October 10, 2013

Facts, Figures and Fatalism in the 2013 Pew Research Study on American Jews

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 6:17 pm by chavalah

Defying logic--I was raised Reconstructionist (6%), now belong to a Conservative/Mastori synagogue (18%) and identify as post-denominational (???)

Defying logic–I was raised Reconstructionist (6%), now belong to a Conservative/Mastori synagogue (18%) and identify as post-denominational (???)

I admit, I haven’t thoroughly read through Pew’s latest Portrait of Jewish Americans, published early this month. Part of the reason I haven’t is because of reactionary news headlines like: “Jews the Ever Dying People,” “Reengaging American Jews Before They Drift Away,” “…less Jewish Identity Among Younger People,” “Challenges for American Jews,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

It doesn’t help that my overall identity has been under attack this month. Thanks to the government shutdown I haven’t been to work since September (and since I’m a federal contractor rather than employee, there’s very little chance that I’ll see any of this elusive “back pay.”) Now Pew has to come along and poke holes in me for being an American Jew, a millennial, progressive rather than Orthodox and, of course, the child of an interfaith marriage.

In a way, what I feel like is that the survey is telling me that I don’t exist. If intermarriage is the “gateway drug” to non-Jewish living, I’m in pretty hot water. While 59% of people like me are raised Jewish, 83% of us turn around and marry out. As a progressive Jew, I’m less likely to attend synagogue regularly, keep kosher, celebrate Shabbat or believe in Gd. As a millennial, I’m largely ambivalent towards Jewish communal groups, commitment to Israel and the continuing importance of the Holocaust. Only one or two of those indicators are fully applicable to me—I don’t keep kosher and I was raised Jewish.

In another way, the survey isn’t telling us anything new. The Orthodox and senior citizens bunker down in their beliefs. The rest of us are less sure. Things are pretty fluid, in fact. For example, I enjoy a good “Jewish joke,” but I don’t really think it’s all that important to identity; in fact, it can get a bit shallow.  I don’t attend synagogue or cultural events as much as I’d like, but I devote much of my life to thinking, reading and writing about Judaism. I believe in Gd (different variations of Gd, in fact, depending on the occasion,) but I’d say my deeper connection is to the history of the Jewish people, and our mythos as expounded upon in our religious texts. Devotion to Israel is very important to me, but I count devotion as being more than just a yes man to a political agenda. As an American Jew, I also feel devotion to our history and culture here, as well as my Ashkenazi history and culture in Eastern Europe. I will always remember the Holocaust, but I worry that if I attach it too much importance in the “being Jewish” sphere, then “being Jewish” will be about nothing beyond what gentiles think of us.

There are plenty of stories like mine, of people who don’t fit “the mold” but are still deeply connected to Judaism. here’s a few; and guess what—they’re all millenials! 😛

And that’s another thing about these types of surveys. Is identity a “go by numbers”? If I follow a set amount of these anecdotes, does that make me “a real Jew”? Because that, to me, is not what identity is about. That’s what science is about—facts and figures. And I have nothing but respect for science. It has its place in my life, particularly when I have to go to the doctor or sell old books for extra income. But I’m not a robot, and Judaism isn’t an input/output mechanism. I don’t even miss my job because of my dwindling bank account (though granted, that’s a big concern!) I miss being important, and contributing to something larger than myself.

As for interfaith families, look. There’s a lot of interfaith people who don’t care at all about their Jewish identities. And that makes me worried, until I remind myself that the adage “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” wasn’t invented yesterday. The two As (antisemitism and assimilation) have plagued the Jewish people for millennia, and yet we’re still here. I should have as much of a voice as any other interfaith kid, and I’M still here. And I’m tired of being frightened because my heritage isn’t a set of kosher connect the dots. Judaism is a series of personal journeys laced with common themes. That’s how we survive.

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