I picked up the Pew Report on Jewish life in America with the intention of just skimming it, but instead I wound up reading it from cover to cover.
My interest stemmed not from assessing the validity of the report, nor from anxiety regarding the future of the Jews in the United States. Rather, I read it assiduously because the report evoked a sense of belonging, weaving together my past and present.
I was raised in the Modern Orthodox tradition (which, I was surprised to learn, comprises only 3% of the Jewish population in the US). In my 20’s I transitioned to becoming agnostic; essentially, an atheist with a guilty conscience. I still struggle to reconcile my upbringing in a close-knit community, with my current sense of self.
This difficulty is compounded by isolation. For the last ten years, I have lived in Central Pennsylvania, working as a professor at Penn State University. The Jewish presence here is muted and unfamiliar, a small speck against a large, local and predominantly rural Christian culture.
The Pew report reassured me that I’m not the only one who struggles to identify what it means to be Jewish. When respondents were asked what is essential to being Jewish, remarkably 42% reported that having a good sense of humor is a vital component, while 14% thought Jewish identity entails eating traditional Jewish foods.
Curiously, the report omitted the single core feature that I think binds Jews together, namely: arguing with fellow Jews.
Ten years ago on a trip through Venice, I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the city and the claustrophobic feel of the Jewish ghetto. Nevertheless, within the confines of that cramped space, home to just a handful of Jewish people, there were no less than five synagogues. I can only imagine the circumstances that led to the fifth shul.
The first chapter of the Pew report perfectly captures this facet of the Jewish experience without naming it directly. In trying to estimate the size of the Jewish population in the US, a host of numbers and figures are tossed about, wildly deviating by millions. There is an almost Talmudic discourse dedicated to rationalizing the reason for so many different counts. There is no consensus on a final count, Jews would not have it any other way.
I don’t need other Jews to argue with. Given my background, I could already read the report with two perspectives. Through that lens of a Jew with no religion, which is how the Pew describes my current demographic, I see comfort in the high rate of assimilation. Assimilation is adaptive, not only in the genetic sense of increasing diversity and enhancing survival. Assimilation is a sign of social acceptance.
One of the lessons from the ghettos of Europe is that the mechanisms that have precluded our assimilation in the past have not been rooted solely in religious devotion. Rather, others have often imposed isolation on us, frequently at a tremendous cost. In the context of this history, the rate assimilation that sets off alarms in the Jewish world can also be viewed as evidence for personal freedom, a healthy byproduct of a tolerant environment. From this vantage, I am not concerned about the future of Jews in the United States.
On the other hand, I found it difficult to ignore the perspective of my former community. Despite my rejection of a modern Orthodox way of life, it remains my native tongue. This became clear to me recently when I attended a wedding of an old friend.
Several of the old gang reunited to celebrate the affair. Having just read the Pew, I found it remarkable that the rate of attrition in my cohort mirrored the portrait of American Jews in the report. Roughly half of us have abandoned the religion, while the other half remained devoted. Yet, to see us together, you would never know there was any separation; our relationships remain seamless.
We are connected not only through shared history but also by an unspoken understanding of one another, a sense of community that transcends the particulars of religious belief. I miss that feeling of belonging more than I was aware. And I worry for my son. Being raised by agnostics in a place with little Jewish life, I suspect his connection with Judaism will be tenuous. Extrapolating from the report, his chances of disengaging altogether will be fairly high. In this more personalized reading of the Pew report, I find, perhaps, my true reflection: the paradox of the Jew with no religion.