The Sciences

The trajectory of American Jews, lessons from history

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 19, 2010 12:07 PM

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I notice that a peculiar piece of datum from First Things contributor David Goldman is being passed around, repeated by Ross Douthat no less. Goldman states:

Beinart offers a condescending glance at the “warmth” and “learning” of Orthodox Jews, but neglects to mention the most startling factoid in Jewish demographics: a third of Jews aged 18 to 34 self-identify as Orthodox. “Secular Jew” is not quite an oxymoron–the Jews are a nation as well as a religion–but in the United States, at least, secular Jews have a fertility barely above 1 and an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, which means their numbers will decline by 75 percent per generation. It is tragic that the Jewish people stand to lose such a large proportion of their numbers, but they are lost to Judaism in general, not only to Zionism. That puts a different light on the matter.

A reader of Goldman's who happens not to be stupid and can actually read observes that 34% of Orthodox Jews are 18 to 24 according to the original source Goldman was citing. No surprise that Goldman makes such an error, he has a way with faux erudition which amazes the dull and dumb. In fact, the American Jewish Survey reports that 16% of Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 self-identify as Orthodox. With that small error out of the way, in regards to the future of the American Jewry I think the story outlined in Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 may serve as a possible vision of the future. Elon notes that almost the whole of the German Jewish elite of the late 18th and early 19th century converted to Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn's last Jewish descendant died before the 20th century; the rest of his descendants had become Christians. Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine were not atypical. But there was a large German Jewish community in the early 20th century, though even that was being eroded by intermarriage and conversion. If Elon is correct that the bulk of the 19th century Jewry became Christian, where did the Jews of the 20th century come from? It seems that as the German Jewish burghers abandoned the Reform temples for Lutheran churches, their spots were filled by assimilating Eastern European Jews who were immigrating into Germany and taking over the institutions which the earlier community had built. They were heirs in spirit, if not blood, to Moses Mendelssohn. In other words, a large bumper crop of Orthodox youth may be the salvation for the Reform and Conservative movements. There may be no third generation Reform, but not all third generations beyond Orthodoxy remain Orthodox either.

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