A variety of new books are unintentionally riding the wake of the recent Pew Center report on contemporary American Judaism. While written and published before the report’s release, they illustrate the study’s demographic numbers, some of which have caused hand-wringing in the established Jewish community.
The problem, some might say, is that many Jews subscribe to a non-conventional Jewish life. They intermarry, they practice other religions, they waver in their practice. But, the study shows, they identify somehow as Jewish, enough to be counted.
In “True Jew: Challenging the Stereotype” (Algora, paper, $22.95), business professor and amateur historian Bernard Beck traces Jewish world history in a slightly different way than usual, offering the perspective that there have always been “hidden” Jews, assimilated like those called out by the current Pew study, but not daring to be counted. (Beck relies on the Pew study from 2001 for some of his data). Turning to the future, he offers a different perspective on how modern Judaism can survive using a more entrepreneurial model. He suggests that our model be the Enlightenment, with encouragement of learning, education and values. This reviewer lacks the academic qualifications to evaluate the history, but Beck’s interpretations and ideas are fascinating.
Susan Katz Miller’s “Being Both” (Beacon, cloth, $25.95), subtitled “Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” draws on personal experience and others’ anecdotes to broadly demonstrate the success of intermarried couples and children. Brought up Jewish by a Jewish father and a non-practicing Christian mother, and the product of Hebrew school and a Bat Mitzvah, Miller grated at being told throughout her life that she was not really Jewish. After marrying a non-Jew and having children, she and her husband began to look for a faith community to which they could both comfortably belong. It turns out that there are such communities around the country — not many, but numbers are increasing — that serve Jews and Christians together with religion school and religious celebration.
Of course, the approach on both ends is quite liberal. Jews will want to know “What about Jesus?” and Christians might ask, “where’s Jesus?” These dual-religion communities are not proselytizing, so Jesus becomes more a historical figure, a Jewish one, and an ecumenical understanding is fostered. Children brought up like this are not guaranteed to become Jews. Many of them end up as Quakers, Unitarians, or claim both religions, comparing it in one case to bisexuality.
That brings us to the question of Jewish continuity. Fortunately — and again, this has probably been true throughout the ages — there are people like Vladimir Tsesis, M.D., who escaped Soviet religious oppression and chose to rediscover the religion of his birth. In “Why We Remain Jews: The Path to Faith” (Academy, paper, $19.95), Dr. Tsesis talks about his life, his views, and why he thinks Judaism is so great. Having emigrated from the Soviet Union, Tsesis and his wife were complete Jewish neophytes and had to learn their way around a culture, a system, really, that wasn’t always welcoming. Christian churches were often more welcoming and how they resisted this proselytizing makes for interesting reading.
Local author David Blatner probably didn’t expect his science book “Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity” (Walker, cloth, $25) to appear in an article about religion, but in his clever, well-written book about the physical world, he makes a point about the array of Judaism represented here. Whether we are considering the nature of sound — molecules in motion that vibrate our eardrums — or the nature of belief — a mixture of ideas, practice and faith that vibrate the strings of our soul — our perception and experience is always on a spectrum. I think these authors would all agree that to acknowledge the spectrum of Jewish experience from the beginning until now would increase our acceptance and our understanding.
Finally, if we are so concerned about the supposed diminishing numbers of Jews, and if we combine the information generated by the Pew study and recent genetic research that shows that there is no unified Judaism — if we accept that Judaism is a religion, that is, a system of beliefs, and we put this all together, why not count all the folks who say they are Jews, who want to be Jews, who have a Jewish parent?
Much of what is seen as “new” in Pew is actually old. The difference, as our first author would hopefully agree, is that now we can let the hidden Jews — the intermarried, the dual-religionists — stand up and be counted.
“A true Jew,” writes Beck, “maintains his pride in being Jewish and his commitment to Jewish continuity.”