By Douglas Altabef
The recently updated Pew Research Center survey of American Jewry is notable for its data showing dramatic growth in the number of Jews of “no religion”: Jews whose connection to the religion of their birth is “cultural,” “associational” or some other amorphous affinity.
For some, this is remembering Grandma’s matzah ball soup or Grandpa’s funny accent and scattered Yiddishisms. For others, it is a Jewish film or movie star, or a novel about Jews and Jewishness.
The associations are many and the feelings are undoubtedly sincere. The real question, however, is how this kind of a connection translates into an enduring tie to the Jewish people, whose Judaism is measured in generations, decades and centuries. However “meaningful” (to use the voguish catchword) this type of connection may be to individuals, is it sustainable? Is Judaism sustainable when the ties that bind it are made of tissue paper?
Little is known of the fate of the 10 Lost Tribes, the ancient nation of Israel that was conquered by Assyria in the eighth century BCE. We know that the tribes were dispersed, both from one another and within each.
How long did the associations of being the Children of Israel last? How many generations held fast to tradition, before they intermarried or simply took on the ways of those around them? Two generations? Four?
Given the hindsight of history, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that such dispersion had created an eventual inevitability.
In more recent times, we witnessed the poignant phenomenon of the Bnei Anusim, the descendants of Jewish conversos who observed certain customs and rituals performed by grandparents or even parents, not knowing why they were doing what they did, but knowing that somehow it meant something. It was important to keep going down into the basement and lighting candles on Friday nights, for example, or to clean the house thoroughly come the early spring.
So, I read these contemporary accounts of how a great many American Jews are relating to their Jewishness and wonder how soon this just disappears into the ether. There are millions of Americans who will say, “Yes, I think I had some Jewish ancestors.” Hopefully, that makes them have more empathy with the current card-carrying Jews. But in the larger reality, it’s a point of quaint historical interest and no more.
I say this neither critically nor caustically, but rather with great heaviness of heart; also with the realization that perhaps ’twas ever thus. We are a people as ancient as the Chinese, yet the population disparity makes us a rounding error of theirs.
One can love bagels and Mandy Patinkin — and can practice tikkun olam, saving endangered species, being environmentally sensitive, caring about social justice — without being Jewish.
Feeling Jewish and acting Jewish are different things. Having a Jewish sensibility or a Jewish heart is not the same as living Jewishly.
It is only through the particularity of what Judaism teaches, espouses and, yes, requires that the connections with Judaism and the Jewish people can be transmitted to future generations. The reason cultural Jews get to love their bagels and Barbra Streisand is that millions of Jews maintained their loyalty — their fealty to a particular people, tradition and religion, which, in turn, spawned bagels and Barbra.
Jewish continuity depends on a logic — and, dare I say, a business model — that is inverse but analogous to the Social Security system. With Social Security, there needs to be a pool of younger productive people doing their part and paying their dues, replenishing the kitty, so that their elders can reap the benefit of their own prior efforts.
There is a generational compact that allows the system to continue to function, to be viable. With Judaism, it is the progenitors who take upon themselves the obligations and requirements to replenish the Jewish kitty, so that the ensuing generations can benefit from it, renew it and, in turn, replenish it.
Without a critical mass of aware and willing contributors and replenishers, the kitty goes dry. Not overnight, but as the level of the communal supply lowers, the quality and intensity of what is left become diluted.
It might take two or three generations, blinks of an eye in the Jewish saga, but as with the 10 Tribes of Israel, it will be an inevitability.
Some day, perhaps decades or centuries from now, there will be people wondering about the strange custom of their grandparents to put smoked orange-colored fish on rolls without holes in them on Sunday mornings, along with unhealthy amounts of rich creamy cheese.
And they will wonder why.
Douglas Altabef is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]. This originally ran on JNS.org.