Jews in America, A Contemporary Reader.
Following the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS 1990), social scientists have increased their efforts to understand the nature of the American Jewish community and the manner in which American Jews have adapted their ethnic/religious heritage to contemporary American society. This volume, which includes eighteen chapters by eighteen authors from sociology, economics, political science, demography, history, psychology, and Judaic studies, explores the contemporary situation of American Jews. As with most collections of articles, the entries vary in both depth of coverage and quality of analysis. Some are quantitative analyses while others utilize a mostly qualitative approach. All appear to be well researched. Taken as a whole, this volume represents a major contribution to a growing body of literature precipitated, in part, by the findings of significant levels of intermarriage, assimilation, and apostasy found in NJPS 1990. That this volume is a reaction to NJPS 1990 is clear from the multiple references to the 52 percent intermarriage rate found in that study.
The chapters are organized into five major parts and a conclusion, although the assignment of chapters to parts seems somewhat arbitrary. Part I begins with Chaim Waxman tracing the immigration history of U.S. Jews, in part to demonstrate that issues of Jewish continuity have always been extant. Carmel Ullman Chiswick examines the effects of the economic absorption of immigrants and other economic factors on American Jewish observance.
In Part II, Uzi Rebhun, Sergio DellaPergola, and Mark Tolts, using NJPS 1990 and other sources, project the U.S. Jewish population to 2020, using data on fertility, mortality, international migration, and assimilation. Sylvia Barack Fishman discusses the changing American Jewish family, which "faces the challenge of retaining (its) vitality and cohesion while responding to the opportunities of an individualistic and open society," relying on data from NJPS 1990 as well as local Jewish community studies sponsored by Jewish federations throughout the country (p. 80). Unfortunately, the most recent of the local studies cited is from 1987. Thus, a volume with a 2000 publication date is relying on data from 1979-1987 to examine likely changes in the Jewish family in the 1990s, when more than 20 local Jewish community studies were completed between 1990 and 1997 that would have provided more up-to-date information. This lack of recency of data is a problem evident in other chapters as well.
Part III includes four chapters. First, Daniel J. Elazar examines the changing Jewish organizational structure and explains how Jewish organizations have reacted to the changing sociological and political environment. Second, Jerome A. Chanes discusses the role of anti-Semitism in American society. The chapter's subtitle, "Why Can't Jews Take Yes for an Answer?," reflects the major theme of the decline in anti-Semitic behavior. What is not discussed fully in this chapter is the extent to which the diminution of anti-Semitism has affected American Jewish identity. In the final two chapters here, Steven Bayme assesses the institutional responses to intermarriage and the relative effectiveness of prevention, conversion, and outreach, and Sylvia Barack Fishman provides an excellent analysis of the manner in which the role of women in American life, and American Jewish life, has changed.
In the six chapters of "Constructing a Modern Jewish Identity," Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen examine the extent to which a liberal political philosophy is part of American Jewish identity. Using data from the National Opinion Research Center, they offer the interesting observation that, despite a belief that liberalism is inherent in Judaism, more traditional Jews tend to be less liberal. Also, compared to other Americans of similar educational and income levels, Jews are not more liberal. Jerome S. Legge, Jr. examines the extent to which a belief in "social justice" helps to define Jewish identity and the manner in which this belief varies among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. Chaim Waxman examines the centrality of Israel in defining Jewish identity and, using data from NJPS 1990, notes that such attachment among baby boomers is lower than among those in older age cohorts.
Peter Y. Medding, Gary A. Tobin, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Mordechai Rimor examine Jewish identity in conversionary and mixed marriages. This chapter relies on quotations from the 1980s (before the 52 percent intermarriage finding) and uses data from eight local community studies conducted between 1985 and 1988. The authors find that conversion usually leads to the achievement of medium and high levels of Jewish identification, but many conversionary households have low levels of Jewish identity and maintain a dual identity. They also find that "despite the hopes and assumptions, Jewish identification does not fare well in mixed marriages" (p. 256).
Steven M. Cohen examines the effects of Jewish education on Jewish identity. He finds all forms of Jewish education, except Sunday School, have a significant impact on Jewish identity. The impact of day school is especially significant, but the impact of youth groups and Israel travel on intermarriage is small. Unlike other chapters in this volume which rely on telephone surveys that used random digit dialing methodologies, Cohen uses a mail survey administered by Market Facts to a Consumer Mail Panel. He properly notes the drawbacks to such a survey. He fails to note that many local Jewish community studies, which employ superior sampling methods, have examined the relationships he examines in this chapter. Finally, Farber completes this section of the book with a discussion in which the primacy of "choice" in America determines the way in which a personal Jewish identity is constructed.
The remaining chapters examine the manner in which the religious and spiritual dimensions of one's Jewish identity have been transformed by the American experience. Charles S. Liebman distinguishes between ritual and ceremony in American Judaism and believes that while ritual behavior may be declining, ceremonies may be on the increase. Haym Soloveitchik, in the longest chapter in this volume (57 pages), examines recent changes in contemporary Orthodoxy. This chapter offers a qualitative analysis and is somewhat autobiographical. It provides information on a group that attempts to make relatively few compromises with American culture. Finally, Jack Wertheimer examines the cultural conflict expressed by the different directions of denominational change, including the issues of patrilineal descent and "Who is a Jew?"
While one may quibble with some of the methodology and with the use of dated data sets, this volume is of high quality, and will provide the reader with new insights into the contemporary Jewish experience in America.
Ira M. Sheskin University of Miami
Ira M. Sheskin is associate professor of geography and regional studies and a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at the University of Miami. His most recent book, How Jewish Communities Differ; Variations in the Findings of Local Jewish Population Studies, is jointly published by the North American Jewish Data Bank and the City University of New York.
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|Author:||Sheskin, Ira M.|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2000|
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