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Of all of Pew’s findings, the one that may cause the greatest shock is that just as many young Jews say that having a good sense of humor is as essential to being Jewish as is caring about Israel. But if this is taken to mean that younger Jews are losing a sense of reverence, or that they fail to grasp the evil lurking in the world, once again they have company.
Lament it or praise it — I am in the former camp — Americans are shaped by what they see on television.
Before we conclude that they have become hopelessly frivolous, it is important to recall the one thing that to this day still makes Jews distinctive in this country. At a time when the United States is becoming more conservative, overwhelming numbers of American Jews of all ages, according to Pew, rate working for justice and equality as well as leading an ethical and moral life as essential aspects of their Jewish identity. That, it seems to be, means more than finding one’s wisdom in Sarah Silverman or Larry David.
Nothing seems to change the commitments American Jews hold to liberalism. Perhaps the golden thread of tradition works in mysterious ways.
The Pew portrait raises profound questions for the future of American Judaism. More important than strategies in trying to answer those questions may be attitudes. For those persuaded that Judaism is always on its last legs, the Pew portrait will be taken as the last nail in the coffin.
Far better, I think, to appreciate its results as a first step toward new Jewish lives.
Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College.