A new major report from the Pew Research Center sheds renewed light on a virulent disease that has been plaguing American Jewry for generations: Assimilation. This report represents nothing new to those who have been uneasily monitoring this worrying trend, it only reaffirms a recurring dread and clutches the heart to an arrest.
This is not a disease. Is the author saying the ghetto walls in Europe should have remained up? Was Emancipation a mistake?
Judaism in America is dying, along with all of its children.
I speak not of the ‘whatever-it-means-to-you’ movement, where Judaism means yoga-Kabbalah classes, cheese blintzes and Adam Sandler. I speak of true Judaism, grounded firmly in belief in God and the soundness of Torah truth; the only Judaism that will ever survive.
I read the Old Testament more as I get older. How do we as a people handle scientific discoveries?
Demographically, United States Jewry has been experiencing a spiritual exodus for decades. The Pew survey shows that the percentage of ‘Jews by religion’ (as opposed to ‘Jews of no religion’) has been steadily declining from 93% in 1914 to 68% today.
This is also true for other groups as well, they are less religious, especially with more secular education.
On the face of it, the culprit is explicit and in plain sight; intermarriage. You’ve heard of it before, the lore of dusty old zadies and religiously fanatical clergymen. Only thing is, they were right. Intermarriage is the spiritual Zyklon B of today’s American Jewry and the casualties are mounting.
How can you compare Zyklon B with intermarriage? I’ve visited Auschwitz. Most of my family died in such places. Intermarriage still means people love one another. Zyklon B signifies the ultimate in hatred for other human beings (Not that humanity has improved in many ways).
According to the research findings, 58% of American Jews, amajority, intermarry. More damningly, 79% of non-religious Jews (‘Jews of no religion’) are intermarried. Finally, consider that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children Jewish and the implications are chilling: almost half of the next generation of American Jewry will not be raised Jewish.
Both my sisters married Non Jews, there are four kids between them and they ARE being raised as Jewish.
So the verdict’s out, intermarriage is a plague upon our flimsy house. Yet, although many are now ready to identify intermarriage as the problem, most still fail to understand that intermarriage is merely a symptom of a much more systemic failure.
Why Be Jewish?
When I was a kid in Boston, my father and I would walk to the neighborhood Chabad house on Saturday mornings for Shabbat services. An exemplary environment for Jewish learning and identity (authentic identity), Chabad was a bubbling melting pot of Judaism. There were Sephardim, Ashkenazim, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, and even non-religious attendees. Among the non-religious congregation members was a sweet guy named Teddy. Teddy was a blatantly non-religious, borderline-agnostic, wealthy man in his late 50’s who really just seemed to enjoy the company (and just so happened to live down the street).
On one particularly blistering cold Saturday afternoon, I was walking home with my father, the rabbi of the congregation and Teddy. When we reached Teddy’s home, we were confronted by a monstrously enormous menorah in the front yard. The rabbi gave a bit of a chuckle, turned to Teddy and said:
“Teddy, I’ve known you for quite some time now. Let’s be honest, you’re not the biggest believer. What’s with the menorah?”
Teddy pointed across the street to his neighbors’ homes, each adorned and glittering with nauseatingly bright Christmas decorations. He replied:
“Look at those houses. Every year they put up all these lights and reindeer. This year, I’ve decided that there’s no way I’m going to let a goy have more fun than me on the holidays.”
Assimilation is bad, intermarriage is bad, but they are only symptoms. The true source of this spiritual genocide (more like mass-suicide) is a fundamental corruption of Jewish Identity.The Pew report shows unequivocally that today’s American Jewry, including Teddy, derives its Jewish identity from factors completely devoid of any semblance of the source of Jewishness: Judaism.
For Teddy, it was a deep seeded insecurity that the non-Jewishness of his neighbors would drown out his own Jewishness. But what of the rest of American Jewry today? What does being Jewish mean to them, if anything?
Well, for starters, observing Jewish law is the last thing being Jewish means to most American Jews (every other option was more heavily weighted). Only 19% surveyed considered ‘observing Jewish law’ an essential part of being Jewish. In other words Torah, commandments, the very foundations of Judaism, are ‘non-essential’. So what does it mean to be Jewish? For 42% of those surveyed, ‘having a good sense of humor’ is an essential part of Judaism. Just to clarify, more Jews identify Woody Allen with Judaism than they do the Torah.
It is tragic that Woody Allen is more identified with American Judaism. The Torah is an important part of our lives. I would hope all Jews would endeavor to follow the Ten Commandments. Having said that, are you saying it is bad for Jews if we do not follow the Torah to the letter? Again, modern society.
Furthermore, to what most did American Jews attribute their Jewishness? The holocaust. In other words, the determination for non-Jews to exterminate the Jewish race is what makes American Jews feel most Jewish.
On this one I agree with you. If this is the number one thing defining American Jews, there is a problem. It is good about leading an ethical and moral life and working for social justice. Market to American Jews. Why don’t we as a people, offer to teach basic Judaism to people? Make it easier for people to convert and join us. As I wrote sarcastically in another blog post, we seem to do well at pissing people off. Why make it hard for people who like what we have to say? This isn’t Medieval Europe, where we could not accept outsiders. We can strive to become stronger.
How can self-respecting Jews be confronted with these tidings and not weep?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to a difficult, excruciating question that American Jews refuse to ask themselves:
Why be Jewish?
Why must one be Jewish to appreciate the gravity of the holocaust? Why can’t one marry a non-Jew and still appreciate the gravity of the holocaust?
As you are from Boston, you may or may not appreciate this. I lived in Boston for four years and when I first moved there, belonged to a Jewish community center off Beacon Street. I ended up meeting and marrying an Irish girl from South Boston (who I am still married to, after 29 years). She took a class in her Catholic High School about Judaism and the class discussed the Holocaust. So yes, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the gravity of the Holocaust. While Jews were the main target of Hitler’s fury, all sorts of other groups ended up on his little list.
Why must one be Jewish to appreciate good humor? Does Louis CK not entertain as much as Larry David? Why can’t one marry a non-Jew and still be funny? (Try to think of one Jewish comedian who is married to a Jew…) Here, I don’t get what you are driving at.
‘I’m Jewish Because It’s Ethical’
What both the Pew survey, as well as common sense, confirms is that the only honest and sustainable justification to be Jewish is belief in the holiness of the Torah and the sanctity of the commandments therein. You either truly believe in divinity or you ascribe the holy texts to the lunatic ramblings of dessert wanderers, driven mad by infinite sand and desolate horizons. You simply can’t have it both ways.
Now I never thought of the holy texts as lunatic ramblings, but history, written by the winners. Again, are you saying if I don’t follow every commandment to the letter, I am going down the slippery slope?
The orthodox Jewish community is the only community not bleeding Jewish souls, with almost negligible rates of intermarriage and denominational switching (moving from orthodox to conservative or reform). In fact, the orthodox community represents the only growing Jewish demographic in America.
By Orthodox, do you mean mainly the Hasids?
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a harsh truth to face; Reform and (for the most part) Conservative Judaism are failures, their synagogues nothing more than crumbling mausoleums where Judaism goes to die, their children spiritually doomed.
I don’t know, my Mom’s synagogue in Brooklyn is a thriving place.
Road to Recovery
Unfortunately, there is no road to recovery for American Jewry, only a one-way plane ticket.
Leave the comfort of the suburbs, shed the cultural and spiritual straitjacket that you’ve entangled yourself in, and come home to Israel. I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s decidedly not. In all likelihood you will not find the same standard of living or opulence. Israelis are tough as nails and the crassness will all but drive you mad. Yet eventually you will have to ask yourself the following honest, albeit exaggerated, question:
Will your children be comfortable non-Jews or uncomfortable Jews?
In my case, I will be 57 years old soon. I have no family in Israel (that I know of and if I do, they are very distant). Yes, the United States is comfortable. I don’t have children of my own, so I cannot speak about this, only about the nieces I mentioned before.
I’m Jewish by ethnicity and I love reading Jewish history and finding out where we’ve been as a people. I am tracing my family ancestry and had my DNA tested. Click on Ancestry.com
I apologize for not being a little more articulate. I am up late and wanted to get this down. The article is very interesting, as you see, we are not in complete disagreement. You seem to be saying though, the only way for Judaism to survive is to segregate ourselves. If we as a people, with our history cannot survive in the marketplace of ideas, that is pretty sad.
- Pew Report on American Jewry- Some Observations (kavvanah.wordpress.com)
- New poll: US Jewry totally screwed (blogs.timesofisrael.com)
- Pew Research Center: Our research is sound (blogs.timesofisrael.com)
- The Decline and Fall of American Jewry (observer.com)
- On American Jews, religion, Israel, intermarriage, and the “Kuiper Belt” phenomenon (derekpenslar.com)
- The bell tolls for American Jewry (blogs.timesofisrael.com)
- Meet the 94%: The Unseen Faces of American Jews (blogs.forward.com)
- Terry Mattingly: A hole in the middle of American Jewry (reporternews.com)