Friday, October 4, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish (Outside The Bubble of the American Jewish Institutional World) Part 2

Are you still interested in talking about this Pew report on American Jewry? 


Good, me too. Let me bring your attention to an excellent blog post by Stanford sociologist Ari Kelman. Kelman is one of the only people (as far as I know) to point out that “a religious bias was written into the survey itself.” 

“The instrument [the Pew survey] revealed, however inadvertently, just how rich the vocabulary is for discussing Jewish religious life and how poor it is for understanding other expressions of Jewishness. It asked lots of questions about religion, and it demonstrated a finely-tuned ear for subtle distinctions of religious expression. But when it came to understanding the modes of Jewish engagement by those who claimed to be Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey frequently offered clumsy, ham-handed catch-all categories that tended to blunt any deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life....The sophisticated measures and descriptive language around religious differences and distinctions indicate just how finely attuned the American Jewish community has become to the particular formulations of Jewish as a religion, and how far it has to go to truly understand the variety of ways in which people articulate their versions and visions of Jewish culture.”

I’d like to take Professor Kelman’s analysis a couple steps further. Not only does the survey construction reveal the biases of its writers and funders toward a religion/synagogue oriented ‘Jewishness’, it entirely misses an opportunity to learn more about who these complicated American Jews are.

In the section entitled “What Does it Mean to be Jewish?” (pg 54), respondents were asked to identify themselves with three choices: religion, ancestry/culture or a mix of all three. 62% identified with ancestry/culture, 23% with the mix of religion/ancestry/culture and ONLY 15% said religion alone. Which means that 85% of all respondents felt that being Jewish implicates a mix of religious, ancestral and cultural ways of being. 

This openness to seeing Jewishness as more than religion extends even to the Orthodox. Though they are “more apt than other Jews to say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion”, even among the Orthodox, large numbers say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture (15%) or that being Jewish is a matter of both religion and ancestry/culture (38%). That is, 53% of Orthodox Jews see Jewishness as some mixture of religion, culture and ancestry.

Clearly, understanding ‘ancestry/culture’ would seem to be of first importance to understanding Jewish American identity.  And yet, as Professor Kelman  points out, the Pew survey almost entirely fails to capture anything outside a synagogue/JCC/Federation inscribed American Jewishness.  Indeed, the Pew survey contains almost no metrics to capture or describe the identity of 85% of American Jews.  As the kids might say, #SurveyFail

About this time, the concerned reader is bound to ask:  What on earth does ancestral/cultural actually mean? And should the two terms even be so inelegantly crammed together? 

I can start by assuming ‘ancestral’ means the commonly held understanding that if one is born to a Jewish mother (or, if Reform, a Jewish parent) then one is Jewish and little short of apostasy can change this. 

Then again, doesn’t ancestral also bring in a whole network of associations and connections? The past doesn’t stop at one generation back. One is Jewish because one’s family is Jewish, because the immediate Jewish history is one’s own history, just as the story of the Exodus is taken on as one’s own at Passover.  I’m not just an American Jew, I’m the great-granddaughter of Romanian Jews, the descendent of immigrants from Eastern Europe, an inheritor of a whole package of ‘ancestral’ signifiers. My identity is quite different than that of my friend whose grandmother is a Polish Holocaust survivor. My friend’s Jewish identity is inflected in numerous, different ways, by her unique ‘ancestry.’ Being a fourth generation American, ancestry means something quite different to me than it does to her.

And what about ‘culture’? In a way, I’m glad that the survey authors didn’t use the dreaded term “ethnicity”, but in essence, that’s what they were getting at.  Culture, it’s like air, all around us, but invisible unless one knows how to make it visible.  Jewish Sociologists don’t  like to talk about culture because it runs contrary to the approved narrative of American Jewishness, one that is post-war, post-immigrant, post-Yiddish, and post-difference. To talk about culture is to be at odds with the monolithic American Jewishness beholden to the Zionist hegemony.  But the reality of American Jews and Jewishness CANNOT be understood without talking about the multiplicity of Jewishness and its many cultures.  Then again, it’s become quite clear in the last few days that those who purport to lead us don’t give a damn about who we really are.

Even though the survey doesn’t set out to detail the ancestry/culture of American Jews, like it does with religion (as noted by Professor Kelman, above), we can still find some traces of it within the results of the survey.  Country of origin, length of time in America, languages, these have to be our starting places. 

Page 45 of the report deals with Ancestry and Place of Birth.  American Jews have become overwhelmingly native born. 86% of American Jews surveyed were born in the United States and 65% have been here for three generations or longer. Only 35% are first or second generation Americans. The most significant groups of foreign born were 5% from the former Soviet Union and 3% from Europe (non-specified.) We also get numbers for those who were born abroad or have a parent born abroad. This increases the numbers to 14% for Europe (non-specified) and 11% former Soviet Union. I don’t know about you, but I find Europe (non-specified) and FSU to be such large categories (and areas) as to be almost useless, not to mention unnecessarily ethnocentric. A Jew from Moldova and a Jew from Moscow have had a tremendously different Jewish experience and different needs.

Given that the large majority of American Jews are here for three generations or more, it also would have been interesting to find out about the ancestry of those Jews. Indeed, as the immigrant experience has been so key to American Jewish identity, it would have been very interesting to see a much greater level of detail as to the birthplace of grandparents and great-grandparents.  

Instead of digging into any kind of useful detail, the next section of the survey goes into Race and Ethnicity. The categories are White (Non-Hispanic), Black (Non-Hispanic), Hispanic, and Other (mixed.) Not surprisingly, 94% reported as White (Non-Hispanic.) Gigantic shockeroo, I know.  You don’t need a million dollar survey to tell me that the majority of American Jews have white privilege. This renders ‘race’ as another useless question.  Why didn’t the survey authors think to use racial categories (it pains me to use the term ‘race’ as it is so problematic, but it’ll have to do for the moment) which actually have meaning to Jews?

Even just an over-simplified Ashkenazi-Sefardi binary would have been welcome, forget about the whole glorius gamut of global Jewish identifications like Mizrahi, Central Asian, Indian, Persian and so on. Seriously, what the fuck does “White (non-Hispanic)” tell me about American Jewry. Nothing.

Language is another important part of ‘culture’ and something that strongly distinguishes sub-groups from each other. Page 63 of the survey investigates Hebrew Language Ability. 48% of respondents don’t even know the alef-beys and only 13% could read all/most Hebrew words. These numbers are shocking, but they don’t do too much to paint a picture of Hebrew ritual literacy.  What I mean by Hebrew ritual literacy is some level of fluency or familiarity with key Hebrew texts: Can the respondent make the blessing for shabes candles? For khanike candles? Do they know the Four Questions? Could they lead a seder? It’s possible to have minimal Hebrew literacy per the survey and still be able to access these texts, by memorization, for example. Or having learned them at a Yiddish shule where Hebrew was taught as part of Yiddish. It seems to me that Hebrew ritual literacy is a topic of much more pertinence to traditional notions of Jewishness than whether one is able to carry on a conversation in Modern Hebrew (one of the survey questions), a skill I doubt many of our grandparents or great-grandparents had.

The Hebrew Language Ability section is the only place on the survey which investigates languages and literacy.  It’s easy to forget that the Jews of America came here with a multitude of languages, many of which created (and continue to create!) important bodies of Jewish American literature, music and scholarship. Even if you yourself don’t speak Yiddish or Ladino or Farsi, the language of your parents and grandparents has shaped your lived Jewish experience. Even growing up mostly without grandparents (who were all American born), and with parents who only spoke English, my Jewishness has been influenced in a million ways by the Yiddish of all those relatives I never knew, as well as the Yiddish which has embedded itself in so much of American popular culture. I’ve said it many times, but I could not understand who I was until I started learning Yiddish.  

If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what the hell the point of this whole survey exercise was. The majority of American Jews have very little interest in synagogues and denominations. Sociologists have known this for at least sixty years, if not closer to a century. So why write an entire survey oriented toward synagogues and denominations? The obvious answer is that the people who commission and fund these kinds of surveys are, unlike the bulk of American Jews, enormously invested in synagogues and denominations. You could just write them off as an elite which is out of touch with the people it purports to lead.

If you were feeling less generous, you might look at what this elite has to say about us, the oylem.  A propos of the Pew survey, the Forward published what I think is one of the best pieces of Jewish journalism of 2013. They got the Jewish institutional gedolim to say, on the record, what they think of us, the rabble, insofar as our opinions are out of synch with their agendas. While the article focuses on attitudes toward the State of Israel, I think it goes quite a way to illuminating the breathtaking state of delusion and arrogance in which the institutional Jewish bubble functions and why they would write a survey with so little interest in who or what we are.

Officials with leading Jewish organizations told the Forward that the 48% of American Jews who Pew says think the Israeli government isn’t making a “sincere effort” to come to a peace deal are either uninformed, unengaged, or wrong. They also asserted that those respondents don’t represent their constituency.

“You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care.”“I think it’s interesting, we need to be aware,” he said. “But I’m not going to follow this.”

I don’t know about you, but I know a hell of a lot of Jews who are both deeply Jewish, observant and non, extremely informed on the issues, and deeply, passionately critical of Israel. But according to Abe Foxman, holding an opinion other than his means you don’t care. 

Others officials within the Jewish establishment said that the broad swath Jews reflected in the survey were not within the constituency of the mainstream Jewish groups.
“Do we represent the disorganized, unaffiliated Jewish community? Do we represent the 50% of Jews who, in a calendar year, do not step into a synagogue, do not belong to a JCC, and are jews in name only?,” asked one official with a major Jewish organization not authorized to speak by his group on the Pew survey. “The answer is a complicated one.”

Let’s not mince words; if you don’t uncritically support Israel, if you don’t go to synagogue more than a few times a year (like the MAJORITY of American Jews) well, you're a "Jew in name only" and you can go fuck yourself because you don’t even matter

The actual views and needs of American Jews are irrelevant to those controlling the purse strings. Remember that the next time a member of the comfortable Jewish pundit class tells you that intermarriage is imperiling American Jewry. The intermarriage scare is a gigantic con, a way to deflect criticism and place blame on those with the least power.

Instead of shaming Jews who intermarry (an actual suggestion made by Jack Wertheimer), we'd be better off shaming these so called leaders for holding us in contempt. Withhold your Federation donations until those in charge come up with a plan to study the actual state of American Jewry. Write letters to the Forward expressing your desire to be seen and counted. YOU are the silent majority and those in charge need to reckon with that.

(To be continued...)


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You've had a lot of great insights into the Pew survey. I look forward to reading the continuation of what you have to say on this.