Counting the Jews
How many Jews are there on the planet today, and how many will there be in another generation? Where are they, and where will they, their children, or their children’s children, probably be in the year 2021 CE.? What difference does it make?
The quest for answers to these questions is for the adventurous only. The first step is to pose a counter-question, namely, Who is a Jew? That is as hard as any of the others. Two centuries after the French Revolution, a century and a decade after Jews started coming to the U.S. in their huddled masses, 74 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, and 43 years after the Jewish state rose from the dead, defining a Jew takes nerve.
Traditionalist rabbis have a ready solution. But if their test is applied—that is, if a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother, or converted according to Jewish law (halakhah), or born to a woman thus converted—then numbering the Jews has become nearly impossible. Too many have had too many children with too many non-Jews for too long to reckon the population this way on anything but a case-by-case basis, and demographers, unlike rabbis, have neither the time nor the resources to check pedigrees.
Does that mean the demographer’s job is hopeless? Not quite—there is more than one way to play the prophet, and more than one way to define a Jew for purposes of counting. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1946 that a Jew is someone whom other people identify as a Jew; presumably he had never met a Jew who would have identified himself as one no matter how others identified him. Yet Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, implicitly goes by something like Sartre’s definition, at least when figuring how many of his fellow Israelis are Jews.
Every Israeli is issued an ID. On the “nationality” line of this booklet he or she must have a religion inscribed by an Interior Ministry clerk. Theoretically, the clerk and the powers he represents are free to decide how that entry is to read. Practically, both his leeway and the registrant’s are limited by history, ideology, and convenience. Subtracting the Israelis registered as Muslims, Christians, Druse, Baha’i, and Buddhists, you get the figure cited by DellaPergola of four million Jews today in the Jewish state.
Actually, as we shall see, it is a bit more complicated than that—but simple compared with doing a census of the Jews in the Diaspora, scattered, mobile, and mutating as they are. The only feasible and accurate enough method of doing that is to ignore Sartre and find out how many people in a well-constructed sample choose to identify themselves as Jews of one kind or another, take their word for it, and extrapolate.
Asked his religion, Woody Allen says “Jewish—with an explanation.” DellaPergola offers three categories which provide an explanation beforehand. They bow to the fact that in the wide world, in what can be called without prejudice the Diaspora, Jewishness, once a condition or fate or vocation, has become an option, and nowhere more spectacularly than in the United States. One result has been to fill the field where demographers work with a swarm of freshly-minted categories. Some of these make it possible to understand better what is happening, while others put a spin on history, hoping maybe to influence its course.
The first of DellaPergola’s categories is the so-called core. This is the population of people who when asked say they are Jews, no matter whether they obey many, some, or none of the commandments laid on the Israelites in the desert, and regardless of what any rabbis might say about their mothers or conversions. Next, and greater than the core, is what DellaPergola calls the “extended” population—that is, the core plus those people with a Jewish parent or two who do not choose to identify themselves as Jews. And bigger still is the “enlarged” population, consisting of the core, the extended, and the Gentiles whom people in the first two categories may be living with in the same household. For the sake of simplicity, practicality, and perhaps also ideology, DellaPergola targets the core in his latest world round-up.1
Today, DellaPergola estimates, there are 8.8 million core Jews in the Diaspora. This number he arrives at by adding up the subtotals from all the countries where governments or Jewish organizations or travelers report that there are Jews. And there still seem to be some nearly everywhere, including in some of the oddest places. Five are reported residing in the People’s Republic of China, 4,000 in Syria, 4,000 in Poland, and 12,000 in Spain, from where those who were not burned alive or converted under duress to Christianity were chased five centuries ago next year. Even Saudi Arabia, until recently judenrein, is the mail-drop for a few dozen Jewish soldiers, both men and women, who helped save the kingdom from the modern Nebuchadnezzar and some of whom have not yet been shipped home. There are core Jews once again in Germany—40,000 of them. France is in fourth place internationally with 530,000.
The reports from the Diaspora vary in credibility. Those from countries like the U.S. are “relatively reliable,” according to DellaPergola; for the U.S. core, his statistics happen to be drawn from last year’s National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), an expensive and for the time being definitive study which he helped to design. But the figures from many other countries, like Venezuela and Hungary, are “conjectural.” He marks the French and German figures with a “C” for no better than fair accuracy. Pretty good figures are available on Australia and Canada. These two are the only countries in the Diaspora whose Jewish populations have grown of late, in both cases thanks to immigration from the USSR, South Africa, and Israel. In fact, Canada has taken over fifth place from the United Kingdom, whose Jews are fast assimilating, imploding between the pincers of an anemic birthrate and a lively rate of intermarriage.
Before adding the numbers up, the Israeli demographer adjusted the various subtotals by trying to apply the same definition of a core Jew to all the statistics, whether the original census-takers or other sources did so or not. His numbers for the non-American Diaspora thus constitute shrewd, meticulous estimates, not the last word. He may be off when he adds the Diaspora’s core Jews to the Israeli Jews and gets 12.8 million, but he is probably not wildly off, since countries like Venezuela and Hungary, Canada and Australia, France and the UK, and indeed all the branches of the Diaspora except the U.S. and Soviet Union are nothing more than fascinating, sometimes very sad, sometimes not-so-sad, sideshows. If 85 percent of the world’s Jews definitely are located in the U.S., Israel, and the USSR, 75 percent of the Jews of the Diaspora are located in the U.S. and USSR.
True, there could be more Jews in the USSR than some people think. The 12.8 million figure might be too low by a million, which DellaPergola says is possibly the number of core Jews about to come out of the Soviet woodwork. Even if that happens, however, and the true figure is 13.8 million, it would still mean that coming on to half a century after Auschwitz, the Jews have failed to make good their losses. Sticking with 12.8 million, we have one core Jew for every 406 of today’s roughly five billion global villagers, or a quarter of 1 percent of humanity. This is certainly the smallest proportion of Jews to non-Jews since demography became a science. Possibly it is the smallest since Abraham’s great-grandchildren went down to Egypt.
Whether 12.8 million or 13.8 million, the Jews today represent a remnant. This is probably nothing new—they may well have been a fraction of their earlier numbers at a couple of stages in their 4,000-year history so far, only to bounce back. What may be novel is that now the core of this remnant, according to DellaPergola and others, is shrinking. Distant early signs of this shrinkage were picked up long ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, by demographers and sociologists, most of whom came to Zionist conclusions and never dreamed that anyone, least of all the Germans, would try to exterminate the core and non-core Jews alike. The shrinkage is expected by DellaPergola to quicken soon. His reasons look convincing when to his round-up we add the data on intermarriage, birthrates, and age structure of the Jews in Israel and the Diaspora—in short, when we set the demographic statistics in time and space.
Demographers measure birthrates, what they call a group’s “completed fertility,” by counting how many children are born to the average woman in that group in her lifetime. The so-called “replacement level” (RL) of fertility, below which any group will start dwindling within a generation, is also expressed in terms of children-per-woman: RL is 2.1 for groups projecting a normal age structure or “population pyramid,” that is, with more young people than middle-aged, and more middle-aged than old. The best data available indicate that the average Diaspora woman has 1.4 children, far below RL, while the average Israeli has 2.7.
The average in Israel is derived from the output of some highly dissimilar subgroups, Israeli Jews forming several societies within their very own melting pot. The 2.7 average is more than the number of children borne by secularized women of European (Ashkenazi) extraction, and less than the number racked up by Afro-Asian (Sephardi), Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox women—the figures for the last three subgroups are roughly 3, 4, and 6 respectively.
It is really no wonder that the overall Israeli birthrate beats the Diaspora’s, since until the recent Soviet immigration, the Sephardim, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox combined to make a clear majority, a state of affairs obtaining nowhere in the Diaspora. The men and women who take biblical injunctions to heart and/or those still under the sway of Muslim culture pulled up the fertility slack of those who, having freed themselves from the yoke of the Law, think and act more like modern Europeans or Americans. “They can barely get one out,” you hear Sephar-dim quip about their secular Ashkenazi compatriots.
Yet even the bareheaded Ashkenazim are no slouches compared with their Diaspora counterparts. Women whose parents or grandparents made their debuts in Warsaw or Kiev, most of whom finish university and work at careers, on the average bring 2.3 children into the world. The Superwoman type in Israel, the woman doctor or professional feminist or judge or Knesset member, instead of being childless or the mother of a solitary designer child like her American sister, is more likely to have two children, sometimes three. From the chic blond suburbs of Tel Aviv to dark-skinned, flyblown “development” towns, from the kibbutz to the cloistered alleys of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox quarter, Mea Shearim, in benighted thrall or perfectly autonomous consciousness, Israeli women act more or less as if the future of their sliver of a country and tiny, far-flung people depended on it.
But only more or less. For it is also a fact that the Israeli birthrate has been steadily slipping over the last 40-odd years. And that makes for a geopolitical problem, since the Palestinian Arabs reproduce at a rate two or three times that of the average Israeli Jew. The so-called demographic timebomb is ticking not just in the West Bank and Gaza, but within Israel proper, where there are plenty of Arabs who are Israeli citizens. True, most Israeli Arab women no longer bring eight and ten children into the world, and the Palestinian women of the West Bank too have been liberated and modernized to a degree by the occupation. But the Arab birthrate between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River still runs twice as high as that of Jews. The bomb can be visualized graphically by superimposing the Israeli Jewish population pyramid over the Palestinian. If the base of the former, in a word its future, is solid compared with the Diaspora’s, it is nothing compared with that of the Palestinians, more than half of whom are aged 15 and younger.
Ishmael may yet get his revenge, right inside his half-brother’s enlarged tent, although thanks to the Soviet immigration it may take him a little longer than was earlier thought. DellaPergola has fed the new parameters into his computer and estimates that due to the huge differential at the base of the pyramids, every 100,000 incoming Soviets are going to delay Jewish-Arab parity between the sea and the river by one year. If half a million come, the bomb will go off in 2020; if a million, in 2025; and if a million-and-a-half, 2030. This is assuming that all the Soviet newcomers remain, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza are kept, the Palestinians also remain and do not emigrate, and the fertility gap between the two peoples does not close.
These assumptions and projections have been publicized in the Hebrew press. But the popular idea in Israel is still that the Soviet immigration has either solved the Jewish-Palestinian demographic problem or put so much longer a fuse on it that in the list of things to lose sleep over, it can be relegated near the bottom. Something will turn up—masses of Palestinians may flee, masses of American Jews may come, the horse may die, the king may die. Meanwhile, Israeli policy is to keep ferrying in the Soviets.
They come, around 500 of them every night, under the provisions of the Law of Return, and that is a demographic story in itself. There are few laws in the world as humane, or as constructive, as the Law of Return. According to it, anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism—by any brand of rabbi—qualifies for entry into Israel and citizenship. Anti-Semites in their hatred and Palestinians in their frustration consider this to be racism in action, and some good liberals in the West, impressed by the UN’s “Zionism-is-a-form-of-racism” resolution, also cannot help wondering. And yet it is not so. No one can change his race, whatever race is, while anyone can become a Jew, therefore the Law of Return is not racist. It is admittedly an unusual law, but then the Jews have long been an unusual people.
One of the most unusual and admirable features of this law is that admission to the Israeli club is not restricted to the children of Jewish mothers and to converts. Anybody married to a Jew, or who is a child or grandchild of one, also has the same right to enter and get citizenship. The terms of the Law of Return, under which the Soviet and Ethiopian Jews are only the most recent to be flown in free of charge, are more than generous, embracing as they do three generations. They include and go beyond DellaPergola’s enlarged population and outdo even the articles of the Nuremberg laws, downwind of which the Israeli framers of the Law of Return worked in 1950. (According to the Nazis, the “Aryan” spouses and parents of Jews could save their skins by divorcing their Jewish wives and husbands and repudiating their children, known in German as Mischlinge. Some did, some did not.)
Because the Law of Return is so liberal, many people who, if they were able to run to a richer and less dangerous corner of the Diaspora, would probably complete their assimilation there and disappear as Jews for good, are going in Israel to become Jews again. To these people can be added husbands and wives with no Jewish “blood” at all—estimates of such arriving non-Jews, and their children who are non-Jews by halakhah, range from 5 to 30 percent of the total Soviet immigration. One way or the other, these non-Jews will become not only Israelis, but legally or effectively Jews.
To be sure, the ultra-Orthodox are very unhappy about what is going on. Having jumped into Israeli politics with both feet, and been rewarded with the running of ministries, they now must enforce and administer a thoroughly secular law which admits halakhic Jews, non-halakhic Jews, and non-Jews alike, thinning the Jewish soup, undercutting the Jewish soul. If there were only a few cases, the Interior Ministry might have been able to refuse to register any of them as Jews. As it is, Israeli ID’s are now being stamped with a disclaimer which would be incredible anywhere except in the Jewish state—“The Ministry of the Interior takes no responsibility for any of the details of this document.” But there will be tens of thousands of such cases, and in the great majority of them halakhah will have to be bent, if not shelved. There will be lawsuits and scandals, there will be quick and easy conversions, but the rabbis will have to swim with the flood somehow, and already many new Israelis have been registered as Jews who were not Jews before and would not be Jews anywhere else.
The point is that the Israelis, living and bickering in a country with Jewish symbols and for the time being a Jewish majority, and disposing of the instruments of state, have practical, automatic solutions to and preventatives for assimilation unavailable to their brothers and sisters abroad. If you are an Israeli who is not a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Druse or Baha’i, and if for some reason you wish not to be identified as a Jew, you can deny that you are one until you are blue in the face, you can petition the secular, incorruptible Supreme Court to have “Hebrew” or “Canaanite” or “Scientologist” or “Atheist” inscribed on the nationality line of your ID, but it will not help. You will be identified as a Jew and counted and drafted as one.
These are no legal niceties. They reflect and advance two very different, indeed contrary, historical processes. The Diaspora is a Mixmaster wearing down the Jewish edges. The periphery tends to be lost there, lost probably forever. In Israel it is regained. This is one of the reasons why not a year has gone by since the Balfour Declaration that Zion’s share of the Jews of the world has not grown—.084 percent in 1917, it is now 31 percent, up 2.5 percent over last year, and tomorrow it will certainly be more. Sometimes the gradient of the trend is steep—as during big immigrations like this one—sometimes extremely gentle. But for more than 70 years it has been the rule, and nothing so far has been able to halt, let alone reverse it.
If in Israel the prime demographic facts today are immigration and above-RL fertility, in America they are intermarriage and below-RL fertility. The phenomenon of marrying out is not unknown in Israel; it is just, by the nature of things, comparatively rare. Except for Arabs, there simply are not that many non-Jews in Israel for Jews to meet, and there is also no civil or, for Jews, non-Orthodox marriage ceremony. Intermarriage being forbidden by halakhah, it is hard for a non-Jew to marry a Jew without converting or going abroad to tie the knot. The upshot is that since the Jewish rate of out-marriage in Israel is well under 1 percent, intermarriage there has had the sting removed, demographically speaking.
Elsewhere, that honeyed sting can be deadly. As Arthur Ruppin, a German-born sociologist and demographer (d. 1943) put it, “Intermarriage, as soon as it appears on a large scale, marks the end of Judaism.” He meant the beginning of the end of the Jews as a distinct group in any particular region or country. For Ruppin as for many others, intermarriage was the surest index and most efficient engine of assimilation. Let it go on long enough, let the children and grandchildren of intermarriages intermarry, and presumably there would be no Jews left at all.
Ruppin was a classical Zionist writing at a time when both intermarriage and anti-Semitism were booming. Intermarriage had appeared “on a large scale” in Central Europe early in the 20th century, as anyone familiar with the Prague of Kafka, the Vienna of Mahler, and the Berlin of Einstein knew. But to be scientific about it, Ruppin gave some figures: In Budapest in 1932, of every 100 Jews marrying, 18.8 went into mixed marriages. In Hamburg in 1933, it was 33, in the Trieste of Mussolini in 1927, no fewer than 56. (Sergio DellaPergola, who would occupy Ruppin’s chair at the Hebrew University, was born in Trieste in 1949 and came to Israel in 1967.)
The Trieste figure, tops in the world, was, for Ruppin, proof positive of what could and would happen to any Jewish community which was small, had abandoned Orthodoxy, and was exposed for a few generations to Gentiles who were kind and cultured. Trieste was the future of the Diaspora, said Ruppin. And as far as he was concerned, the United States, where more Jews lived than in any other country, and where the intermarriage rate in the 1930’s was a trifling 3 percent, was no exception—he granted it no immunity from his law.
Forty-seven years after Ruppin’s death, the stateside intermarriage train has been authoritatively reported to be pulling into the Trieste station, and there is no good reason to be confident that this will be its last stop. Of the marriages contracted by Jews in America in 1985-90, according to last year’s mammoth National Jewish Population Survey, slightly more than half were with non-Jews.
Publication of this figure last June was greeted with shock, resignation, and indifference by America’s medley of Jews. They have been seeing their children and grandchildren marrying out for a generation. Some had tried to do something about it, to control the damage, while others thought the effort unnecessary or useless. But for anyone who knew the state of play, only the size of the NJPS figure could come as a surprise.
Almost from the beginning of the American Jewish demographic scare, now dating back almost 30 years, it had been the position of some analysts and communal leaders that intermarriage on a large scale need not spell big trouble for the Jews. As early as 1963, Milton Himmelfarb broached a strategy which eventually would go by the name of Outreach. Writing in this magazine, he said that since intermarriage came with the new American territory, the sensible thing for Jews to do who wanted to salvage their self-respect and do their bit for group survival was to try to convert the non-Jewish partner—if you couldn’t beat them, you could attempt to get them to join you. Indeed, “with some rabbinical initiative,” Himmelfarb wrote, “conversion might offset our losses by intermarriage, or actually produce a gain.”
For the next generation, long after Himmelfarb himself despaired of making good on it, this was the program of the optimists among Jewish thinkers and leaders. If lots of the non-Jewish partners could be made to feel welcome and persuaded to convert, and if in any event half the children born to such couples were raised as Jews, then losses would be balanced by gains, and intermarriage might even be turned to demographic advantage. Some were convinced that this was in fact already happening. Thanks to the large numbers of the newly converted, wrote Charles Silberman in his encouraging, bestselling book, A Certain People (1985), intermarriage was “unlikely [to] lead to more than a slight reduction of the number of Jews, and it could bring about an increase.”
Silberman’s authorities on the correct interpretation of the data were the demographer Calvin Goldscheider at Brown and the sociologist Stephen Cohen, then at Queens College. They were the academic champions of the optimistic or “transformationalist” school of American Jewish demography, which argued that (a) the numbers were holding up and (b) anyway numbers alone were a red herring. If Goldscheider was generally more optimistic than Cohen, the most pessimistic of the pessimists was Elihu Bergman, who in 1977 in a notorious article in Midstream forecast that due to rampaging intermarriage, there would be “no more than 944,000 [Jews], and conceivably as few as 10,240” in America in 2076, the year of the tricentennial. “If present trends are not arrested, or reversed,” warned Bergman, “the American Jewish community faces extinction as a significant entity, and by its own hand, during the first half of the 21st century.”
Bergman was denounced far and wide as an alarmist and a terrible demographer. Not only were his figures wrong, but all this worry over mere quantity might well be missing the essence. True, said Goldscheider and Cohen, American Jews were changing—but their individual and group morale was higher and their clout greater than ever. The evidence was all around. Holocaust and Judaica studies were offered on just about every major campus in the country, Presidents and Senators listened closely before doing anything touching Soviet Jews or Israel, discrimination was a thing of the past, and many young American Jews, while taking full advantage of an utterly open society, were proudly and seriously and calmly digging up their roots for inspection and nurture. Even if some Jews were dropping out and/or intermarrying, putting a distance between themselves and anything Jewish, they were only a minority, leaving a big enough majority to make any talk of a demographic crisis or assimilation-avalanche peculiar and irresponsible. America, blessedly different in so many ways, would turn out different in this respect too, and its Jews would survive the kindness it was showing them.
Nevertheless, red herring or no, the numbers game was played by the optimists-transformationalists as well. For example, they said, on the fertility of the Jewish baby-boomers and feminists the final returns were not in yet. Goldscheider in the 1980’s wrote that once most of this cohort of women, then in their 30’s, got married, they would have their 2.1 or more children. How did he know? Well, because a sample of them had told him that this is what they expected, and as was well known, women generally had the number of children they expected to have. Silberman in 1985 wrote as if it were a sure thing. Goldscheider a year later put it more cautiously, but still with an optimistic lean: “To the extent that these expectations are realized behaviorally, American Jewish demographic continuity is not threatened.”
Through the 1980’s, the statistics collected in surveys of various metropolitan areas tended to cast an ever-thicker cloud of doubt over the optimists’ case. It did not really seem that anything like half of the children of intermarriages were getting a Jewish upbringing, and the career women who had put off marriage and children until their biological alarm clocks went off did not seem to be having the twins and triplets needed to earn their cohort its replacement-level star. But these were local surveys using a hodgepodge of methodologies and not a national effort, so the optimists could still maintain that nothing had yet been proved or disproved.
What was needed was a national survey—something the pessimists of various shades wanted, too. Sidney Goldstein, a demographer and Goldscheider’s colleague at Brown, was picked as the chief designer of the first such study since 1970. Meanwhile, DellaPergola and his Hebrew University colleague Uriel Schmelz put the moderately pessimistic case in 1986. The Israelis made bold to predict that in the next national survey it would come out that the number of core Jews was no more and maybe fewer than in 1970. They did not presume to see as far as the tricentennial, but they did offer projections for the year 2020, taking as a base 5.7 million American Jews in 1985. The outcome of the best case was 5.6 million, the worst 3.7 million, and the most probable 4.7 million—in any of the three cases a net loss. DellaPergola and Schmelz did not doubt that American Jews, and most of their communities, would survive. But shrinking this way, what kind of communities would they be?
The results of the 1990 NJPS pretty thoroughly confirm the pessimists. In Stage One of the project last summer, a market-research outfit collected the religious preferences of a sample of 126,000 Americans over the phone. In Stage Two, those households in which a Jew of any kind had been found were asked to participate further. And in Stage Three, interviewers led 2,441 people through long questionnaires, again by phone.
The material generated by all this labor, after due sifting, weighing, extrapolating, and arranging, provides what Barry Kosmin and Jeffrey Scheckner, heads of the research unit, call a “still frame photograph” of American Jews and the people they live with. Kosmin and Scheckner advise that this is a snapshot of a “dynamic community” in which “individuals and households are constantly moving out of the categories” which the demographers have custom-designed for them. If in DellaPergola’s world round-up three categories were mentioned and only one counted, to get a grip on Jews in America today at least a dozen have to be given equal time.
Start with the 4.2 million people who if this had been a proper census would have told the voice on the telephone that they were born Jewish and remain Jewish “by religion.” Group with them 185,000 “Jews by choice,” that is, born Gentiles who have either converted or say they practice Judaism without having converted. Then there are 1.1 million “Born Jews With No Religion,” secular types like Woody Allen, his fans, and some of his detractors. These three groups together form the core population of American Jews, “the one which most Jewish communal agencies seek as their clientele,” and which comes to 5.5 million.
Moving out from this core we enter a “penumbra” or “peripheral” region, the area inhabited by DellaPergola’s “extended” population. Here are the people who say they were either born Jewish or had a Jewish parent but are no longer Jews. The periphery, which the authors of the NJPS equate with the fast track to assimilation, has exploded in the last 20 years, and now numbers 1.3 million people. These include 210,000 born and raised Jewish who have converted, 415,000 mainly adult offspring of intermarriages who are practicing another religion, and 700,000 children, mostly of intermarriages where the non-Jewish parent has not converted and who are being raised in another religion. Minus the Jews-by-choice, this makes a population of 6.65 million Americans with at least one Jewish parent.
Last are the Gentiles living with core and peripheral Jews. There were 430,000 of them in 1970. Now there are 1.35 million, and when you add them to the core and the periphery, you get a “total population” of no fewer than 8.2 million people in the U.S. in “qualified Jewish households.”
What all this means is another matter. The snapshot, for which the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies shelled out $400,000, is exquisitely detailed. There are charts and graphs and breakdowns upon charts and graphs and breakdowns, scrutinizing and comparing everything from every angle. Thus we learn, significantly, that in the core there are some 225,000 Jews born in the USSR and Israel. Since almost all of these immigrants arrived after 1970, it turns out that left to its own matrimonial and reproductive devices, the native-born core has indeed started to shrink.
The snapshot also contains information from which may be deduced the direction in which things are moving, and at what speed. Especially eloquent are the population pyramids. The icon representing age structure for the core population resembles a swollen barrel standing on a thin platform—there are more children aged 0-9 than 10-19, evidence of a baby boomlet in the last decade as one cohort of women hastened to have at least one child and their younger sisters got an earlier start. But everything is relative. Though some harkened to their biological clocks and had a flurry of babies before it was too late, most of Goldscheider’s women, now past 40, have not had the 2.1 children they told him they were expecting. One-and-a-half must be recorded as about the final number for this group of women who tried their best to have, and do, it all.
The barrel is an aging barrel, 17 percent of it past retirement, and only 19 percent under 15 years old (compared with 14 percent and 21 percent respectively of the U.S. white population). Studying the barrel very closely, we see grandparents identifying themselves mainly as Jews-by-religion, while their children and grandchildren—those who have not seeped into the periphery—tend to be Woody Allen-ites. “A clear inter-generational pattern of assimilation is suggested,” says the NJPS. The fewer foreign-born grandparents an American Jew has, the less likely he is to identify himself as a Jew-by-religion.
So what else, one is tempted to ask, is new? What is new, or at least newly indisputable, are the data on intermarriage. The trend is riveting: of the marriages dating from before 1965, 10 percent are intermarriages; from 1965-74, 25 percent; from 1974-84, 42 percent; and since 1985 more than half. Of course, the real rate of intermarriage has been and is actually even higher: “This picture . . . tends to underestimate the total frequency because it does not include currently married born Jews divorced or separated from an intermarriage.” Simultaneously, Outreach notwithstanding, the rate at which the Gentile partner in such marriages goes over to Judaism has constantly been dropping—20 percent for the pre-1965 couples, 18 percent for 1965-74, 15 percent for 1974-84, 10 percent for the freshest cohort.
Are the children of these unions lost to the Jews? If so, it would put paid to one of the central contentions of the optimists, for whom intermarriage need not mean a net loss so long as at least half the children are raised Jewish. It emerges from the NJPS that “only 28 percent of [children in mixed households] are reported as being raised Jewish.” The difference between this rate and the one reported for Prussia in 1909 by Ruppin is negligible. “Some 41 percent,” the NJPS goes on, “are being raised in a non-Jewish religion,” and 31 percent as “nothing.” Since “mixed households seem to be the fastest growing household type . . . the current pattern probably means that there will be [further] net losses to the core Jewish population in the next generation.”
Over so much bad demographic news the best thing may be to laugh. But when in early July many of the academics behind the NJPS gathered in Los Angeles with organization people to discuss the findings and what to do next, the smiles were braver than they were genuine. The underlying mood of the four-day meeting was agitated depression.
Should the organized American Jewish community circle its wagons and concentrate on serving and preserving the core, in effect kissing most of the intermarried and their children goodbye? Or should it try even harder to capture the 31 percent of the children of intermarriage who are growing up as nothing? This was the emotional and practical heart of the conference. A decision to go the first route would mean, among other things, that many American Jews, including not a few in high communal positions, would feel as though they had abandoned their flesh and blood, their personal future. “I have four sons,” one of the participants told the rest during a session in the chapel of the University of Judaism. “They’re all intermarried. Don’t ask me to turn my back on my grandchildren!” If the sense of the LA meeting is any indication, there will probably be compromises struck—the wagons will be circled, while reinforced patrols are sent into the hills to try to coax deserters back to camp.
But darker notes were struck at the conference as well. “What do you call the grandchildren of intermarried Jews?” Milton Himmelfarb once asked. “Christians,” he answered. Much the same idea was propounded by Samuel Klausner of the University of Pennsylvania. Distant from Irving Kristol politically, Klausner implicitly agrees with him that the myth of a secular (or a Judeo-Christian) society is just that, a myth, and that America is really a Christian society. The majority of American Jews are already at one—economically, educationally, recreationally, aesthetically—with the upper crust of this larger society. The last partition, the only remaining interface, is that of literal kinship, and intermarriage is tearing it down. “As Jews cease being Jews,” Klausner told his very uncomfortable audience, “they become de facto Christians.” Outreach does not work against this process. Only the reassertion of rabbinical authority, or a serious Zionist movement, can stem collapse.
Klausner’s presentation rubbed most of his listeners the wrong way. Some voiced their firm conviction that American Jews can remain a separate denomination within a pluralistic, civil society. None rose to second his opinion that there were no strategies left except Orthodoxy or Zionism. Yet some of the same people who stood to reaffirm their trust in the traditional liberal pieties were the most worried about the implications of a shrinking, demoralized core.
The periphery, the NJPS had discovered to no one’s astonishment, is less attached than the core is to Israel, less likely to belong to a synagogue, less likely to give to a Jewish charity, less likely to have mostly Jewish friends, less likely to consider being Jewish important. But is the core much better? Fewer than half the Americans who identify themselves as Jews belong to a synagogue. Fewer than a fifth donate to Jewish causes. If the core shrinks further, as it seems bound to do, will there be enough raisable money to fund not only immigration to Israel but day schools and old-age homes in this country? Will there be enough votes to make presidential and senatorial candidates think twice? Will there be enough Jews who care, and are organized, to do the job?
Prophecy is the riskiest of occupations. Prophesying what is to happen with the Jews, numbers-wise or otherwise, is especially risky. It is possible, of course, that the intermarriage rate in the U.S. will level off, even drop. It is possible that there will be a dramatic rise in the number of children coming out of these marriages who get such a serious Jewish upbringing that they themselves will not intermarry or will insist on the conversion of their Gentile partner. It is possible that masses of Diaspora women, with or without getting religion, will decide that hitting the replacement-level gong is more important than crashing the glass ceiling, or that Diaspora women and men will together make the bearing of Jewish children their first priority. It is possible that America’s golden door will be thrown wide open to the exodus from the USSR. It is possible that a popular President will convert to Judaism, pulling millions of Gentiles after him. All these things are possible—and very unlikely.
The deep processes of Jewish history operating today make it the most likely scenario that by early in the next century, not only will the worldwide proportion of Jews to non-Jews have continued to shrink, but also, for the first time in a very long time, most of the remaining Jews will be no longer in the Diaspora but in Zion. Exactly when this day will come depends on many things, above all the size of the Soviet immigration to Israel. Yet even if that movement stopped tomorrow, Israel’s Jewish population would still overtake America’s and the Diaspora’s later in the 21st century, for the same reasons that the Palestinians between the river and the sea threaten to catch up with and surpass the Israeli Jews—a superior birthrate and a population pyramid with a prepaid lease on the future.
Ruppin and DellaPergola will have been proved right. It is doubtful, however, that the vindication would please them. Only the most primitive Zionists, the most unthinking negators of the Diaspora, ever looked forward to its liquidating itself. Other sorts of Zionists have tried to weigh what is best for the Jews. It is questionable, in light of their history, most of which they made and survived without a state in Zion, that it is best for Jews to put all their eggs in one basket and not to have a Diaspora at all or, what is more probable, a panicky Diaspora or one narrowed down to religious believers, mainly Orthodox. The Diaspora and Zion will continue to need each other as yin needs yang, and both need to be cared for somehow, the irony being that the former is in greater danger of being killed by kindness than the latter by well-armed hatred.
The Jews in the U.S. today are comparable to a wee cube of sugar or grain of salt floating in a soothing bath of continental dimensions. As the sugar or salt melts, the bathwater is rendered ever so slightly sweeter or zestier. If the water temperature stays pleasantly warm, the little bit of stuff will eventually melt altogether, or be reduced numerically to a religiously committed kernel.
Will the water eternally stay delightfully, seductively warm? Classical Zionism, making no allowances for America, says no—eventually there must be an anti-Semitic reaction. This backlash, triggered by hard times and/or a lost war, will halt the melting process, driving assimilated and half-assimilated Jews back into the core if not clear out of the country to Israel. It is a catastrophic scenario, for a people not unacquainted with catastrophe. But even if you run across the most primitive Zionist in Israel, one who drags you to the late Meir Kahane’s Museum of the Potential Holocaust, even he will be putting you on if he tenders you that scenario. Even he, in the privacy of his buzzing head, believes America is different, that the water will not be turning cold.
By 2021, the Diaspora will probably have quietly melted by a million or more bodies and souls. Around this diminished core, like a halo or the ripples in a pond where a stone has been tossed, many millions of Americans with a Jewish parent or grandparent will be living their lives. They will nurse or neglect or suppress memories and instincts, loyalties and revulsions and longings which, with every additional peaceful year, will fade further. Both the core of this shrunken, increasingly Orthodox Diaspora, and its huge, fading periphery will be centered in the U.S., ancestral home to millions of Barry Goldwaters and Caspar Weinbergers of both sexes.
One of them, Satchel O’Sullivan Farrow, will be at the threshold of his mid-life crisis in 2021. Will he have been a bar-mitzvah boy in the frightening year 2000? It will not matter to the Israeli clerks administering the Law of Return, nor will it matter that his mother was not Jewish. Even Satchel’s own sons and daughters, Woody’s and Mia’s grandchildren, will find the welcome mat out, in the unlikely event they decide or need to change their addresses.
Thus the dialectic of the Jewish future unfolds in crablike stages, or like a sailboat tacking in a shifting wind to a harbor over the horizon. Anything is always possible. As happened in the Soviet Union through decades of intermarriage, so now on an even bigger scale in the U.S., a reservoir of millions of potential Jews is being formed at precisely the moment when so many actual Jews are opting out. This paradox may not be the heart of the matter, but it may turn out to be close. Time, of course, can evaporate even an ocean of ex-Jews, as it did the conversos in Spain. But then—for a final paradox—numbers in and of themselves do not necessarily a strong or happy or well-adapted people make. Must a smaller Jewish people, redistributed along the above lines, necessarily be a weaker or more neurotic or less capable or consequential one as it begins its next 4,000 years?
1 “World Jewish Population, 1989,” written with Uriel Schmelz, in the American Jewish Year Book 1991.