There’s a classic story in my family about the time many years ago when we sat around the table at Aunt Sarah’s house loudly debating what it meant to be a Jew in America. Bubbe Esther, my husband’s grandmother, sat quietly in the corner until someone thought to ask her.
How do you define being a Jew, Bubbe?
I’ll never forget her answer: A Jew is what a Jew does.
For the religiously observant, Yiddish-speaking immigrants of her generation, the outlines of what “doing Jewish” meant were clear and defined. But no such clarity existed for my generation, and my children’s. Ever since I became editor of the Forward in 2008, I became more and more convinced that too many people claimed to speak for American Jews politically, religiously and culturally without much proof for their assertions. The surveys that existed were suspect. The last major one, the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, was so rife with problems that the version expected in 2010 was cancelled.
That’s when I approached some folks I knew at the Pew Research Center with the idea of conducting one of their trademark national surveys on a group they’d never researched in the past in such detail — American Jews. Or, as Pew refers to us, Jewish Americans.
There’s a reason why this was a long, complicated and expensive undertaking: Jews comprise such a small percentage of the American population but are so diverse and dispersed that surveyors must reach out to an incredible number of people just to ascertain a representative sample. An even larger task was deciding how to categorize Jews. Are we a religion? An ethnic group? A modern tribe? All of the above?
Pew’s first, understandable predilection was to think of Jews as they do Catholics, evangelical Christians or Muslims — that is, a group defined by religious beliefs and practices. But there is a proud history of secular or cultural Judaism (whatever you like to call it) that doesn’t fit that definition at all, and Jews who identify that way needed to be counted, too.
So the decision was made to allow respondents to identify themselves as Jews, however they chose to, and then probe their attitudes and behaviors without judgment.
Pew could do this with authority not only because of its stellar history of conducting nonpartisan, first-rate surveys on religion, but because, well, it’s not part of the Jewish community. It had no agenda here. The results would be what they would be, without concern for the public perception or policy implications. That’s for the Jewish community to worry about. (And we should be worried.)
There was another benefit in Pew’s experience with surveying other religious groups: being able to ask similar questions, and so adding a richer level of analysis by comparing Jews to other Americans. Hence, Pew’s term “Jewish Americans.” Being Jewish is the descriptor, the adjective, to the core identity of being American. Substitute “Christian” or “Muslim” and you see where we are on the continuum.
But “American Jews,” the term you see used at the Forward and countless other places in the Jewish community, has a different connotation. We feel no less American, but we recognize that being Jewish transcends nationality in time and space, connecting us to Jews in Israel and the world over. It’s a semantic difference, but a powerful one. Whether it will remain so — whether American Jews will continue to prioritize being Jewish over assimilating into a more amorphous American culture — is one of the profound questions raised by this study, one I hope we will all grapple with in the days and weeks to come.
Jane Eisner is the editor in chief of the Forward, where this piece first appeared.