Initial reactions to the recent Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews have been almost knee-jerk in their pessimism. One commentator called the portrait a “grim” one. Another viewed the study’s results as “devastating,” with its evidence of “so much assimilation.” This rush to gloom brings to mind the old sendoff about the definition of a Jewish telegram: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
The actual facts that evoked these reactions needn’t be viewed as unequivocally problematic. Another reading is possible.
Consider these findings: The American Jewish population turns out to be larger than expected: 6.8 million rather than previous estimates of 6 million or less. Intermarriage rates have held more or less steady since 1990. And most (61%) of Jews who intermarry are raising their children as “Jewish or partly Jewish,” rather than in another religion.
So the Jewish population isn’t shrinking, and even though many Jews intermarry, among those who do, the impulse to evade being seen as Jewish and to avoid “burdening” the identity of one’s children with a Jewish connection seems to have faded.
Today, intermarriage is more aptly a marker of integration and acceptance of Jews into America than a sign of Jews abandoning their origins or turning their backs on Judaism. I’m thinking of people like Jon Stewart, Natalie Portman and Rahm Emanuel, who have intermarried yet strongly identify as Jews.
It’s likely that they would be among the overwhelming proportion of Jews (94%) in the study who say that they are proud to be Jewish. While rabbis and the most religiously devout may not be impressed by this, sociologically these changes are striking and worth appreciating.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1937, Jews were held in such low esteem that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan described the troubling psychological burden of being Jewish: “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.”
At midcentury there was a slew of jokes about Jews who attempted to “pass” as WASPs but were stymied by telltale signs of their otherwise hidden Jewishness.