Jews Shape American Culture More Than Ever — Even as Pew Warns of Assimilation

Non-Jews Eat Bagels While Jews Get Christmas Trees

kurt hoffman

By Alan Wolfe

Published October 16, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
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Of those Jews with no religion, slightly more than half, according to Pew, keep a Christmas tree in their house. But so did Theodor Herzl.

Assimilation is so destructive a force, one might conclude, that even Zionism’s most eloquent advocate could not resist it. But Herzl’s choice of holidays teaches something else: Assimilation exposes people to wider worlds that can then come back and enrich their Judaism.

No less a figure than Rabbi Gerson Cohen, soon to be named president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, gave a talk to the graduates of Boston’s Hebrew Teachers’ College in 1966, reminding them that “the great ages of Jewish continuity were born out of a response to the challenge of assimilation, and there is no reason why our age should not respond to this challenge with equal vigor.”

Jews may be assimilating at greater rates now than they did in the past, but that is in large part because in an age of multiculturalism, ethnic give-and-take is a fact of life: For every Jew who keeps a Christmas tree, there are 100 non-Jews who love bagels. Yes, ethnic identities are weakening. But newer forms of identity made possible by ethnic blending are emerging.

A few decades back, American Jews created what the educator Jonathan Woocher called a “polity,” an interlocking set of organizations and practices that gave structure and meaning to Jewish life. Three sets of institutions formed its core: synagogues, federations and national organizations. The Pew survey suggests declining support for all three on the part of younger Jews.

These trends, should they continue, will surely weaken what was once called the Jewish establishment. But where can one find any strong and trusted establishments in American life? Congress? The Catholic hierarchy? Professional football?

We live in an era in which the burden of proof is on institutions to demonstrate why they deserve support; when priests can no longer rely on blind loyalty, neither will AIPAC. Because Jewish communal life has gone the way of all communal life, Jewish organizations will have to reinvent themselves just as political parties and department stores are trying to do.


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