Hanukkah: a perfect example of how America absorbs and transforms ethnic traditions. A minor sectarian holiday becomes reinterpreted and inflated into a celebration of “freedom.” And it delivers a Christmas-like cornucopia for kids. Hanukkah comes early this year. But not too early for many Jewish-Americans to worry about the fate of the Jewish in Jewish-American. Well, actually, the community has been worrying itself into a state about this for many decades. That worry partly explains the popularity of Hanukkah in America. (More college students report lighting Hanukkah candles than performing any other Jewish ritual [see p. 14, here].)
One sociologist titled an article, “Are American Jews Vanishing Again?,” expressing his skepticism about all the hand-wringing. Still, with high and rising intermarriage rates, low birth rates, and general acceptance in the wider society, the perennial question of whether Jews in America will survive as Jews presses more and more on its community leaders and rabbis.
The factors that will determine the answer are in part specific to the Jewish community, but in large part are common to all ethnic communities in America, a nation that has done a remarkable job of melding, changing, and Anglo-Protestanizing all sorts of cultures.
What, argue various parties in the Jewish community, will keep Jewishness alive in America? What will, in particular, keep the younger generations Jewish – if anything? (This pdf, this pdf, and this report are among many urgent investigations.) It used to be that gentiles could be counted on to push Jews together. Old and new forms of antisemitism persist, but in the last few decades, gross antisemitism has greatly receded. (Mass media celebrities of an earlier era like the recently deceased Tony Curtis hid their Jewishness; mass media celebrities of this era like Jon Stewart flaunt it.) Tolerance, acceptance, and even respect have opened doors to the wider society – and there are so many enticements to step out.
One strategy for Jewish continuity is to close those doors from inside. The ultra-Orthodox have done that in places like Monsey, New York. But that option appeals to few Jewish-Americans. Four major bonds connect them to their tradition and people – three of which are probably not going to work much longer.
One is ethnic and folkloric. For all the excitement about Klezmer music (like this) and college courses in Yiddish (and despite the fact that Jewish college students are likelier to identify ethnically than religiously), cultural Jewishness is doomed, just as are cultural Irishness or cultural Swedishness. It is likely to become little more than a symbolic badge – a bagel-and-Borscht Belt Jewishness, like a Guiness-and-stepdance Irishness, or a meatball-and-Bergman Swedishness – stripped of deeper distinctiveness in life ways. Young Jews are not going to go back to old world ways of life — to having arranged marriages, bearing ten children, avoiding meals in gentile homes, and deferring to rabbinical authority on personal matters. They’re way too American for that.
Another is the memory of the Holocaust. Many young Jews are emotionally bound to the enormous tragedy. And its commemoration has been well-institutionalized in America. Still, as the survivors pass away and as the survivors’ children themselves become senior citizens, the Holocaust will become a less and less immediate historical memory. Moreover, it is hard to imagine many 21st-century youths basing their identity in victimization; that role seems so unAmerican.
A third is the connection to Israel. Drawing young Jewish-Americans closer to Israel is a major project of the organized Jewish community (for example, this way). Another major activity in the community is debating whether that connection is weakening (debated here, for example) – probably not yet. In the long run, ironically, the more Israel becomes what Zionist leaders dreamed of – a “normal,” Jewish country rather than a refuge, a shrine, or a battleground – the less salient it is likely to be. Over the generations, hyphenated Americans increasingly focus on America rather than on their ancestral homelands. (Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration is the Japanese-American troops in World War II. There’s also the fading of Irish nationalism, which once propelled some Irish-Americans to resist American entry into both World Wars.) Indeed, before 1948, many Jewish-American institutions resisted Zionism. For the future, the Israel connection is likely to be an extra rather than a central feature of Jewish-Americans’ Jewishness.
What is most likely to work in the face of America’s powerful enticements to assimilation is America’s historically central association: the church – or, in this case, the synagogue. The three strategies noted above all rely on Jewish identity as a people – as a “people that dwells apart,” in the words of Balak (Numbers 23:9). But in the modern world, the other dimension of Jewish identity is a universalistic, non-tribal, voluntaristic religion, Judaism. That fits the Americans experience well.
America has historically dissolved ethnic-tribal-racial bonds (with the great exception of slavery’s descendants) in favor of individual, freely-chosen affiliations. The earliest, most widespread, most effective form of free association was the grassroots Protestant church. It remains the model for community in America. Moreover, Americans are the most religious people in the western world. Thus, congregational Judaism – especially a wide-open-door version of it – fits well with American culture and promises a route for Jewish continuity.
This may gall the segment of the community that avoids the synagogue and prefers secular community centers and folk-culture camps – but they are a fading group. Congregational religion has been the American way to belonging.
In the end, then, the American Hanukkah may not be a deeply authentic element of a three-millennial tradition, but it may be an important entry into the next millennium.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on December 7, 2010.)