Perhaps you’ve heard of Jewish assimilation in the United States. Jews are supposedly becoming indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors. Supposedly, many Jews have lost their Jewish identity and others have reduced their Jewishness to a receding ethnic background.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
A large number of Jews celebrate Passover in some way. Perhaps only by eating some matzah. When we were young, we loved matza slathered with butter. Then there’s matzah brei (BRIE). Matzah is softened by being soaked in water. Then the water is drained and the matzah soaked in egg. The mixture is fried in oil.
Jews I know buy matzah only for Passover and finish the box and don’t have matzah in the house the rest of the year.
This may sound trivial — what some call “gastronomic Judaism.” But Jewishness in primarily in the home and only secondarily in the synagogue. Pollsters don’t investigate what the home is like.
The big observance of Passover is the Seder (SAY der) on Passover night. This is a recital of the Exodus from Egypt of our long-ago ancestors. It’s accompanied by eating matzah with bitter herbs and drinking four cups of wine besides eating a holiday meal. A large number of Jews participate in a Seder. Many make one themselves. Others are invited to the homes of those who make Seder. With electronics the way they are, there are even virtual Seders. There are also community Seders that are well publicized in advance.
Once again, observance is at home. Any number of these Jews don’t show up in a synagogue except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if even then.
There’s one more home-based expression of Jewishness. It’s the winter holiday of Chanukah (KHAH noo ka). The eight-day holiday commemorates regaining the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the hands of the Syrian-Greeks who defiled it. The first touch of normality was to light the seven-branch Menorah candelabrum with pure, untainted olive oil. The Greeks had gone out of their way to defile all of the oil. The priests in the Temple did find one cruse of oil that escaped the attention of the Greeks. It was enough to last one day. G-d made a miracle that it burned for eight days until new, pure oil could be procured. So we light candles for eight days in our homes.
An untold number of Jews light Chanukah candles. Standard-sized candles are sold wherever there’s a Jewish market, even a small one. In the town where my synagogue is, there are 25,000 souls. An insignificant number of Jews live in town. Yet the local supermarket carries candles and holiday related paraphernalia.
You can believe that there’s a gastronomic dimension to the holiday. We try to eat latkes (LOT keez), potato pancakes fried in oil, not fat. The key here is the oil element. Since the miracle came about through oil, we are recalling the miracle when we latkes. People who are friendly with the kitchen grate their own potatoes — and maybe onions too — and fry them. And what better oil to use than olive oil?
Back to the supermarket. There are frozen, ready-made potato pancakes, which I bought this year and shared with my sister. Neither of us needed the empty calories of the eight latkes that make up the package. Then there are also mixes on the store shelves especially for Chanukah.
One dimension of Chanukah that is not in the home is the public menorah lightings across the country, even the world, wherever there might be a few Jews. A rabbi friend of mine in Cochise county, Arizona, sponsored celebrations around public lightings around the county and in, of all places, Tombstone, Arizona.
The Chabad synagogue where I said that I go lit a 12 foot menorah with lamp oil in the garden parkway across from the newish synagogue. The congregation moved into a vacant storefront across from where the menorah had been lit for a number of years before! Consequentially, the lighting was only yards away from the synagogue with its prominent signage that it belongs to the Chabad movement.
I would estimate that about 100 people — I wouldn’t know how many were Jewish — turned out around sundown. Hot latkes were served after the short prayers and menorah lighting — why not — and you had a choice of doughnuts, something else fried in oil.
So now we have moved into the realm of public, countable Jewishness.
Many American Jews do not enter a synagogue all year long. They say that they’re not religious, maybe even agnostics, so worship does nothing for them. They’re Jewish in their hearts. (You hear this a lot.) They aren’t asked by pollsters whether they’re Jewish at home sometime during the year.
Along come the Jewish high holy days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), and Jews flock to synagogues. These folks are often derided as “twice-a-year Jews.” As I’ve shown, nothing could be further from the truth. They’re “twice-a-year” worshipers.
Please note that Judaism is more than a religion, more than worship attendance. It’s a way of life. American Jews punctuate their lives with Jewish ways.
Which brings up the cases when I am greeted with the expression shalom when as I pass by another person on my walks — sometimes a walker him/herself, sometimes a cyclist. I’m visibly Jewish, wearing a kipah (yarmulke) all the time, and that prompts their Jewish awareness to come out. Sometimes such a greeting comes from a non-Jew, though. But, what doesn’t come from a non-Jew is the greeting Shabbat shalom — literally “Sabbath peace.” This is a traditional greeting on the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday evening until dark on Saturday night. One does not say “good morning” (and so on) on the Sabbath. For those with a Sabbath awareness, it’s always Shabbat shalom.
Then there is Israel. Most American Jews are sympathetic to the welfare of the Jewish State. Many have gone or will go to Israel to see how a Jewish majority lives and to visit historical sites.
Parents send their children to Israel on programs specially geared to the interests of young people. Admittedly, some Jewish young people go to Britain, France, or Italy on programs, but how many? In what numbers? And going on these programs does not preclude going to Israel.
Some Jews on the left are obsessed with the Palestinians and how Israel treats them. This is still a Jewish identity. I’m sure that they’re indifferent to the way Russia has colonized South Ossetia, if they even know about it.
Still there is more public Jewishness than public menorahs. Some Jews make it a point of commemorating the Holocaust in public ways. This is a part of a distinct Jewish identity.
Some large universities have departments of Jewish Studies. There’s no telling how much of a Jewish consciousness students in these departments have (or if they’re even Jewish). When I returned to college — University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) — I took a course entitled Medieval Jewish History. While the professor had a Jewish identity, I’m not sure whether any of the students were even Jewish. The university also offered a course entitled Modern Jewish History. UMKC didn’t have a Jewish Studies department as of 2011.
Then there’s a tony high school in Chicago’s northern suburbs that offers Hebrew as a foreign language. I can’t say whether this is the only Jewish awareness for any students, but for Jews in the class, it is a public expression of not being assimilated.
Where there are concentrations of Jews, there are Jewish Community Centers. Funded by donations and membership dues, they serve the surrounding community, not just Jews. The JCC near Kansas City is equipped with a gym and a theater. Not so many JCCs are not so elaborate. But the JCC is primarily a venue for Jewish events. It also houses a Holocaust remembrance center.
What American Jews are is acculturated. This is a sociological description of describing a feature of immigrants to the U.S. and their children and grandchildren. The first generation has to learn English and navigate how to earn a living. The second generation goes to public schools and speaks and reads and writes fluently in English. The third generation of other immigrants to the U.S. assimilates, in this case to American ways and mores. But third generation Jews have rarely assimilated. They didn’t enter the melting pot.
Some sociologists liken the product of the American assimilation of immigrants as a cooking pot where all the ingredients come apart and meld and eventually become a puree. But, for the most part, Jews didn’t come apart and “melt” into American society.
Jews are acculturated. They know their way around American society. They’ve opened doors for themselves that were closed. The U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions that broke up residential segregation. Along came the civil rights acts and more barriers crumbled. But even though the doors to assimilation are wide open, most Jews have retained a measure of Jewishness that may only come out at home.
Indeed there are assimilated Jews. Many of these have married non-Jews. Still there are cases where the non-Jewish spouse agrees to raise their children as Jews. No one knows how frequent this is. People only hear about alarming statistics of how many intermarriages there are. I do find it alarming, but it’s anyone’s guess how much Jewish identity these families really have, especially the Jewish partner. In one case that I know of, the Jewish husband of a non-Jewish wife told me, “She made me Jewish.” If he was assimilated before, he now had a Jewish awareness when he lit the Chanukah menorah. He was acculturated.
Jewish assimilation and intermarriage are Jewish tragedies. No doubt. But my point is that there is less assimilation than the pundits say. And poll takers don’t do in depth interviews. Such interviews are the realm of sociologists. How many have received grants to undertake such research about the extent of Jewish assimilation? How many want to undertake such research? It’s not politically correct to diminish the magnitude of Jewish assimilation.
I don’t want to fail to mention of small groups of Jews in the United States, Israel, and around the world who shun acculturation. They embrace parts of contemporary technology but not any American culture. They are determined to live lives that duplicate the ways of their forebears in Europe. There is no compromise on their part. They also don’t reach out to their fellow Jews who are unlike them, whom they deem as non-Jews, to increase their Jewish awareness. Is this also a Jewish tragedy? I’m not sure.
I admit that there is nothing scientific about what I have written. Notice how many times I write “many,” “often,” and the vague “sometimes.”
What I have done is introduce the sociological concept of “acculturation” to describe what I believe to be the majority of American Jews. I want to change the discourse.