The Pew study and Jewish literacy

As is typical in the Jewish world, the metaphorical ink had barely dried on the Pew study and already dozens of self-appointed experts were drawing far-reaching conclusions on the meaning of its results:  American Jewry is doomed! American Jewry is in great shape! Be very concerned! Don’t worry, be happy! All Jews should, or will, become chareidi! We need to open our arms even wider and create a thousand new programs for every flavor of Jew! The variety of perspectives, though quite predictable, was dizzying.

Amidst the welter of trends and statistics, however, one fact, that fell under the radar of most commentators, is actually the most telling about the American Jewish community:

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet. But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew.”

Even acknowledging the low rates of Jewish literacy here, this information surprised me. Half of the Jews in America claim they don’t even know the alphabet! This is an astonishing fact. Half of American Jews don’t even possess the most basic building blocks of our culture. How can we expect them to find any meaning and inspiration in our traditions and customs? The amazing statistic is not that Jewish affiliation is in decline; it’s that most people still value their Jewish identity while utterly lacking the tools to access Judaism for themselves.

At some point in most Jews’ lives, they find themselves reading prayers out of a siddur and listening to a text—the Torah—in a language they can’t begin to read, let along understand. For way too many Jews, these sacred texts are literally closed books. What impact does that repeated failed encounter have on Jewish identity and practice? Yes, ever since the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, we’ve tried, and continue to try, to redefine what Judaism “is.” What the Pew study teaches, I think, is that none of those “is”es stick so well without a Jew being able to get something out of that book—whether it shows up on a Kindle or bound in paper and glue.

When we talk about why Jewish identity was different “back then,” in the “old country,” we often come to the conclusion that people didn’t have a choice. People didn’t travel much; information didn’t travel much. People lived and died in the same shtetlach for generations, unless they were expelled. There was no intermarriage, little conversion. You were who you were. Modern life brought mobility and choice; many shared the decision to opt out of traditional Jewish life.

What this commonplace analysis, which focuses on the negative factors that kept Jews together, misses is a crucial positive factor: Jewish literacy. Jews possessed their texts, on their shelves and in their hearts, and their texts possessed them, swimming night and day in their imaginations. These texts painted in vivid colors their conception of God and their relationship with the Holy One and they accompanied them like a friend and a parent in their interactions with others. Whether a Jew was the revered town rabbi or the horse thief, the most pious believer or the village heretic, “from the woodchopper to the water drawer,” sacred texts were the Jews’ shared heritage, notwithstanding if they were a Talmud scholar or functionally illiterate. Judaism was above all a language that lived in their mouths, hearts and minds.

The American Jewish community throughout its history has never much succeeded in transmitting the language of Judaism to its children. To a limited extent the generation of the early-mid 20th century was an exception. Many were raised in Yiddish-speaking homes, imbibing the Yiddishkeit that is woven into that language. And the after-school cheders and Talmud Torahs, for all their flaws and knuckle-raps, managed to drum in enough prayerbook Hebrew to complement the mamaloshen. When Yiddish no longer was spoken at the kitchen table in Jewish homes and Jewish education was thought of as old and punitive, the delicious stew of Jewish tradition was drained into thin gruel.

The incredible growth of Jewish day schools in recent decades points to a vast awareness on the part of American Jews that the language of Jewish tradition has been largely lost and needs to be recaptured and reinvigorated. Judaism has always made great demands upon its adherents, in dedication, tefillah, helping others and tzedakah. And “Talmud Torah keneged kulam”—study of Torah, in the various ways that has been understood, has always taken precedence. The awareness extends throughout the Jewish community: fifty years ago, who would have believed that nearly a quarter million Jewish schoolchildren (according to the most recent day school census) would be enrolled in day schools, of which a fifth are in non-Orthodox schools? Indeed, those non-Orthodox schools are especially critical for instilling Jewish literacy (and thus the capacity for future leadership) among the vast numbers of Jews who otherwise might have limited opportunities for acquiring it. Organizations like RAVSAK and other school networks, are working day in and day out to communicate this to prospective parents and potential students.

The communal conversation needs to be focused not only on how we can sustain day schools, but how we can strengthen them, deepen them and extend their impact. We cannot afford to be complacent and say “dayeinu.” Knowing the alephbet: not dayeinu. Reading Hebrew words: not dayeinu. Understanding what they read: not dayeinu. Becoming truly literate Jews, for whom our rich national language and bottomless legacy of wisdom lives “on our mouths and the mouths of Your people the House of Israel”: nothing less!

About the Author
Elliott Rabin is the Director of Thought Leadership at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, where he edits Prizmah's magazine HaYidion.