Soaring Numbers of Americans Calling Themselves Jews – but How Jewish Are They?

According to new report, 60 percent of the children of U.S. intermarried parents self-identify as Jews. But what’s a Jew if you don't need to commit to anything Jewish?

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Birthright for LGBTQ Jews, June 2015.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Headlines on the latest findings on America’s Jewish population, to be presented by Brandeis University scholars Monday, are likely to focus a startling development. It turns out that the rate at which children in families with only one Jewish parent are identifying themselves as Jewish has soared to as high as sixty percent —double the rate of the previous generation.

I haven’t seen the details of what is going to be presented at the UJA Federation headquarters in New York. When I reached Brandeis’s Leonard Saxe by phone last week, he touched on only the broad outlines. But the talk around town is that the latest numbers peg the American Jewish population at more than 7 million.

That is sharply higher even than the 4.2 million that Pew’s 2013 study reckons is the total for “Jews by religion.” And higher than the 5.3 million at which Pew would put the population “if one includes secular or cultural Jews – those who say they have no religion but who were raised Jewish or have a Jewish parent and who still consider themselves Jewish aside from religion.”

But the news is likely to be seen, Saxe reckons, as the soaring rate of Jewish self-identification by children of intermarried parents. He's not eager for controversy, but to me it raises the question of whether we entering the era of the fiat Jew — that is, a Jew with no fixed definition in Jewish law?

Fiat is a word often used in reference to the dollar —one that is not backed by law with something of fixed value. With fiat money there are no rules on how dollars can be created or with what they must be redeemed, in contrast to dollars that are, say, defined in law as a specified number of grains of gold or silver.

It’s not my intention to draw exact parallels between the tumult over Jewish population and the monetary debate (where I’m on the gold standard side of the monetary debate, which I’ve been covering for decades). It is my intention to remark on certain similarities — and the phenomenon of unintended consequences.

America learned this after 1971, when President Richard Nixon closed the so-called “gold window,” at which foreign governments could redeem their dollars at a 35th of an ounce of gold. The government vowed it wouldn’t let the dollar collapse. Yet since then it has lost more than 97% of its value (it’s now at less than an 1,100th of an ounce of gold).

Congress has long since ended the legal definition of the dollar, and where once dollars were accepted without question, today vast hedge funds operate to protect the wealthy. In recent years, the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians — and even the United Nations — have wondered whether they want to keep their reserves in greenbacks. Unemployment is way up, as is inequality.

Fiat Jews may — or may not — be Jews according to halakha. But the children of intermarried parents are by their own declaration (by fiat) asserting themselves to be Jewish. By my lights that’s a newsworthy development, and, up to a point, a great compliment to Jewry. Yet it inevitably raises the question of definitions.

My friend Eric Yoffie, famed Reform rabbi, made that point the moment I called him, referring me to the Reform movement’s resolution on patrilineal descent. Issued by the movement’s central rabbinical conference in 1983, it was designed to establish among North American Reform Jews the “Jewish status of the children of mixed marriages.”

 “No longer,” said the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, could it be “assumed a priori” that “the child of a Jewish mother will be Jewish any more than that the child of a non-Jewish mother will not be.” It then went on — and this was Yoffie’s point — to lay down a list of obligations and mitzvot.

It declared that the “presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” It named, among other such acts, circumcision, acquisition of a Hebrew name, and the study of Torah.

Whatever one thinks about Reform’s standards, they are a reference point for its, if only its, movement. But what kind of commitment, if any, is required of the sixty-percent of children of intermarried parents who are now identifying themselves as Jews?

I called another friend, Michael Steinhardt, a former partner in the Forward, to see what he made of the fiat money analogy. He’s funding much of the work being done on this question and is writing his own book on the future of the Jews. There are no doubt those on Wall Street who wonder whether he has a gift of prevision.

Steinhardt tells me he regards the latest findings on population as a signal that the train has already left the station. Youngsters of intermarried couples are identifying whether the rabbis like it or not. He says he’s not terribly worried about it. Then again, he’s not terribly worried about fiat money. He says he recognizes that there is a “persistent sense of anxiety” and a sense that we’re due for a, as he put it, “comeuppance.” But, he says “it’s not my foremost concern.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this column mistakenly asserted that it was Brandeis rather than Pew that first reported that the rate at which children in families with only one Jewish parent are identifying themselves as Jewish has soared to as high as sixty percent, double the rate of the previous generation. In addition, the Brandeis study does not itself estimate the national Jewish population or the rate of Jewish identity among children of intermarried couples, as was indicated in the article.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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