The news on Jews


East Hampton, N.Y. -- JEWISHNESS in America is not a growth industry.

Fifty years ago, there were about five million Jews in the United States. Today there are a half million more, about a 10 percent increase -- while the total U.S. population has doubled, from the postwar 130 million to today's 260 million. That means the percentage of Jews in America has declined from nearly 4 percent to 2.3 percent.

Despite the world population explosion, the number of Jews in the world since the end of the Holocaust has remained fairly constant at 13 million. In New York City, not just the proportion but the actual number of Jews has declined by a third; the same in Britain.

The near-halving of the Jewish percentage means that this minority is steadily becoming more of a minority. What's causing it? Should Jews worry about the trend? If so, what can be done to stop the drop?

These questions are triggered by Jonathan Rabinovitz's fine story in the New York Times about the decision of an editor of a Jewish weekly newspaper in West Hartford, Conn., not to print announcements of interfaith marriages.

The editor of the Jewish Ledger wants to express his concern about Jews marrying outside the faith, a practice that has gone from 1 in 10 marriages 50 years ago to 1 in 2 today. His refusal to treat such marriages as a cause for celebration was met with pained and irate reactions from many happily intermarried couples in that community.

The controversy goes to the heart of the matter of Jewish dwindling. A low-birth rate is a factor; so is the welcome lowering of anti-Semitic barriers and the sense that Israel is less in danger.

But a primary cause of the percentage decline is the inclination of half the nubile generation to marry non-Jews. Because only one in 20 of these partners becomes Jewish, and (estimates get fuzzy here) less than half of their offspring are raised to be Jews, the Jewish presence in the population drops.

Not every Jew worries about this. Jacob Neusner, the most prolific and provocative Judaic scholar, sees the quality of Jewish family life as central, and measures the survivability of the people less in ethnicity than in the distinctiveness that comes from the embrace of holiness in individual homes. I see how it works for Jack: his children find joy in their Jewishness, good guidance in the religion, and will marry and bring up observant Jews.

And a case can be made that "reverse ethnic assimilation" is taking place. Yiddishisms enliven the English language (a State Department official on pins and needles reports that "this place is on spilkes") and in the American cuisine, the consumption of bagels has now passed that of doughnuts, as ethnic distinctiveness melts into the American pot.

Still, the numbers are troubling; a vibrant community should at least be holding its own.

The answer, I've begun to think, is not in editors making those who intermarry feel like outcasts, or in rabbis setting unenforceable conditions about children's upbringing before performing weddings. That negative strategy just does not work.

Instead, a positive way to preserve Jewish identity is to emphasize religious study, with greater understanding of its symbols and ritual. That's why the Reform movement is becoming more traditional, and why the Orthodox minority is gaining strength.

Religion differentiates people. Sometimes that's destructive (Bosnia, Ireland, the Middle East) but religion actively practiced by non-fanatics (1) provides a sense of tribal belonging that diversifies and transcends nationalism, (2) satisfies an inescapable spiritual longing and (3) binds the family.

If the weakened family is the source of many of America's ills, the rise of religiosity among all faiths offers hope. Judaism is transmitted not by the nation or the tribe or the congregation but by the family.

Jewishness ain't chicken soup or Israeli politics or affection for guilt. Jewish identity is rooted in a distinctive old religion that builds individual character and group loyalty through close family life. That is how the Jewish people have survived through five millenniums and that is the light the Jews -- whatever our number -- must continue to offer the world.


William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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