In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.
Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.