of the shared history of the Jewish people that forms the identity. Understandably, it looms large in that historical tradition, both because of its magnitude and because it is still recent. Naturally, for people who are more secular, the aspects that are connected to religious practices and belief in god have a reduced importance, while shared history and the more family oriented traditions takes first place, assuming they are still interested in a the general idea of a shared Jewish identity.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            Exactly, and well said–but folks, everyone–I am cutting off this thread now. Enough already! All I did was essentially announce an essay to come, and look how much commentary–superficial and sophisticated–it generated, Let’s wait until there’s more on the table to discuss. Finis, for now.

        • Micha Roded

          Yes,it is quite understandable that Jews will assimilate in America and gradually lose their particular identity, just as other immigrants to America. That’s part of the American story (although another part seems to be keeping some aspects of particular identity). The reason Jews obsess more about it is because Jews don’t take their existence for granted. In a way, it’s probably the Jews’ obsession with their sense of self, and not taking it for granted that has caused Jews to retain their identity despite everything. This is also what people (and anti-semites)don’t get about Jews. They assume that Jews are busy hating gentiles and thinking themselves better than gentiles. But Jews are too busy obsessing about themselves and about their own identity to hate or feel superior to gentiles. They don’t have the time and energy to hate gentiles. When Jews think of gentiles it’s in the context of “do they hate us or like us?” and “what should we do about it?”

          I don’t believe in God and celebrate passover. I do it both because it’s family and because I, as a secular Jew, am invested in Jewish continuity. Since I’m an Israeli, the effort of maintaining a Jewish identity is much easier. It would have been much more difficult if I lived in a place where Passover doesn’t matter.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            All true, and well stated. We are, as I have said, not only maybe, very maybe, chosen, but more important self-chosen–even secular people.

        • Micha Roded

          “Jews want the best of what is universal without giving up their particularism, and this leads to all sorts of contortions that, in the end, do not avail.”

          It seems to me that any desire to keep some form of Jewish identity, even if it is done through contortions, is a positive thing. Maybe it’s not ideal. I don’t know what’s ideal. I don’t think ultra-Orthodoxy is the ideal, and I don’t expect all Jews to come to Israel. So whatever causes them to still want to hold to a Jewish identity of one sort or another seems to me a good thing.

          Ideally, Israel should help by providing an “old country” American Jews can visit and refer to. Obviously, that’s not working as well as it should, but that’s a role Israel should work toward. Of course, some Jews retain a Jewish identity only so they can be “Jews who don’t support Israel.” So that’s a small contribution.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            Agree, but better than nothing is, in America, quickly and mainly becoming nearly nothing and entirely nothing for huge percentages of people–as the Pew polling suggests. I am not trying to tell American Jews to ignore Israel or think it completely insignificant to their identity–has v’halilah. Only that it must not become a substitute for what has kept Jews Jews huts la-aretz for nearly 2,000 years.

          • Micha

            I am aware that the structure of religious practices created before and after the fall of the 2nd temple is what helped the Jewish people to hold on to their identity in the face of all the pressures and temptations of the last 200 years. But as a secular person who does not follow either the beliefs or all the traditions, I cannot expect other Jews to follow all these aspects of the Jewish religion, despite their utilitarian value. So it is necessary to find something else to offer them, since the power of secularism cannot be dismissed. At the end of the day, and with all do respect to the way religion has kept Jewish identity, the fact that people kept that religion in the face of great hostility shows a deep desire to retain a shared identity that lies deeper than the religious beliefs. To some extent that desire to hold on to the identity has somehow continued (for some) even in the face of the secularism and other changes of the modern era (18-20th centuries). The question is what do we do next? The Modern era offered other answers with more or less success. Israel/Zionism presents itself as the answer. I believe it is part of the answer but not the whole of it. But we need to think of the other answers. We have to figure out working answers for the next era.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            Again, yes; a thoughtful comment, which really asks about Jewish identity not in the modern, post-Emancipation era, but in the post-modern, anti-foundationalist era. Anyone who can figure this one out ought to come tell the rest of us. But as I said: enough, for now.

          • Anthony

            Thanks for entire informative commentary.

  • http://www.martinbermangorvine.com Martin Berman-Gorvine

    Jewish day school tuition is now $22,000 a year, which apparently is still not enough to keep them solvent, but more than enough to turn away the vast majority of American Jews. And yet the self-appointed heads of the American Jewish community persist in obsessing over high political issues while the future of their community disintegrates all around them.

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Exactly.

    • http://kavanna.blogspot.com Kavanna

      Oh, isn’t that the truth. The obsession with marginal or imaginary issues while the community they’re allegedly leading disintegrates, is astonishing.

  • WigWag

    “Anyone who can figure this one out ought to come tell the rest of us. But as I said: enough, for now.”(Adam Garfinkle)

    Fair enough; enough for now. Personally I hope that you will blog about this subject more often; it’s an area where you have an obvious expertise and it seems to be an area of interest to your readers.

    Not only was “Jewcentricity” provocative but it got me thinking about the subject in a whole new way. It actually inspired me to read further; one of the most interesting books that I found, was on the subject of Philosemitism by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

    “The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill,” is well worth a look.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-People-Book-Philosemitism-Churchill/dp/1594035709

    I went back and checked last night; she cites you in her book twice.

    Enough for now.

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Yes, Bea Kristol, as Dr. Himmelfarb is also known, is the real deal.

  • DiaKrieg

    I am one of those American Jews who substitutes Zionism for religious belief. Not for lack of trying, I might add. I married a Jew and we raised our boys Jewish, complete with yearly family seders, chanukah candles, years of temple membership, shabbat services, Torah school, youth choir, marathon high holy day services, two bar mitzvahs. Still no one in the family believes in God. You can’t lie to yourself about such things. Going through the motions may be good enough in Jewish law, and I would still be doing that if it weren’t for my distaste for the “teachings” of our Reform rabbi, who sermonized on the essential Jewishness of supporting Obamacare.

    Will my boys marry Jews and raise Jewish children? Too soon to tell, they’re still teenagers. How much easier it would be if we could just believe!

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Maybe try a synagogue where the Rabbi talks about Judaism instead of politics. They do exist. The atmosphere might rub off on you……you never know.

  • WigWag

    Speaking of Jewish continuity, a new genetic analysis published in the journal “Science” (one of the two most prestigious science journals in the world; the other is “Nature”) demonstrates that the women who founded the Ashkenazi Jewish communities of Europe were not from the Near East, as previously supposed, and reinforces the idea that many Jewish communities outside Israel were founded by single men who married and converted local women. It is certain that these “conversions” were not what would be considered Halachly correct today.

    Given this fact, isn’t it possible that one solution to the continuity problem might be to lighten up a little on the conversion question?

    Here’s an article from today’s New York Times that summarizes the paper from “Science.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/science/ashkenazi-origins-may-be-with-european-women-study-finds.html?hp

    • WigWag

      The article suggesting that the female founders of most of the Ashkenazi communities in the world are converts of European origin was published in “Nature” not “Science” as I mistakenly said.

      The original journal article can be found here,

      http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2013/131008/ncomms3543/full/ncomms3543.html

      Apparently Jewish men migrated to Europe and took non-Jewish wives who became the female ancestors of the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews who have ever lived.

      These Jews didn’t worry about “intermarriage” yet they became the founders of the biggest part of the Western Jewish community.

      Might there not be a message in that somewhere?

      • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

        These women converted.

        This finding is not new. I talk about it in Jewcentricity, as you probably remember.

        • Micha

          Genetic study can be a beneficial tool for the study of Jewish history. But it’s a risky political tool.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            Right, but it’s also inevitable.

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      The conversion question is critical, yes, and the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is making a disastrous hash out of it. We saw in the recent disaster about choosing the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi what kind of people we’re talking about. It’s horrifying. And there is nothing halachically wrong–repeat, nothing–with being a lot more open than these maniacs have become.

  • http://kavanna.blogspot.com Kavanna

    A pretty sad state of affairs, but perhaps the inevitable result of decades of “Jewcentricity” and liberal politics instead of Judaism. I suspect that affiliation will rise among the millennials as they get older. But something fundamental has changed in the last generation not evident even among the Boomers.

    I’m not sure of the reliability of the Pew numbers. The earlier examinations of the trend (like Samuel Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew) showed decreasing identification and higher intermarraige rates from Orthodox to non-affiliated, but not as stark as the Pew results.

    Even if the Pew numbers are exaggerated, there’s little doubt of the trend’s reality, causes, direction, and ultimate result.

  • WigWag
    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Should be read, let me suggest, in companionship with chapter 2 of Jewcentricity.

  • Pingback: The Disappearing American Jew and What it Means for All of Us. | SOLAR PLEXUS

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Mr. Berger: See Tablet magazine, on Nov. 5, for a more complete analysis of this subject.

  • http://policytensor.com Anusar Farooqui

    Adam, I wonder if controlling for geographic variation – since the Jewish population is so concentrated in New York – there is much left to explain in these numbers.

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Sorry, but I don’t understand your comment. What does geographic concentration or dispersion have to do with Jewish assimilation and intermarriage statistics? There is no strong reason I can think of that would suggest a greater of lesser tendency to assimilate based on a place of residency within the US.