Essay

Who Counts as a Jew?

By | October 8, 2013

(Denver Post/Glenn Asakawa)

(Denver Post/Glenn Asakawa)

On October 1, the Pew Research Center released “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” its much-anticipated sociological study. Among other results, the survey found high rates of intermarriage with non-Jews (44 percent), only 59 percent of Jews raising their children exclusively Jewish, and nearly 22 percent percent of Jews who do not identify as religious. American Jews’ panic about the survey results has become almost ritualized and predictably alarmist. The New York Times ran an article chock full of scare quotes about the survey: “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” provided historian Jack Wertheimer. Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, told the Times that she found the results “devastating,” because “I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion. This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews to think about what kind of community we’re going to be able to sustain if we have so much assimilation.”

The attention the study has received should not be surprising: Perhaps more than any other American group, American Jews are intensely concerned with sociological reports about their communities. As historian Lila Corwin Berman has traced, American Jewish communal leaders and sociologists have had an “intimate affair” since the second half of the twentieth century, a relationship that has given rise to the distinct subfield of Jewish sociology. This alliance has centered on a deep fear of intermarriage and its effects on Jewish continuity. Sociological language has become the norm in discussions of intermarriage from the pulpit, from Jewish organizations, and in large-scale philanthropy.

The Pew survey, conducted in English and Russian on landlines and cellphones among 3,475 Jews in all 50 states, is the largest survey of American Jews in 12 years. It is also the first survey of American Jews not conducted by a Jewish organization. The last national telephone survey of American Jews, the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), was sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, now the Jewish Federations of North America, an influential coordinating body for a national network of Jewish philanthropies with combined budgets of $3 billion. Though the 2000 study’s methodology was widely criticized, largely for underestimating the number of Jews, it had an enormous effect on Jewish philanthropy. Reports of intermarriage rates in the 1990 and 2000 NJPS surveys directly influenced large-scale Jewish giving and community directives, which were reorganized after 1990 to encourage endogamy among younger Jews and draw intermarried families into Jewish organizations.

When the Jewish Federations chose not to conduct a survey in 2010, in part as a result of the criticism of its 2000 survey, Eisner of The Forward approached Pew to undertake the task. The thinking was that surveys of American Jews are too critical to American Jewish policymaking for this decade to go uncounted. And yet, who counts as a Jew? The NJPS found 5.2 million American Jews; Pew put that number closer to 6.7 million, depending on the definition of who is a Jew. As Eisner explained in an editorial after the survey’s release, “Pew’s first, understandable predilection was to think of Jews as they do Catholics, evangelical Christians, or Muslims—that is, a group defined by religious beliefs and practices. But there is a proud history of secular or cultural Judaism (whatever you like to call it) that doesn’t fit that definition at all, and Jews who identify that way needed to be counted, too.” 

Eisner was right. The concept of religion is a modern Protestant creation, and modern Judaism has never fit comfortably into the category, despite the best efforts of Jewish thinkers and communal leaders. In the United States, Jews have embraced American conceptions of religion as an individual matter of belief and choice rather than one mandated by ethnicity and community, giving rise to dynamic, changing community structures and rituals. The way Pew decided to follow Eisner’s directive will have lasting effects, determining which Jewish organizations receive gifts from major donors and who they are designed to influence. Pew differentiated between “Jews by religion,” whom they found to comprise 78 percent of American Jews, and “Jews of no religion,” who make up the remaining 22 percent. The study also reported on people of Jewish background: those who were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish parent but now have a religion other than Judaism or do not consider themselves Jewish. Finally, researchers tallied people with a Jewish affinity—a broad category of individuals who have no tangible ties to Judaism but who nevertheless consider themselves Jewish in some way. These latter categories, which were not counted toward the net of American Jews, will be fascinating data for secondary researchers but are less pressing for Jewish leaders. The crux of their concern is the numbers of Jews of no religion, who have been found to intermarry at far larger rates: Pew found that an overwhelming 79 percent of married Jews of no religion have a non-Jewish spouse and are subsequently less likely to raise their children as Jewish in measurable ways.

But the survey was created specifically in order to include a wider net of Jewish identities, to compensate for the failures of the 2000 NJPS. The NJPS asked respondents the direct, opened-ended question, “What is your religion, if any?” without offering suggestions or follow-up questions. Pew researchers, on the other hand, did their best to let respondents’ answers be their guide, identifying as Jewish anyone who said they were Jewish. Screeners asked, “What is your present religion, if any,” and went on to offer suggestions including Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular. If the respondent did not initially answer “Jewish,” the screener went on to ask, “Aside from religion, do you consider yourself Jewish or partially Jewish, or not?”—which garnered their category of Jews of no religion. From outside the field of sociology, I find the Pew study’s approach to the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?” admirable but incomplete. By necessity, it makes the category of religion appear rigid, implicitly prioritizing belief where a variety of practices and identities may be at least as important to how people conceive of themselves religiously.

Why are thoughtful scholars, journalists, and communal leaders surprised by Pew’s findings? Despite Pew’s best efforts, the results still reflect the difficulties inherent in applying the category of religion to Judaism. The study found that 62 percent of Jews overall say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry or culture, and the numbers are similar even among only Jews by religion. Jews overwhelmingly believe that one can be Jewish without believing in God (68 percent). More strikingly, a third of American Jews (34 percent) hold that one can be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the messiah. It is likely that respondents’ answers to each of these questions incorporate inconsistent understandings of Jewishness. In conversation, American Jews move easily between religious, cultural, ethnic, and genetic understandings of Judaism without worrying about the distinctions.

The buzzwords of this survey will be repeated for the next ten or so years, until another survey is put forth. The NJPS survey differentiated between “highly involved” Jews and “people of Jewish background,” between whom they saw a wide gulf. Now Pew has presented us with a distinction between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion, a Jewish version of the “nones,” the current sociological term used to identify the religiously unaffiliated, and a label used by Pew as well. As Pew researchers are quick to remind readers, Americans as a whole increasingly identify themselves as having no religion. The share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22 percent) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20 percent). The story being told here is one of secularism, or, in clichéd American Jewish terms, “assimilation,” a move from an imagined, essentialized religious Judaism that is threatened by American culture toward watered-down Jewish identities or, in more catastrophic imaginings, the disappearance of American Jews altogether.

But beyond the door of the synagogue or Jewish communal center, American Jews’ spiritual lives are rich, complex, and hard to pin down. Divisions between Judaism (the religion) and Jewishness (the culture) are no longer useful, if they ever were. Simplistic “religious” and “secular” Jews no longer accurately describe the diversity of American Jewish practice, if they ever did. As the Pew researchers highlight at the beginning of their report, “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” are both overwhelmingly proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Those of us who study American Jews should be asking what that means.

In my own qualitative ethnographic research, I examine the quotidian activities of American Jews across and beyond denominational structures, divisions that have become increasingly fluid. I have found that American Jews with a broad array of religious affiliations and no affiliation engage in the ostensibly nonreligious activities of Jewish genealogical research, attending Jewish historic sites, consuming markedly Jewish food, and purchasing books and toys that teach Jewish heritage to their children. These are mundane activities, yet engagement with them may provide a core emotional connection to a Jewish identity. In many cases, these activities are best described as religious in the sense of “lived religion,” the ways in which people carry out their religious identities on a daily basis. When the Pew survey asked respondents about what they found to be essential or important to what being Jewish meant to them, only 14 percent of Jews found “eating traditional Jewish foods” to be essential to their Jewish identities. An additional 39 percent described the activity as important but not essential. The very wording of the question reflects the essentialism at the heart of this study: Eating traditional Jewish foods, particularly in a public setting such as a deli, may be a meaningful part of a Jew’s life; at the same time, it may be too quotidian, too easily overlooked, to be described as essential or important. Moreover, the essentialist phrasing leaves it ambiguous whether the respondent is solely reporting on his or her own practice or pronouncing on the boundaries of Jewish identity and declaring the practice mandatory. Commonplace activities such as eating Jewish food are often quietly fundamental to religious identities rather than explicitly identified as essential to them.

To its credit, the 2000 NJPS asked more questions about Jewish practices, such as reading Jewish books. For my own research purposes, I am still waiting for a national survey to ask about attendance at Jewish museums, as the 2000 Jewish Community Study of Greater Baltimore did. That study found that 59 percent of its respondents reported visiting a Jewish museum in the past three years. Sixty-five percent of Orthodox Jews had visited a Jewish museum; 57 percent of “non-denominational and secular Jews” had visited one. These mundane activities are deeply meaningful to American Jews and form the basis of religious identities. As many American Jews have grown increasingly distant from traditional communal structures, they find Jewish meaning in unconventional ones, such as restaurants and museums. The Pew survey tells us some important things about Jews. But it does not come close to revealing the range of everyday American Jewish practices, which continue to fall outside the recognized boundaries of religion.

Rachel Gross is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University and a dissertation research fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Related

States of the Union

Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.

Illinois

An Autoworker Reconciles God and Mammon

By Christopher D. Cantwell

More from The States of the Union Project >

THE TABLE

A setting to debate the issues of the day.

R&P TWEETS

Wedding vendors: A new facet of gay rights battle http://t.co/R3SwGukhxU #RAPSheet

1 hour ago

More Tweets >

R&P Newsletter