Thursday, April 13, 2017

Accounting for the Counters: Important New Scholarship on the State of Jewish Demography

I just saw an intriguing article in the Times of Israel, Numbers game: Do Jewish leaders manipulate existential fears with statistics? It's about a new collection of academic essays, a joint American-Israeli project, called Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Jewish Life. One of the co-editors is Deborah Dash-Moore, a giant of modern American Jewish history scholarship, so I was extra intrigued to read about this new volume. The topic is demography, a subject, you probably know, near and dear to my heart.
In their book, “Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life,” editors Michal Kravel-Tovi and Deborah Dash Moore examine what they call modern Jewry’s “profound cultural investment in quantified forms of knowledge and representation.” From Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, to Massachusetts’ tucked-away Yiddish Book Center, nine essayists pondered how Jews “take stock” of themselves and the world around them. The pieces are handily divided by the editors into sections for counting the dead, the living, and objects.
After a section focused on numbers in Holocaust commemoration and Israel’s memorial culture, the spotlight shifts to Jewish demography in the Jewish state and the United States, including — most provocatively — the manipulation of numbers by political and communal leaders.
Hmmm. "...the manipulation of numbers by political and communal leaders..." Sounds familiar. Now, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, in my October op-ed for Haaretz, How the Jewish-American Elite Has Manufactured the Intermarriage 'Crisis'.  [full text yanked from behind the paywall here.]

I know, I know, I don't have a fancy degree, so if you didn't like what I had to say, maybe you'll enjoy it more coming from a bunch of (extremely smart) academic types. I'm most interested in reading my comrade-in-Yiddish Josh Friedman's essay:

For Kravel-Tovi, “Taking Stock’s” most eye-opening essay on American Jewry was Joshua B. Friedman’s, “Let’s Start with the Big Ones: Numbers, Thin Description, and the Magic of Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center.” 
As the world’s first museum devoted to Yiddish, the Massachusetts-based center has “rescued” thousands of Yiddish books from attics and basements around the world since 1980. Although fewer than five percent of the collection is on display in the center’s shtetl-themed campus, the evocative installation demonstrates what Friedman and others call “the wetness of numbers,” or their ability to personalize what might appear as dry statistics.

I haven't even gotten Taking Stock yet but I'm already convinced it's the smartest thing that's been written about Jewish demography in the years since the publication of the massive Pew report in October 2013. More to come, no doubt, once I've actually read it...

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