Facts and Figures

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistical Communal Truths

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published January 25, 2011.
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Since the early 20th century, the American Jewish community has placed its faith in numbers — in data and statistics. Where words and images could be manipulated, numbers, it seemed, were unassailable and steadfast. They told the truth.

They held society accountable.

Little wonder, then, that so many American Jews were dismayed by the recent revelations that the findings of each storied National Jewish Population Survey were incorrect. That the community had predicated so much of its programming on inaccurate information was bad enough. Worse still was the sobering realization that numbers are not what they’re cracked up to be. Instead of being independent arbiters of reality, they’re its creatures.

For much of its modern history, though, American Jewry held tight to the fiction that fact resided in numbers. Armed with graphs, tables, pie charts and percentiles, the community’s leaders successfully wrestled with some of the mightiest problems that confronted the modern-day Jew, from criminality to the pursuit of community.

At a time when people thought that immigrant Jews were disproportionately represented among the members of the underworld, statistics came in handy. Following on the heels of a well-circulated claim in 1908 by New York City’s police commissioner, Theodore A. Bingham, that “perhaps half” of all criminals in the Empire City were drawn from the “Hebrew race,” Jewish leaders sprung into action. Issuing denials or, for that matter, insisting that Bingham’s figures were artifacts of anti-Semitism rather than social science, didn’t go far enough. To lay the issue to rest once and for all, the community’s representatives made use of numbers or, as the Morgen Zhurnal, a popular Yiddish daily of the time, put it, “statistics rather than shouting.”

Toward that end, a team of researchers carefully combed through court records to ascertain just how many New Yorkers of the “Hebrew race” had actually been charged with committing a felony. When that arduous task was completed, they then added a host of external variables to the mix. Ultimately, their tabulations revealed that Bingham’s compilations were wide of the mark. Controlling for population and age, place of residence and length of time in the United States, the Jews fell considerably shy of the police commissioner’s tally of 50%. Instead of being feared or condemned, they were, in fact, to be “congratulated on the low percentage of criminality among them,” the study’s organizers concluded with a sigh or two of relief.

When Bingham became aware of what the community’s representatives called this “crushing and convincing” discovery, he publicly retracted his figures. But the issue continued to fester, all the same. “Let us not deceive ourselves with the belief that we are entirely kosher,” civic leader Louis Marshall cautioned, encouraging the Jews of New York to take a hard-and-fast look at themselves.

New York Jewry took Marshall’s admonition to heart and, in one of the most sustained and far-reaching attempts at self-scrutiny, established the New York Kehillah, a citywide umbrella designed to organize and unify the many disparate elements that made up New York Jewish life.

A commitment to statistical analysis sustained much of the Kehillah’s efforts. “The community is not sufficiently conscious of itself. The community does not really know itself,” the Kehillah’s organizers acknowledged, insisting that to “bring order out of chaos,” New York Jews needed to have all manner of facts and figures at their disposal.

The Kehillah’s publication, in 1918, of The Jewish Communal Register of New York City, the equivalent of The World Almanac, did just that. Nearly 1,600 pages in length, it surveyed the length and breadth of New York Jewish life, encompassing the schools and synagogues; landsmanshaftn, or hometown societies, and philanthropies, the homes for the aged and the homes for delinquents that made up the New York Jewish landscape. Chock-a-block with information, the most defining feature of The Jewish Communal Register — its hallmark, perhaps — was its statistical armature.

Replete with charts and graphs and tables whose data, neatly arrayed on page after page, had to be unfolded to be seen, this was a text to be mined. One table detailed the community’s expenditures, another the “complexion” of the Jewish press, a fancy word for its range and scope. One graph documented the percentage of Jewish children who received a Jewish education, while my all-time favorite chart, its sociological imagination in full swing, took the measure — quite literally — of synagogal matters.

If you wanted to know how many synagogues there were in New York in 1917, and their geographical distribution and seating capacity and language of prayer and language of the sermon (if, in fact, they had one), “Table Showing the Distribution and Salient Characteristics of Synagogues in the Eighteen Kehillah Districts” was the document for you. From it, we now know that in the North Bronx, for example, 93.3% of all synagogues were “Orthodox” and 3.3% “Reformed”; that 73.3% were without buildings of their own, and that 87.5% conducted their affairs in Yiddish.

Much has changed, of course, since the one and only edition of The Jewish Communal Register first saw the light of day. But the practice of counting and tabulating and containing the unruliness of modern Jewish life by means of a grid has, over time, become a venerable tradition.


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