The state of the Jewnion


If you come to my home, it will be hard to tell that Jews habitate within. Sure, there is the kiddush cup from our wedding, sitting on a side shelf, or a menorah in the library, or the mezuzah tucked away in our front door. Our ketubah is lying around somewhere upstairs.  There is a vintage travel poster urging you to “Come Visit Palestine!” with a picture of Jaffa sprawled out near the sea. Hebrew letter Jewish? Or just hipster?

We’re just normal suburban Americans (right).

We are not extremely outwardly Jewish in our daily lives, if being Jewish means going to services, knowing anything about prayers, or not eating shellfish. And, according to a new poll by the  Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, because of us, the Jewish people of America are screwed.

The poll found that,

Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

The poll has just described the entire Northeast Philadelphia Russian population, and probably half of Israel. And yet, I’ve never met more a Jew more fervent than my atheist grandfather.

Of course, religious Jews are up in arms and Jewish organizations that rely on telling Jews that there are no more Jews are FRANTICALLY UPSET,

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

But I’m angry, too. Are you saying that just because I don’t go to Friday night services, that you won’t count me as one of your people? I guess even crying at Prince of Egypt doesn’t count?

American Jewry has always had a stupid relationship with what it means to be Jewish that starts and ends by measuring how many times someone goes to a synagogue, which is like counting how many foodies there are by how many 4-star restaurants they go to. Maybe they’re eating at hole-in-the wall places you don’t know. Maybe they’re cooking at home.

That shit is hard to measure, but the Jewish community can’t be bothered to measure it, because that would mean actually thinking instead of panicking and trying to raise money from rich Jews who are also concerned about the Situation.

  • How many times you’ve been called a kike because you had an obviously  Jewish first name or last name in Russia
  • How many times you or family have been denied immigration to Israel by the Soviet government
  • How many restaurants you’ve gone to to find the perfect falafel
  • How many websites you’ve visited to find out when Hanukkah is this year
  • How many times you’ve teared up through Anne Frank
  • How much time you’ve spent thinking about Jews in the 1930s for your novel
  • The amount of time you spend on Yediot Ahronot and thinking about Israel
  • The ping of happiness when you see an international foods grocery section that has both matzah and Bissli.

None of these are measured in the survey, and yet all of them are my reality as a non-religious Jew who is as Jewish as you can be without knowing the difference between mincha and bracha.

Try these on for size, Pews and Jews, shut up,  and don’t come back until you start making sense again.

11 thoughts on “The state of the Jewnion

  1. Even though I’m not Jewish, I meet some of the criteria on your list. :) I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary loads of times and cried each time (and then I cried in front of a bunch of random tourists when I went to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam). I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about Jews and Israel for a novel I’m writing. :) (The novel isn’t focused on Jews the way I assume yours is, but Israel and several Jewish characters in the novel have necessitated some thought.)

    All joking aside, this is a good post. I agree, it’s really annoying when certain people in a group try to exclude others from that group just because they don’t do a certain activity.

    And speaking of your novel: when can I read it??? Hurry up and finish writing it because I’m dying to read it.

  2. How many times you’ve been called a kike because you had an obviously Jewish first name or last name in Russia

    How many times you or family have been denied immigration to Israel by the Soviet government

    Those are just two of the many reasons that Russian born American Jews should dust off their true heritage and start lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzeddakah, may be learn a bracha or two. It is so sad to me that all too many of our ‘landsmen’ left, no escaped, the USSR because they are Jews only to arrive in America and Israel (and New Zealand and Canada, etc) and forget that in favor of being Russian. I find that to be very disturbing, especially since so many of them have only passed the ‘Russian’ element of their heritage to their children and grandchildren. Of course this is just a small part of the Situation, as you called it.

    I agree with you, in America we focus on what is most visible with minimum effort. To see what you want the polls to record, the poll takers need to really look and of course know what it is they are looking for…and that is virtually impossible.

    The situation is indeed grim for the American Jews. Assimilation at all levels / desire not to be discernible from the masses that surround them is still there and probably will remain a reality in the hearts of all too many. Although, I did see some articles that state that the population of observant Jews is on the rise for the first time in a long time, and to me that is great news.

  3. If you go to synagogue on holidays, you probably do better than most Russian Jews.
    What I found works for us because DH is a lapsed Catholic hell-bent on not practicing anything resembling religion, is hooking up with Israeli families and celebrating holidays with them. Then a religious holiday is a friendly family event. I also made it clear for him that there is NO WAY HE AVOIDS PASSOVER.
    I have a fall-written post about this. If you think about it, what American Jews are (or once were) are better Russian *Jews* than Russian Jews. They are, for the most part, the Jews from the Pale who were smart enough to flee and who kept their Little Russian Jewish tradition going for nearly a century. The ones who stayed 9our grandparents and great-grand-parents) abandoned Judaism. Being Jewish meant something else.
    From traditional American Jewish perspective, if a Jew in America doesn’t practice, he is virtually indistinguishable from other white people. But Russian Jews are different. Like many other immigrants who entered the US during the last few decades of the 20th century, we did not assimilate and generally marry our own (except for me… or Alina Adams. But see, it’s my own little conspiracy theory, if we marry out, we don’t marry American Jews of earlier extraction). We are pretty much invisible to the established Jewish community unless we need some sort of monetary assistance, as is the case with the old folks.

  4. Preach it, sister! I face this all the time in conversations with American colleagues and partners (I work for a Jewish advocacy organization and am engaged in coalition-building with non-Jews). The idea that you can be not religious and still be fervently, proudly Jewish is anathema to many. And yet, it’s the reality to you, me and others like us. I’m passing on Jewish tradition to my son — but it’s Jewish tradition with my own twist. Because reading Yehuda Amichai on Rosh Hashanah is much more powerful to me than standing in shul and not understanding a word of the service.

    • Michael, I’m also from Kharkov.
      I have to say, though, while I know plenty of people who, like me, grew up in the USSR in the 80’s, but, unlike me, had no idea they were Jewish or had some sort of Jewish roots. However, as soon as they had the opportunity to leave, they learned about being Jewish, because that’s why they were leaving. And here, in the US, even those who have no interest in Jewishness still know that their grandparents get services through JFCS. But, I suppose, there are so many of us, there’s got to be a family where kids don’t know such thing. Go figure…
      I agree with Alex about Hebrew.

  5. I’m a Jewish immigrant from Kharkov, came at age of 12.
    I am married to a wonderful Catholic woman. I was not at all aware of my “Jewishness” when we met. So I did feel like a regular “white” guy. My Jewishness was not an obstacle to me. We did have a Rabbi and a Priest together at our wedding – go figure that out!

    But, it is NOT my fault. I was not educated properly about my Jewishness. As far as I know, real Jewish history and culture is hidden in the vaults of “Jewish Theological Seminary” or “Jewish Studies Department at University of at “. If we ever want to influence our Jewish friends, we MUST shine a light upon that knowledge and make it available in a form for everyone to understand.

  6. May I suggest that for a non-religious person to begin to approach their heritage is first and foremost to learn the language of their ancestors. This applies equally to American Jews (who as one commenter above correctly noted, are just 3rd generation Russian Jews), and to Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union. It is true that half of Israeli population is non-religious, but knowledge of Hebrew language is the one big thing that makes them retain and transmit their Jewish identity to their children without much effort. See important articles in American Jewish press on the subject:

  7. Someone recommended this blog to me a while ago and while I don’t check it regularly, I do sometimes and this post resonated with me.

    Viki, I agree with you in that you don’t have to be religious to be Jewish. In fact, I am a proud atheist and every religion frankly bothers me, it’s almost like grown people all of a sudden decided to believe in Santa Claus or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy.. but I digress, to me being Jewish is an entirely cultural and secular experience. When I hear Klezmer music, I want to cry, I can’t imagine ever going on a trip to Germany (I know, I know, it’s irrational) because I know I will feel that the grandparents and great grandparents of people there witnessed the Holocaust and did nothing or may be even fought in the war against both of my grandfathers who never came home.. I can go on and on but that’s what it means to me to be Jewish, not some religious bs..

    As far as how to pass down our culture and our identity to our children, that’s a very complicated matter too. My son went to a public high school that by all accounts is considered a very good school and the number of Jewish students is pretty high there BUT.. he witnessed way too many kids there who fit the stereotype of heartless rich spoiled Jewish kids who he had nothing in common with and didn’t want to have anything to do with and I don’t blame him.. so he said he really can’t feel proud of being lumped into the same definition as those people PLUS he says he can’t feel proud of something he was just born into, not something he had achieved on his own..
    so it’s all very complicated and nuanced and I don’t have a lot of time to edit my response but this is what came to mind.. Thanks for posting this.

Leave a Reply