A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century – Part 1

With the permission of the author, Professor Allan Mazur , I’m honored to bring to you excerpts from his 2007 article: A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century .

A portrait of American Jews can be drawn from the cumulative General Social Surveys (GSS), which since 1972 has annually or biennially interviewed random samples of about 1,500 adults, producing an aggregate Jewish sample of over 1,000 respondents. Most of the following analysis compares Jews with non-Jews of similar background. Called “Controls,” they are white, college educated, and living in one of the nation’s large urban areas of the “blue states” in the nation’s East and West. Requiring Controls to have a college degree is conservative because only half of Jews have that level of education. Therefore, where appropriate, comparisons are restricted to college educated Jews. Jews comprise 2% of the population, Controls another 6%. A third comparison group, called “Others,” includes the remaining 92% of Americans

America

By the 12th century, Jews were split into two distinct cultural groups. The Sephardim lived in Islamic countries, particularly Moorish Spain, and spoke Ladino, which sounds like Spanish but is written with Hebrew letters. The Ashkenazim lived in Christian Europe, speaking German-sounding Yiddish, which also is written in Hebrew letters. They shared as core religious writings the Torah and Talmud but differed on peripheral rituals.

The first Jews to arrive in North America were a shipload of Sephardim, fleeing persecution in Portuguese Brazil. They landed in New Amsterdam in 1654. New York City has been a center of Jewish life every since. Perhaps half of the Jews who arrived over the next two centuries were Sephardim; at least all the congregations established before 1800 — in New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond — followed Sephardic ritual. Historians often refer to these Sephardim as the “first wave” of Jewish immigration to North America.

The second wave comprised German Jews coming in the mid-1800s. The 1840s were a time of poor economic and political conditions in the German states, encouraging both Christians and Jews to seek more freedom and the better economic opportunities offered by America’s growing cities, its westward expansion, and the California gold rush. By 1880 there were 250,000 Jews in America — most having come as part of this broader German immigration — spread fairly evenly across the country’s towns and cities, often working as merchants. The prevalent Jewish denomination of America had changed from Sephardic orthodoxy to permissive Reform, which originated in eighteenth century Germany by assimilating to Christian forms. Most German Jews, like the Sephardim before them, found acceptance and prosperity in America, some attaining extreme wealth and social prominence. Thirteen percent of GSS respondents say their ancestors came from Germany or Austria.

My grandparents came in the third wave — the two million Jews from Russia and other Eastern European nations who arrived between 1880 and 1924, mostly settling on the urbanized East Coast and in more distant cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. This third wave was by far the largest, first because there were more Jews in Russia than the earlier regions of departure, and second because their passage was facilitated by the recent introduction of large-capacity steamships on trans-Atlantic routes. Between 1880 and 1924, the total Jewish population of the United States increased by 800 percent. Forty-two percent of GSS respondents say their ancestors came from Russia, 15% from Poland, and another 10% from elsewhere in eastern Europe – 67% altogether.

The newly arrived immigrants, looking for work, were unwelcome competition to laborers already here. Prosperous Americans also found the East Europeans an unappealing group, often living in crowded slums, without English language or Anglo-style manners. Like contemporary immigrants from Italy or Asia, they seemed ridden with vice and disease. Even the German Jews initially held the East European Jews at arm’s length, sometimes alienated by the religious orthodoxy that enveloped the Russians’ lives and discouraged assimilation, and sometimes threatened by Yiddish-accented radicals who rejected Judaism and espoused socialism or communism. But by the 1890s, at least the leaders of the German Jewish community had largely overcome their prejudices, establishing charities and schools to integrate and uplift these Jews into American life. Most Americans were not so charitable. In 1924, responding to the growing nativism of home-born whites against immigrants and blacks — at a time when the Ku Klux Klan could march in Washington, DC — the United States passed restrictive immigrations laws, effectively stopping new arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe.

With immigration essentially ended, the broadest trends for American Jews during the rest of the century were speedy assimilation and remarkable success. Increasingly Jews became integrated into the educational system, the work force, and disproportionately into the professions. Blatant anti-Semitism was largely gone by mid-century though never fully disappearing. With economic improvement, Jews moved to better housing, usually toward the suburbs, still favoring Jewish neighborhoods. Religious practices adjusted to the permissive American environment with Reform Judaism becoming far more popular than the Orthodoxy of Eastern Europe, and Conservatism emerging as a compromise position. Judaism’s adaptations to America included keeping a kosher home but eating in restaurants, observing the High Holidays but working on Saturday, driving to the synagogue for services but parking a respectable distance away, giving bat mitzvahs for girls as well as bar mitzvahs for boys, elevating the importance of Hanukkah as an occasion for December gift giving, and increasing acceptance of intermarriage.

The mid-century’s pivotal events were World War II and in its aftermath the creation of Israel, both having more symbolic than physical impact since relatively few American Jews suffered immediate family loses or immigrated to the new nation. Nonetheless, Nazism and the establishment of a Zionist “homeland” were deeply emotional events, more important than religion as components of American Jewish identity. During my dissertation research on Jewish social scientists, undertaken in 1967, I found few Jewish professors who were religious but many who felt a strong Jewish identification, often emoting over the Holocaust or their pride in Jewish intellectual achievements, or in the accomplishments of the new Jewish nation. Some of my subjects, at that late date, still refused to buy a Volkswagen. The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors broke out in June 1967, toward the end of my research. My subjects became extremely involved in that crisis; several were surprised at the depth of their feelings. This surprise was equally prevalent among those who had previously been apathetic or sympathetic toward Israel (Mazur 1971, 1972, 1973).

The 1960s and 70s were decades of resurgent ethnic pride among Americans of all shades, first among blacks during the Civil Rights Movement, then American Indians, Hispanics, even white “unmeltable ethnics” (Novick 1972). Jews were affected too, especially by the Six Day War, a stunning display of military machismo, banishing the shameful image of sheep led to slaughter. A 1967 poster brilliantly caught the spirit, showing a bespectacled Woody Allen-type figure in black Hasidic garb with beard and side curls, crammed in a phone booth, tearing open his shirt to reveal a Superman emblem beneath. In the moment’s euphoria, there was no hint of the troubles that would follow that lightning victory and occupation of Palestinian territories.

Parenthetically, American Hasidism, which some regard as historically long lived, is in fact another resurgent movement of the 1960s. There were few if any Hasidim in the United States before that time. Today they are concentrated in the New York metropolitan area, visually salient but numerically few. Hasidim notwithstanding, the modal trend among American Jews is away from traditional Judaism.

In 1998, the United States was one of 29 nations participating in a survey of religious attitudes and behavior, coordinated by the International Social Survey Programme. The survey covered religious beliefs about God, miracles, heaven and hell; frequency of worship; and participation in church activities (http://www.gesis.org/en/data_service/issp/data/1998_Religion_II.htm). By every measure, the United States was more religious than most other nations. One statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word,” is a good indicator of core fundamentalist belief. Respondents in the Philippines and Chile lead all other nations in choosing this literalist response; the United States ranks seventh. Americans are three times more likely than Britons or most Europeans to believe the Bible is literally God’s word.

There have been several suggestions why Americans are more devout than Europeans (Stark and Finke 1993; Noll 2001), and far more accepting of religious beliefs that are highly implausible on scientific and logical grounds (Mazur 2007). The answer is not wholly settled, but we can say that this is nothing new. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, famous for his observations of American society during a visit in 1831, wrote in a letter to a friend, “It’s obvious there still remains here [in the United States] a greater foundation of Christianity than in any other country of the world to my knowledge” (Pierson 1938).

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We must appreciate the inordinate religiosity, especially fundamentalist religiosity, of Christian America without overstating it. Today we have evangelical megachurches, “born again” televangelists, Christian radio, best-selling novels about the 18 coming rapture, and elected officials promoting fundamentalist Christian precepts. But the appearance may be deceiving. There was in the U.S. during the early to middle 20th century a disproportionate increase in fundamentalist congregants relative to moderate mainline denominations, probably due to higher birth rates among the fundamentalists (Stark and Finke 1993; Noll 2001). Since 1972, according to GSS data, there has been little change in weekly attendance at religious services. Since 1983, when a prayer question was first asked in the survey, there has been little change in the frequency of personal prayer. Since 1984, when the GSS refined its classification of Protestant denominations (Smith 1987), there has been little change in the distribution of respondents among fundamentalist, moderate, and liberal denominations, except for brief fluctuations in the late 1980s (Figure 2-2).

 

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The media’s exaggerated picture of fundamentalist growth is partly explained by the political ascendancy of the South due to population and economic shifts away from the Northeast. This enabled the election of Jimmy Carter, the first southern president of modern times. Carter was a moderate Democrat but more importantly a born again Christian and a distinct break from the conventional Christianity of his predecessors. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a Southern Baptist, and especially George W. Bush of Texas made the White House a venue for the kind of religiosity that had earlier seemed a backward feature of the remnant Confederacy. Media impressions notwithstanding, American Protestants have not departed much from the religious traditions of their parents, but that still leaves us a very religious nation. A benign aspect of American religiosity is that, unlike many other devout nations, the United States is usually tolerant of minority creeds. I am not forgetting episodes of bigotry against Catholics, Mormons, and of course Jews, but religion is one of our lesser bases for nastiness against compatriots, surely far less than race. Besides being constitutionally guaranteed, most Americans personally tolerate all forms of religious belief, possibly excepting atheism. The Jews who came to live here, once they learned English and adopted the cultural veneer of America, found an environment that was not palpably hostile. Indeed, by the final third of the 20th century many Jewish community leaders complained implicitly that America was too accepting, inviting assimilation and literally seducing Jews to their collective demise through intermarriage. Anti-Semitism had functioned for centuries to keep Jews intact through endogamy. Without intolerance, or with very little of it, what happens to the survival of Judaism?

Religion

Since 1984 the General Social Surveys has asked how they regard the Bible, respondents select one of three choices:

a. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word;

b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally;

c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.

The percentages in Table 3-1 show that Jews and Controls are both skeptical – compared to other Americans — that the Bible is the literal word of God, but Jews are more incredulous even than Controls that there is any holy inspiration at all. Half of Jews regard The Bible as a book of fables. (In each row, numbers that are very close are boldfaced.)

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Table 3-2 summarizes additional GSS questions about religious belief or practice. (Sample sizes in parentheses vary because different questions were asked in different years.) All show the same pattern: Jews are considerably less religious than Controls, while the Controls barely differ from Others. By these measures, Jews are far less religious than American Christians, as previously reported by Mayer et al. (2001).

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We should not press this point too far. Roughly half of Jews still hold fairly conventional beliefs and practices: accepting that the Bible as inspired by God, occasionally attending religious services, believing in life after death, praying weekly. Specific Jewish religious practices were reported for 2000-01 by the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) from interviews of a representative sample of over 4,000 U.S. Jews (United Jewish Communities 2004):

Light Chanukah candles 72%

Hold/attend Passover seder 67%

Fast on Yom Kippur 59%

Belong to a synagogue 46%

Light Shabbat candles 28%

Attend Jewish services monthly+ 27%

Keep kosher at home 21%

Lighting Chanukah candles tops the list. Since my childhood, rabbis have bemoaned the rising popularity of religiously insignificant Chanukah, seeing it cards and gifts (and occasional “Chanukah bush”) as accommodations to the Christmas season. The Passover seder, certainly important religiously, is coincident with Easter and may be reinforced for that reason. (I suppose since The Da Vinci Code everyone knows that The Last Supper was a Passover seder.) Only about a quarter of Jews observe the Sabbath – one of the Ten Commandments – even to the extent of lighting Shabbat candles. Less than half of NJPS respondents belonged to a synagogue in 2001. Among these synagogue members, 38% reported their denomination as Reform, 33% as 22 Conservative, 22% as Orthodox, and 7% as other types. Mayer et al. (2001), using different assumptions, provide congruent estimates of synagogue membership and relative size of denominations.

End of Part 1

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