Dissecting That Poll About Secular & Assimilated American Jews – Kveller
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Dissecting That Poll About Secular & Assimilated American Jews

The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a major survey of American Jews and the results have a LOT of people talking. One-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion and two-thirds of these “Jews of no religion” say they are not raising their kids Jewish or partially Jewish, according to the survey. Our contributing editors Jordana Horn and Adina Kay-Gross respond to the survey and one controversial article on on Slate entitled “American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated. Great News!

Jordana: Okay, Adina, let’s talk tachlis (bottom-line) about this Slate piece by author Gabriel Roth, in which he says the Pew report’s news about the degeneration of American Jews is A-OK by him. The report, in relevant part, states that “Increasing numbers of Jews are not religious, are married to non-Jews, and are raising their children outside the faith.”

Roth (whose fiction work I’ve read and loved) says he, personally, exemplifies the problem: he considers himself Jewish but not religious, he’s married to a non-Jew, and his kid is being raised as “partially Jewish,” whatever that may mean.

I guess my blood started boiling when I read, “And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition—even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”

Well, that’s just great. And I have an announcement to make: As a practicing Jew, I think Catholics should forget about communion. And I also think Muslims should lighten up a little about the whole hand-washing-before-praying stuff.

Wait…is that offensive? Yes, it sure is. It’s not only offensive in and of itself, arguably, but particularly offensive since I have NO PLACE saying things like that, because I, by my own choices and my own proudly-proclaimed design, am not part of those communities.

See, I’m actually not willing to throw in the towel on Judaism and equate “intermarried Jewish nonbeliever” with “we anxious Jews.” Jewish people comprise all kinds of people, from black-hat wearing Chasidim to Torah-reading, pants-wearing female rabbis to agnostic or atheistic suburbanites. But just as I would object to Chasidim dictating what “real” Judaism should mean, so too do I resist Roth’s “lighten up, you neurotic Jews!” mentality.

Adina: Oh Jordana, you frantic, neurotic Jew, you! Why don’t you just take your unsnobbish intellectualism and your rueful comedy and go back to Boca Raton, where you can eat all the smoked fish and listen to all the Bob Dylan you want.

Wait, what?

Anyone who reads this essay knows that a major flaw in the logic here is Roth’s sweeping, out of hand generalization of the Jewish community. But before I get to that, I do think he makes a few inarguable (and obvious) points: perpetuating religion—or even just the cultural bits—in a sort of ersatz devil-may-care “buffet style observance” way definitely won’t have much value and certainly, this kind of engagement with Judaism and Jewish culture won’t do much to hook your kid. Agreed! And yes, the pursuit of happiness, the upward mobility of the Jewish immigrant community over the last 100 years that may have contributed to the increase in intermarriage and assimilation, are good trends.

But the idea that its “tribal” to care about the perpetuation of a religious tradition offers a ridiculously narrow read on wide and varied population.

Hi! My name is Adina. I used to live in Brooklyn. I read contemporary novels with Jewish themes, I’ve seen a bunch of Woody Allen movies, and while I don’t like smoked fish, I love me a good egalitarian Haggadah. I also like Oranges on my Seder plate and have a ceramic hand-painted mezuzah on the door of my mid-century brick home in one of Long Island’s artier suburbs.

My Jewishness, not “tribal” in nature (my family tree, my social circles, the sheer strength of my intellect preclude such a categorization) is rooted in my love of the language, music, history and tenets of charity and loving kindness that I find in Judaism. Within my struggle to accept and reinterpret those aspects of this religion that do not speak to me, inside of my grappling with what it means to be an intellectual and a synagogue attendee is my inherent dedication to perpetuating this religious tradition that has been my home for thirty-six years. It concerns me that Roth seems to suggest I should chill out about this.

One more thing. While in some corners of the Jewish community, the response to the Pew study was outright alarm and calls for yet another spiritual gut check, Jane Eisner and countless other writers, rabbis and Jewish communal leaders who have weighed in on the results of the Pew study aren’t talking shaking their fingers at Jews who have intermarried, or those who have fallen out of the fold. No, they’re looking inward, toward the Jews who are engaged, and asking them to consider these statistics and respond in a way that will bolster a community and a religious tradition that we hope only triumphs for thousands of years to come, because while it might not matter to you, it matters—it really matters—to many others. To us.

Jordana: And let us say, Amen. I’d love to extend an open invitation to Roth to one of my family seders, where we actively engage in our history and traditions in a way that is not only interesting but also, I’d argue, fun.

And that dynamism and living tradition comes from our family’s similar dedication to yours, Adina. Like you, and unlike Roth, I don’t see hundreds of years of Jewish history, culture, knowledge and questioning as an ultimately worthless inheritance that pales in comparison to the ‘fun’ of a Christmas tree in the front hall.

In fact, I see modern America as an amazing opportunity for Jews unlike any offered since the Golden Age in Spain over five hundred years ago: we have the incredible chance to explore our religion and heritage freely, without persecution. We are not marked by tattoos on our arms or badges on our jackets; we are not cloistered in ghettos or in particular professions. We are free. I want to use that freedom to explore my heritage and what it means to me and my family–not to toss this incredible legacy in some sort of ideological recycling bin.

I think Kveller is actually a living and breathing positive experiment in Jewish affiliation/identification: a community where people of all different ideological stripes can talk to one another about Jewish life and issues with respect. Kveller offers its readers a chance to engage with Judaism that might have seemed elusive or forbidding in the context of a synagogue or JCC.

Roth, come on over. Let’s kvell together.

Adina: Yes, yes and more yes heaped on top.

You know, as I clicked through my email this morning I noticed that the newsletter eJewishphilanthropy (geared toward the professional Jewish community and a popular read these days), had headlined today’s digest with a reference to Roth’s piece. In their teaser they rightfully acknowledge that in all the brouhaha stirred up by the Pew study, “The missing voice absent from most discussions is that of the secular Jew.” (I think we can decidedly agree that Roth has remedied this). The blurb goes on to quote Lisa Lepson (Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group) who told eJP, “I think that [Roth’s piece] brings a voice into the mix that the professional Jewish community doesn’t always hear from, understand, or listen to – the voice of the “assimilated” that many of us are supposedly trying to reach.”

Lisa’s point is well taken and I’m glad eJewish decided to link to Roth’s piece (even if they edited out the full title, which is “American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried and Assimilated. Great News!”) But I don’t think Roth is interested in appealing to the Jewish community for more access to Torah study sessions at LABA, a regular spot blogging for Kveller or free tickets to hear Yair Lapid and Charlie Rose spar at the 92Street Y. I think his column is saying that his Judaism becomes ever more diluted by the day, and that’s okay by him. This troubles me, but I also know that Roth’s thesis that any attachment he has to Judaism at this point is predicated on guilt is a destructive one and definitely not what motivates my involvement in Jewish activities.

I’m excited by my involvement at Kveller. I love taking my kids to PJ Library events. I enjoy celebrating Hanukkah with friends and family, I find sukkah building, tashlich and text study meaningful. I’m not a regular synagogue attendee but when I go, I sing and I feel comforted by sitting shoulder to shoulder with other Jews who question, support, wrestle, love and contribute. I’m interested in learning more about the ways in which I can be involved in those aspects of Judaism that speak to me as a young parent and a thinking person.

Roth is right; we need to stop wringing our hands over the loss of Jews like him, because he’s told us loud and clear that he’s not interested. Instead, lets do an intake of the kids who are hanging on, and see what they need to remain committed. Not to marrying Jews. Not to moving to Israel. Not to going to temple every Friday night. Not to keeping kosher. No. Just committed to being Jewish, and participating in the Jewish community in whichever way they know how. Adding to, not detracting from. Lets move away from those who loudly and cynically disparage tradition, and pay more attention to those who are breaking a sweat over moving Jewish practices into the 21st century.

What are your thoughts about these recent findings? Let us know in the comments below.

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