The Jewish Future, in Black and White
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.