Thursday, February 19, 2015

More on Intermarriage (Part 1.5)

What's been missing from the thousands (millions?) of words written about the Pew survey is any kind of serious critique of that institutional apparatus which surveys, comments on, and claims to lead the group we call American Jews. Why do these so-called leaders keep writing surveys that do little to measure the Jewish lives of actual Jewish Americans? And what is really at stake in the so-called intermarriage crisis? I might even add, whose crisis is it? I categorically reject it as my own, so I'll get that out of the way now. 

Am I committed to marrying a Jewish man? Yes. Am I in my late 30s and still single? Yes. Do I sometimes suspect that valuing New York City and its unique Jewish community AND trying to find a Jewish partner in the most screwed up dating pool in the country renders my own particular hopes moot? Obviously.

And while I couldn't imagine not having a Jewish partner, I understand, intellectually, that the decision to marry belongs to each individual and is hers alone to make. Emotionally, yeah, I get a little sad seeing my Jewish friends choose non-Jewish partners. Not because I worry about the looming demographic crisis, but because I want my friends to have the same kind of deep connection to Jewishness that has shaped my entire adult life and given purpose to everything I do. In my more judgmental moments, I wonder what choice they would make if they had a more positive, more intellectually rewarding, more joyful connection to Jewish life. And then I step back and ask, who the fuck am I to judge them?

I know plenty of committed Jews who would make the exact same judgment about me, a bacon eating, non-shabes keeping, non-procreating single Jewess. I'm sure they wish that I could experience the kind of rich Jewish life that they do, with the warmth of holiday and shabes meals, nakhes from kids, the security of a community and faith. 

Could I start keeping kosher at any moment? I sure could. And my friend who marries a non-Jewish spouse, could that person convert? I've seen it happen. Could the non-Jewish spouse commit to raising Jewish kids without converting? Absolutely. Could two apathetic Jews marry each other and raise children with zero affirmative connection to Jewish life? Do I even need to answer that?

The best, and most dangerous and scariest thing about Jewish life in America today is its dynamic quality. I call this potential Dynamic Yiddishkayt, and it privileges process over result, journey over destination. Dynamic Yiddishkayt recognizes that Jewish lives aren't flat, ahistorical objects of study, but ever changing potentialities.

On an individual level, almost anything is possible in American Jewish life and in any permutation you can think of. But on a macro level, the lives of American Jews, intermarried or not, will reflect the depth, or lack, of connection to Jewish history, culture and life. 

And, if you ask me, that's where our greatest problem lies. You can't look at intermarriage statistics without looking at every other marker of Jewish life. Jewish literacy is shockingly low. Forget about knowing any Hebrew or Yiddish (or Ladino or any other historical Jewish language), half of American Jews don't even know the alef-beys. A third (and realistically, probably more) identify as Jews of no religion. 

As I've been laying out in previous blog posts, the downward trend as regards pretty much every substantive aspect of Jewish life in America has been noted and studied for decades.  What's scandalous to me is not that so many American Jews don't care about religion (per the Pew study), but that a member of our media elite could express surprise about it, as Jane Eisner did in the New York Times in 2013. 

The demographic trends we see today were set in motion decades ago and anyone familiar with Jewish American history before 1990 would know that.  I'm less concerned about the choices of average American Jews today than I am with the narrative told and re-told by those with those with the  power, leaders like Jane Eisner. And for the power elite, intermarriage (and its less inflammatory cousin 'continuity'), not literacy, has been privileged as the key to a Jewish future. Why?

That's where British sociologist Rogers Brubaker comes in. Brubaker's understanding of ethnic groups (and ethnic conflict) can provide a different perspective onto the puzzling relationship between American Jews and their putative leaders. Perhaps it's not an accident that those leaders are so out of touch with the average American Jew, but rather a function of the leader-group dynamic.

Brubaker has written extensively about nationalism and ethnic conflict, especially in Eastern Europe. "Ethnicity Without Groups" addresses what he sees as the problem of groups and 'groupism' in the study of ethnicity, race and nationhood.  Groupism means "...  the tendency to treat ethnic groups, nations and races as substantial entities to which interests and agency can be attributed."  

The very act of surveying American Jews (as with the Pew study), whether on intermarriage or anything else, is a kind of group making project that serves the interests of the ethnopolitical entrepreneurs as much, if not more, than the members of American Jewry. 

(To be continued...)

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