The Jewish Future, in Black and White


By Uzi Silber

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I’ve seen the future, and it’s black and white.

It was a sunny Sunday morning in our Lower East Side community playground, animated by a frenetic blur of whooping kids, my own included.

Alone on a bench, I’d neglected to bring a book from home and wasn’t in the mood to socialize with the parents nearby. I opted instead to subject the ad-hoc collection of children to an informal Jewish identity census.

Before disclosing the outcome of this thoroughly unscientific survey, it’s important to recall that this neighborhood was once the beating heart of Jewish life in America and the historic core of what still remains the world’s largest Jewish city.

Here then are the survey results: Of the 23 children in the playground, three were fully Jewish, and two were gentiles. A whopping 18 kids were half-Jewish.

It later occurred to me that with one notable (and Sephardic) exception, every one of my wife’s closest Jewish friends has intermarried, though most fully intended not to. Her own sister recently celebrated her first wedding anniversary with her tall and handsome gentile husband from Alberta.

That intermarriage among American Jews is a ubiquitous phenomenon is widely known. But its accelerating pace is nevertheless astonishing. According to figures from the National Jewish Population Survey, only 13% of those who were married before 1970 intermarried, a figure that more than doubled to 28% during the 1970s, reached 43% by the second half of the 1980s and hit 47% by the late 1990s.

According to the NJPS, three-quarters of self-identified Jewish adults with intermarried parents themselves marry non-Jews. And only a third of intermarried couples raise their children Jewish.

Across the East River later that same afternoon, I witnessed an entirely different demographic state of affairs. Ahead of a visit to my Aunt Irene’s in Flatbush, we stopped by a playground in Boro Park, a congested, square-mile patch of Brooklyn that is home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of Jews.

The fenced-in grounds were a stormy sea of black and white: yarmulke-d, tzitzis-ed and peyes-ed boys scooted and climbed, while their sisters, concealed modestly from head to toe, biked and seesawed. Young mothers sporting mournful black kerchiefs pushed carriages as their husbands, uniformly clad in black pants and white shirts, yapped into cell phones in Yinglish.

Make no mistake, the Boro Park playground represents the Jewish future in America.

In a 2008 speech, Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen said that “we are now in the midst of a non-Orthodox Jewish population meltdown,” noting high rates of intermarriage and low levels of affiliation among the offspring of intermarried couples. He contrasted this situation with the demography of American Orthodox Jews.

“Among Jews in their 50s, for every 100 Orthodox adults, we have 192 Orthodox children. And for the non-Orthodox, for every 100 adults, we have merely 55 such children,” he explained. “In nearly two generations, in our own lifetime, the Orthodox have embarked on a path to nearly doubling their size. At the same time, the non-Orthodox are en route to nearly half their number.”

The rapid growth in the Orthodox population is borne out within my own extended, and very typical, ultra-Orthodox family. My late father, who left his rigorously Orthodox fold as a teen, was one of six children. They, in turn, had 24 kids (of whom I am one). These two-dozen have given birth thus far to 110 children — a number sure to grow, considering the relative youth of many of my younger cousins. Indeed, the oldest among the 110 have wedded and have begun producing a gigantic litter that could one day approach 1,000 people — all within four generations!

The implication of all this? The ranks of secular and religiously liberal American Jewry will be greatly diminished by the end of this century, leaving behind a legacy of thousands of gentile Goldsteins, Bernsteins and Kaplans. The shrunken Jewish community in the United States will be increasingly composed of the fervently Orthodox, with a reduced representation of more moderately devout Jews.

In 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Vanishing American Jew,” which posited that assimilation, low birth rates and intermarriage would conspire to extinguish American Jewry by the end of the 20th century. As it happens, it was Look magazine that vanished first.

But ultimately Look wasn’t that far off. The figure it referred to — that fleeting creation of the 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment known as the modern American Jew — is indeed on the way to becoming a relic. How ironic that this was a fate once widely thought to be reserved for the now resurgent ghetto yid, who may well end up being the typical American Jew of the 22nd century.

Uzi Silber is a writer living in New York.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.