American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated. Great News!

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Oct. 3 2013 5:16 PM

American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated 

Great news! 

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Guilt makes secular Jewish parents want to incorporate Jewish traditions into family life, like celebrating Hanukkah as well as Christmas.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On Tuesday the Pew Research Center released the first major survey of American Jews in more than a decade. The results confirmed what most of us would have guessed: Increasing numbers of Jews are not religious, are married to non-Jews, and are raising their children outside the faith.

Cue the frantic emails from Boca Raton and Palm Springs. Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner told the New York Times that the survey “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.” And at Commentary, Jonathan S. Tobin wrote that “Instead of accepting assimilation, Jewish groups must resist it whenever possible.”

I am the problem. Six months ago I told a friendly Pew pollster that I consider myself Jewish but not religious, that my wife is not Jewish, and that my daughter is being raised “partially Jewish,” in Pew’s terms. And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition—even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.

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I’m not talking, here, to religious Jews, because their position is unarguable: If you believe that Jewish traditions are part of a covenant with God, of course you want your children to continue them. I’m also not talking to genetic essentialists who worry about “keeping the blood pure,” for reasons that I hope are self-evident.

I’m talking to “cultural Jews,” the kind who host Seders with progressive Haggadahs and read contemporary novels with Jewish themes and never go to synagogue—Jews like me, basically. Our anxiety about assimilation, visible on Twitter and Facebook and in countless email forwards this week, is of a quintessentially Jewish kind: It’s guilt. We fear that our sporadic, buffet-style observance of tradition is betraying our ancestors and cheating our children.

This guilt makes secular Jewish parents want to incorporate Jewish traditions into family life, like celebrating Hanukkah as well as Christmas (extra presents!) or sticking a mezuzah next to the door. But in this context, these activities have no intrinsic meaning—they’re just tactics to placate our own parents and encourage the next generation to identify as Jews. How much value can “Jewish heritage” have if it signifies nothing beyond its own perpetuation?

Of course, Jewish traditions can be valuable for their own sake. The idea of the Sabbath is enjoying a revival, and it seems well suited to the present moment: a time for the family to turn off its screens, shut out the world, and come together. We should do that, I find myself thinking—and so should everyone, probably, even if they’re not Jewish. Maybe on Thursday nights—that might work better for us.

So keep the Sabbath, host a Seder. Fast on Yom Kippur if you like. But that’s not enough, apparently. Your kids have to do it too, even after they’ve left home—and their kids, and theirs, forever, or Judaism will die and it will be your fault.

But isn’t that just the bargain, or the tragedy, of parenthood? Your kids are going to grow up to do what they want to do, and it might not be what you do, or what you think you should do but don’t.

The mechanism behind Jewish assimilation is obvious and salutary. American Jews no longer suffer systemic discrimination; indeed, we’ve achieved remarkable success. That means Jews tend to meet their spouses the way their gentile peers do, in college or the workplace. Some seek out Jewish partners, but that means making a special effort. By default, Jews find themselves in the same marriage pool as everyone else.

For anyone not attached to terrible ideas about racial purity, this is good news. Would it be better if Jews still lived in ghettoes? If gentiles still barred us from their universities and law firms and golf clubs? If my wife had to defy her parents to marry me? (These days, it tends to be the Jewish parents who are more upset about the non-Jews marrying in.)

The alternative to continuing discrimination is more children like my daughter, who has one Jewish parent and won’t be bat mitzvahed. When the Pew Center calls her in 20 years and asks if she considers herself Jewish, I don’t know what she’ll say, but it might be no. And there will be many more like her. If American Jews keep on marrying whoever they want, raising kids in homes where Jewish traditions are vestigial at best, what happens after two or three more generations?

The answer is that, apart from the very small Orthodox community, Jewishness will eventually die out as a distinct element in American life. For my grandchildren, the fact that some of their ancestors were Jewish will have no more significance than the fact that others were Welsh.

That will be a real loss. But we should be realistic about what’s being lost and what isn’t. Here are some of the things I cherish about Jewishness: unsnobbish intellectualism, sympathy for the disadvantaged, psychoanalytic insight, rueful comedy, smoked fish. Those things have been thoroughly incorporated into American upper-middlebrow culture. Philip Roth and Bob Dylan and Woody Allen no longer read as “Jewish” artists but as emblematic Americans; their influence is as palpable in the work of young gentiles as young Jews.

The loss of Jewishness as a meaningful identity in America is the kind of loss that occurs when individuals are free to engage in the pursuit of happiness. It’s the loss of something that has great meaning to many people and an important place in history but that is, essentially, tribal.

As she grows up in her kind-of-Jewish family, I hope my daughter learns to love reading and learning and talking and arguing; I hope she learns to take humor seriously. But she’ll learn those things from my wife just as much as from me.

The most passionate anti-assimilationists sometimes say that Jews like me are “doing what Hitler couldn’t”—putting an end to Jewish culture once and for all. In fact, the dissolution of Jewishness into the mainstream is Hitler’s worst nightmare. Today’s American Jews have as great a shot at leading fulfilling lives as any people in human history. The fruits of Jewish culture are the gifts of Jews to the world, freely given. Over the next century, American Jewish culture may come to an end—not in tragedy but in triumph.

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