The highly-publicized Pew Survey showing that, surprise, surprise, American Jews are intermarrying more and joining Jewish institutions less, roused the Jewish woe-is-me brigade. Jews remain Simon Rawidowicz’s “ever-dying people,” mourning our imminent demise – yet we still live. All this breast-beating is paralyzing and demoralizing; better to learn, change, and stretch.
The Pew’s bad news was familiar while its good news was encouraging. Yes, American Jews are more secular, cosmopolitan, individualistic, and assimilated. Only 51 percent were bar mitzvahed, 31 percent join synagogues, 18 percent join Jewish organizations.
American Judaism has become less about the traditional 3 Bs of Belonging to community, Believing in God, and Behaving in particularly Jewish ways and more about the 3 Cs – Caring about Tikun Olam, “fixing” the world, Condemning anti-Semitism, and Cultivating a smart, urbane personality. When asked, “What’s Essential to Being Jewish,” only 19 percent said “observing Jewish law,” 28 percent said “being part of a Jewish community,” and 43 percent said "caring about Israel.” Popular answers were “remembering the Holocaust” (73 percent), “leading an ethical and moral life” (69 percent), “being intellectually curious” (49 percent), and “having a good sense of humor” (42 percent). Interestingly, 43 percent believe Jews face discrimination although only 15 percent report enduring it recently. That anti-Semitism is more feared than experienced is an America blessing and a Jewish neurosis.
These results should not generate headlines today; this process began over two centuries ago when Judaism was mugged by modernity. That clash produced most modern major movements, including Orthodoxy, Reform, Conservatism, and Zionism. All of them, including Ultra-Orthodoxy, incorporate contemporary elements into their modernized Jewish expressions.
Hillel Halkin, whose classic, remarkably prescient, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic was just re-released, attributes American Jewish secularism to that devastating confrontation. Jewish culture was so isolated and so religious, in cuisine, dress, music, folk art, synagogue architecture, story-telling, even our language, that Judaism was unprepared “to evolve with secular times.”
Given that upheaval, the Pew Study delivers good news for Jews – particularly Zionists. Ninety-six percent of Jews married to Jews raise their children Jewish, and 94 percent of all Jews are proud to be Jewish. Most American Jews have unknowingly internalized the Zionist understanding that the Jews are a nation. Three-quarters express a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people” while 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly about ancestry, ethnicity and culture. Only 15 percent emphasize religion. Of course, commitment to the Jewish religion – our software – reinforces Jewish identity, with 85 percent of religious Jews feeling the peoplehood connection, while seculars are more frequently intermarried and estranged.
Despite the claims that American Jews are abandoning Israel, 69 percent of Jews feel attached to Israel – and feel free to criticize policies. A surprising 40 percent believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people and a whopping 43 percent of American Jews have visited Israel – with nearly half of those younger than 30 having visited thanks to Birthright. A bigger Birthright Bounce involves the many parents and grandparents who followed, having seen their children flourish on the Israel trip.
Halkin explains Israel’s magic – even as readers will be struck by how fragile, an Israel he was writing about in 1975, when Israeli Jews only constituted 20 percent of world Jewry not 50 percent, and Israel was poor, embattled, primitive.
“A land and a language,” Halkin exclaims. “They are the ground beneath a people’s feet and the air it breathes in and out. With them, all things are possible, for each is an inexhaustible treasure if only we could learn to take what it has to give us.” Even Halkin, who delighted in being politically incorrect before the term was coined, does not claim that living in Israel made him a “better Jew”; instead, it “gave my life as a Jew its maximal value.” Halkin loves the romance of the Israel story, writing: “There is nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people” displaced, oppressed, and then: “Returns… builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats.”
Halkin, who is not religious, moved from America to Israel believing he could achieve self-fulfillment only where Judaism is not a “tolerated divergence from the mainstream of national life, but is part of the mainstream itself.” He sees Israel’s cultural mission as mixing secular and traditional, Jewish and modern impulses to serve “as the basis for a modern society whose members will share a common cultural identity that draws on what each of them has bought to it.”
Halkin acknowledges Israel’s many challenges, accepting his Zionist, Jewish and human duty to face them. He admits, that “national sovereignty is not a utopian solution to anything.” But at least you live in the real world. To “recoil from sovereignty is as much of a moral evasion as the flight of the hermit who would rather divorce the world than be tainted by having to cohabit it.”
The Pew Study – and Halkin’s Letters – teach that modern Jewish identity worldwide benefits from having Israel as a touchstone, validating the centrality of peoplehood, and serving as our great collective national project. As a Zionist educator, I view the fact that only 13 percent truly understand Hebrew and only 28 percent value Jewish community as educational challenges to tackle not indictments against American Jews to launch.
Halkin wrote the book to “help start an argument that was missing from American Jewish life.” We still need that argument. Most inspiringly, after four decades as an Israeli by choice he calls it, “A great adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” That is the Jewish spirit we need – embracing our lives, and our Jewish identities, as great adventures, wherever we live.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!