"Public opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly 18% of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month." -Wil Herberg, 1950
"Only 13% were what might be called regular worshippers by Lakeville standards, attending High Holy Days each year, on Festivals, and on Sabbath once or twice a month or more... To Lakeville's Jews, belonging rather than attending seemed to be what mattered about religious affiliation." -Sklare, Greenblum and Ringer, 1969, based on research conducted in the 1950s
[The results of the latest Pew survey are] "devastating... I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion." Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, New York Times, October 1, 2013
You'll excuse my schadenfreude, but the frenzy around the latest Pew survey has given me a bitter chuckle or two at the expense of our gedolim.
I'm a Yiddishist, which means that I've spent my entire adult life being condescended to, marginalized, erased, and generally having the shit mansplained out of me by the Jewish institutional world and its various representatives, bureaucratic and academic. So, you know, allow me a little pleasure.
Many times I've been informed that the Yiddish language itself is illegitimate (a mere dialect/jargon/pidgin/creole), that it can't be a substitute for religion (as if I would khas v'sholem suggest such a stupid thing), that I myself am a soyne yisroel for daring to suggest that Yiddish, too, is an important Jewish language (an insult to the real sonim yisroel, in any case.)
Don't you know that Yiddish in America failed because it could not reproduce its institutions or even its speakers? To which I can answer today, look in the fucking mirror, buddy and tell me what you see.
One could easily argue that American Jewish religion, as a successor to European forms of Judaism, failed to reconstitute itself in a sustainable, reproducible way. I'm hardly the only one saying this: American synagogue/Temple oriented Judaism is a failure and was a failure, almost from the very start.
I may be unique, though, in calling out the Jewish pundit class for pushing an ahistorical narrative heavy on fear and guilt and light on critical thinking.
"Many parents thought their children might marry gentiles, and most were resigned or only moderately unhappy about this prospect. Love was widely felt to outweigh religion as a criterion for marriage... Opposition to intermarriage was usually attributed to concern over possible personal difficulties rather than over Jewish survival." - Sklare, Greenblum and Ringer
"What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in the twenties and thirties is whether they will marry, and if so, whether they will marry Jews." - Jane Eisner, Forward, January 7, 2013
The time to worry about apathy, alienation, affiliation and intermarriage was the 1950s, when anyone who looked at the literature knew exactly what kind of demographic shit storm was brewing. But it's 2013 and the Jewish community is reaping exactly what was sown in the post-war synagogue/suburb boom. Game over. To think that at this point you can, for example, shame people out of intermarriage is so bizarre that it's hard for me to take the notion seriously. And yet, the 'fight' against intermarriage is considered by those with power to be completely legitimate. Am I the only one who thinks real solutions to our problems are never gonna come from these people?
What is to be said about the state we're in today, if we're to take some kind of historically informed perspective? I'd say something like this: post WW II, the face of institutional Judaism changed practically overnight but the people did not. A cultural disconnect is built into the very fabric of modern American Jewish life.
Landsmanshaftn, fraternal organizations, shtiblekh, Talmud Torahs, the entire Yiddish cultural apparatus, all was replaced (or at least declared dead) in the supercessionary march toward Temples, synagogues, two generation families, JCCs, Hebrew schools etc.
American Jewish life had been remade in the image of an imaginary new American Jew. The real American Jews continued to evolve, gradually, as they had been doing for decades- with declining interest in religion and an emotional and personal attachment to their Yiddish past.
Not only did the institutions change, so did the official narrative of American Jewishness. A whole lot of American Jews found themselves and their families written out. Certainly for the tens of thousands of American Jews who had been involved with radical politics before 1950, that past became so politically toxic that it could only be spoken of in the most contemptuous terms possible. Forget about learning that history in Hebrew school, ell oh ell.
But even putting aside that particular (not demographically insignificant) population, there are innumerable ways the average Jew became alienated from him/herself, distanced from his or her own recent past.
For me, the key image is my dad making brokhes for my family at khanike or pesakh, pretty much the only time we did anything ritually in my house. My dad, having attended an Eastern European style shtibl in 1940s Philadelphia, spoke Hebrew with a lovely Ashkenazi tam. To my callow, Hebrew schooled ears, though, his Hebrew was ugly, grating, wrong.
No one ever explained to me why my dad spoke Hebrew the way he did and had I never learned Yiddish I'm not sure I would've ever figured it out. If I hadn't pursued Yiddish it's unlikely I would've been able to reconcile the gigantic disconnect between the Jewishness I learned at school and that which I absorbed at home, and it's unlikely I would've cared much, anyway.
But who cares about me? What about all these Jews of no religion? This 30% of unchurched Jews? Are they people whose grandparents were khas v'sholem Communists? Or, let's be honest, what about this large majority, with or without 'denomination', who just don't care about religion? Are they like me, everyday Jews turned off by an educational apparatus which did more to alienate than educate?
Who can say? Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the most important Jewish newspaper in America. Her word can summon the resources to conduct a million dollar survey. I'm a nebekh nobody with a blog, So, obviously, I'll take a page from her playbook and put this out there, Pew Trust peeps, if you're looking to do this whole thing over, I've got some ideas:
I just met Pew
And this is Crazy
But I've gotta survey a couple thousand Jews regarding their cultural and educational experiences
So call me maybe?
To be continued...