Send to Friend  Bookmark  Print

How Jewish Are We?

In a recent TV episode of "Sex and the City," Charlotte, an Episcopalian convert to Judaism, has prepared a festive Shabbat dinner for her Jewish boyfriend Harry who arrives home, admires her work, and turns on the TV to watch a Mets game. Charlotte asks him to turn the set off, and when he appears to have complied, she begins the Shabbat rituals, only to discover that Harry has turned the set to mute and is still watching. Furious, Charlotte snarls: "I gave up Christ for you, and you can't give up the Mets!"

This incident summarizes the modern Jewish conundrum: How Jewish should Jews, routinely accepted as equals, be in a pluralistic society? Charlotte's entry into Judaism was, in part, the result of Harry's warning that he could not marry outside his religion. Charlotte undertook serious study only to discover that part of being Jewish is disagreeing about what it means to be a Jew.

The long-anticipated National Jewish Population Survery released last month highlights this predicament. Considered by many to be an important gauge of whether we are succeeding in passing on Jewish identity to the next generation, the report portrays a growing polarization between "affiliated" Jews who are fueling a revival of Jewish spiritual and community life, and "unaffiliated" Jews who are neither particularly involved nor observant. Lamentably, the survey reveals a drop of about 300,000 in the US Jewish population from 1990, during which time the median age of Jews rose from thirty-seven to forty-two. This population decline, a first in American Jewish history, is thought to be the result of more than just a falling away of Jews from their religion as a result of intermarriage, that now represents 31 percent of the Jewish population, or due to lack of interest. But whatever the reason, Jews tend to marry later and have a lower birthrate than the average of 2.1 children necessary to replace the Jewish population. In 1937, Jews comprised 4 percent of the US population; today it is not quite 2 percent and shrinking.

Tonight, I want to provide a snapshot of different kinds of Jews who unwittingly have contributed to the results of the National Jewish Population Survey.

The first category, Not Very Jewish Jews, is as old as Judaism itself. Two vignettes will explicate an age-old tension that Jews, a minority living in a dominant host culture everywhere except in Israel, have long felt.

A Hasidic Jew left Poland and settled in London. He discarded his religious dress and habits and painstakingly worked at becoming a refined Englishman. One day, he learned that his father was coming to visit and feared that his father's old-world ways would embarrass him. Meeting his father at the port, the son said: "Papa, if you come to my house with your long waistcoat, head-covering, and beard, you will destroy all that I have worked so hard to accomplish. You must do everything I ask you to do." The father agreed.

The son outfitted his father with a beautiful three-piece suit and ordered his barber to shave the father's beard. Then he pointed to the old man's side curls and said, "I'm sorry, Papa, we have to cut them off." But when the barber cut the second one off, tears started streaming down the old man's face. "Why are you crying, Papa?" the son asked. The father replied, "I'm crying because . . . we lost India."

Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism once wrote to a friend urging him to join in the effort to establish a homeland for the Jews. His friend replied, "What kind of a Jew are you? You don't go to synagogue. You don't observe anything. You are not a practicing Jew in any sense. What kind of Jew are you?" Herzl answered: "I am a psychological Jew." The psychological Jew, the post-religious Jew, the Jew with few, if any passionate attachments or connections to the community, who keeps a safe distance from the community lest he feel suffocated by it, depicts the Jewish lives of so many Jews today. But at least they remain within the Jewish fold, no matter how tenuous that connection may be. Nevertheless, that means there is an opportunity to create a more substantive connection to Judaism. However, that is not the case in the second grouping, the No Longer Jewish Jews.

In 1818 Heinrich Marx, a lawyer and son of a rabbi, became a Lutheran to avoid disbarment under a Prussian law that forbade Jews to practice law. Six years later, he converted all of his children including 6-year-old Karl, in order that they not suffer from anti-Semitism. Karl Marx, the grandson of not one, but two Orthodox rabbis, grew up to become a rabid Jew-hater, but he was not alone. It is hypothesized that between 1800 and 1850 as many as one-third of Berlin's Jews became Christians.

Leon Trotsky, leader of the Russian Revolution changed his birth name from the quintessentially Jewish name Lev Bronstein. In 1920, Moscow's chief rabbi asked the Russian leader, then the head of the Red Army, to protect Jews from pogroms prompted by the accusation that they had brought communism to Russia. Trotsky responded, "Why do you come to me? I am not a Jew." The rabbi retorted: "That's the tragedy. It's the Trotskys who make the revolutions, and it's the Bronsteins who pay the price."

Of course, there is nothing that causes Jews concerned with Jewish continuity as much shock as hearing about converts, who without even the threat of persecution as an excuse, toss their Judaism aside. This is, perhaps, the most disturbing category of "Jews" because there is little hope of drawing former Jews and their offspring back into the fold. However, some of the descendents of these formerly Jewish Jews fall into a fascinating group called Suddenly Jewish Jews, because, for a small minority, the newfound knowledge of their Jewish ancestry results in a resurgence of Jewish life. Stephen Dubner (1999) author of Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family, grew up in a devoutly Catholic home that was peppered with heimish Yiddishisms and a taste for ethnic food such as gefilte fish. Although he said the Rosary every night and a framed painting of the Crucifixion hung in his parents' living room, he always knew that his parents had been born Jews. Employing his skills as a journalist, Dubner interviewed distant relatives and rummaged through archives, discovering, for example, that Ethel Rosenberg, executed along with her husband Julius as Soviet spies in 1953, was his mother's first cousin. Sifting through what he found, he wrote a 1996 NY Times Magazine cover article about his bewildering formative years. After its publication, he received hundreds of phone calls, letters, and emails with invitations to seders and stories of longing told by others born to Jews who had converted to other religions.

Dubner is not alone. Inspired by Madeleine Albright's discovery that her parents were born Jews, author Barbara Kessel (2000) wrote Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots, one hundred and sixty interviews with Jews who had abandoned their faith in order to blend into the mainstream including: "crypto-Jews," descendants of people forced to convert during the Inquisition who secretly continued to practice some Jewish traditions, people who as children were hidden with gentiles during the Holocaust, children of Holocaust survivors who gave up their Judaism, and adoptees whose biological families were Jewish. Many of them reported being inexplicably drawn to Judaism before discovering their Jewish backgrounds. One man grew up in a non-practicing gentile home where he studied the Hebrew Scriptures. After deciding to convert to Judaism, he discovered that his mother was a Holocaust survivor who had cut all ties with her Jewish past. She made him promise never to tell anyone, and although he understood, he shared his story with his rabbi who likened his story to "a tiny oven pilot light that's always on but is waiting to be fueled into a blazing flame."

Mary Gordon (1996), author of Shadow Man, was shocked to discover not only that her father had repudiated his Jewish origins but also that he had become a follower and devotee of anti-Semitic radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin. These are not isolated examples but one of many accounts that have developed into the popular literary genre.

Of course, not all the "Suddenly Jewish Jews" embraced Judaism after learning of their Jewish roots. For some, it was devastating news that placed them in a kind of "spiritual no man's land." Some believed that their parents were trying to protect them but, instead, left a gaping hole in their lives. Nevertheless, their connection to their Jewish past provides an opportunity to draw them back into Jewish life. A fourth category, Too Jewish Jews, presents a different perspective.

A 1996 exhibit, "Too Jewish: Challenging Traditional Identities," mounted at the Jewish Museum in New York City (Kleeblatt, 1996), tried to define the stereotypical boundary between being Jewish and overdoing it. An incident from the life of Sholom Secunda, Russian-born songwriter, is illustrative.

Luckless Secunda, eager to succeed in America but groomed by his family to be a cantor, wrote the Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" ("To Me You are Beautiful") with Jacob (Joe) Jacobs in 1932, a song that became an instant hit in Yiddish musical theatre. Wanting to break into the big time, Secunda begged the then-megastar Eddie Cantor to introduce his song on Cantor's NBC radio show. Cantor declined saying, "Sholom, I love your music. But I can't use it. It's too Jewish." In 1937 Secunda sold the song's rights to a Yiddish music publisher for three hundred dollars. Sammy Cahn, another Jewish songwriter heard the song and wondered how popular it might become if people actually understood the words. He translated the lyrics from the Yiddish and convinced the popular Andrews Sisters to record it for Decca Records. America went wild. A quarter of a million records and two hundred thousand copies of the sheet music were sold within a month. People flocked to record stores asking for "Buy a Beer Mr. Shane" and "My Mere Bits of Shame." (Whitfield, 1999) As an aside, this was not the end of Secunda's terrible luck. Influential Yiddish theatre character Boris Thomashefky recognized Secunda's musical genius and tried to pair the youth with another wunderkind who had shown a "certain flair for composition." But Secunda was shocked to learn that his potential collaborator had no formal musical training and composed by ear. Later, George Gershwin expressed his appreciation to Secunda for having made his own success possible; he wrote: "If he had agreed to write with me, I, too, would now be writing music only for the Yiddish theatre."

The Jewish community often takes "Too Jewish Jews" for granted. However, the last category, the Half-Jewish Jew, is one that the Jewish world ignores.

For millennia, Jews have tried to find the right balance for fitting in but not overdoing Jewish identity. With approximately half of all Jews marrying non-Jews, the number of children under age 11 born of such marriages exceeds the number of children born of two Jewish parents. This fertile territory presents a new challenge for a Jewish community seeking to embrace such families. However, the Jewish community is silent about how to encourage strong faith-based lives in children who choose to practice religious traditions of both their parents. This act of blending two halves into a single hybrid, called by one half-Jewish woman "a dazzling act of existential virtuosity," defines the tension inherent in blending two cultures where a half-Jewish child often becomes the consummate outsider/insider, ashamed of the "neitherness" that Jeff Kent, a half-Jewish/half-Southern Baptist actor and comedian, suggests should be addressed by a Twelve-Step program. Indeed, this difficult struggle for the children of interfaith marriages was evidenced by a group that called itself the "Parves: Adult Children of Interfaith Marriages," borrowing the Jewish dietary term for neither milk nor meat. Today, the trend-setting greeting card industry offers a panoply of Hanukkah/Christmas cards for families with half-Jewish/half-Christian children. And certainly there are those who deal with their nervousness about the subject by telling funny stories like that of half-Jewish/half-Irish Catholic Bill Maher who joked, "I used to go into confession and I would bring a lawyer with me. In the confessional I would begin by saying: 'Bless me father for I have sinned;' and then add, 'I think you know Mr. Cohen over here.'" Or the comment that "Jews and Catholics always make the holidays come at the same time--Christmas and Hanukkah, Passover and Easter, and Yom Kippur and the World Series."

But the issue is no laughing matter. There are all too many couples out there struggling to raise their children with respect for two traditions, who try to blend two faiths in their households. Some are accepted by both traditions, but more often than not, they are rejected by one or both as Andrew Moss (2000), a British epidemiologist living in San Francisco noted in a widely disseminated email posting: "Most half-Jews don't realize it: we are invisible even to ourselves. This is because we have liminal status, we are on that terrifying threshold between one thing and the other. The inhabitants of thresholds are monsters, they are what those on both sides don't wish to see."

At times the Jewish community has been frighteningly unembracing. William Cohen, former senator from Maine and former defense secretary was the child of a Jewish bakery owner and a non-Jewish mother. Reuben Cohen reared his son to be Jewish and sent him to Hebrew school where he was the class "whiz." But when William reached the age of 12, the local rabbi suddenly announced that the boy was ineligible for a Bar Mitzvah because his mother was Protestant. He would have to undergo conversion to take part in that rite of passage. Infuriated, frightened, and hurt, William removed the mezuzah he had worn around his neck for years, flung it into a river, and announced that he no longer considered himself a Jew, a vow he has kept. In the early 1980s when Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, proposed that children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers raised as Jews be considered Jewish, he received a postcard from then Senator Cohen that stated, "If you had been around 30 years ago, I might still be a Jew."

Although neglected and even shunned by the Jewish community, we need to reach out to this ever-growing constituency to see how we can help families who struggle with feelings of being insiders and outsiders. Regrettably, it is a challenge that, at the moment, we avoid with a variety of lame excuses. The Jewish community has its work cut out, no matter what kind of Jew we reach out to because an opportunity to be worthy guarantors of the Jewish future will not materialize on its own.

A legendary account of the time when the First Temple was about to be destroyed depicts bevies of young priests assembling on the roof of the Temple with the keys of the Temple in their hands. There they exclaimed, "Master of the Universe, as we did not have the merit to be faithful treasurers, these keys are handed back into Thy keeping." Then they threw the keys upward towards heaven. And there emerged the figure of a hand that received the keys from them, whereupon they jumped into the fire.

Each modern Jew is a priest of Judaism, responsible for the care of the keys. We must redouble our determination to keep, preserve, and prosper a Jewish community that ought not be obsessed with whether there are more or fewer of Jews than there were a decade ago, but concentrate instead, on the quality and content of the Jewish lives of all who seek the embrace of our community. Amen!


Dubner, Stephen (1996). "Choosing My Religion." In The New York Times Magazine, March 31, 1996.

Dubner, Stephen (1999). Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family. New York: William Morrow

Gordon, Mary (1996). Shadow Man. New York: Scribner.

Kessel Barbara (2000). Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots. Hanover: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England.

Kleeblatt, Norman (1996). Too Jewish: Challenging Traditional Identities. New York: The Jewish Museum, and New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Moss, Andrew (2000). Half-Jew posting on Belief Network,

Whitfield, Stephen (1999). In Search of American Jewish Culture. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England.

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A form of nationalism of Jews and Jewish culture that supports a Jewish nation state in territory defined as the Land of Israel. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D., rabbi at Congregation Emanu-el in San Francisco, Calif., delivered this sermon on Erev Yom Kippur in October 2003.

Send to Friend  Bookmark  Print