Forward Thinking

What Makes a Jew? It's What You Do.

By Jane Eisner

  • Print
  • Share Share
nate lavey

There’s a classic story in my family about the time many years ago when we sat around the table at Aunt Sarah’s house loudly debating what it meant to be a Jew in America. Bubbe Esther, my husband’s grandmother, sat quietly in the corner until someone thought to ask her.

How do you define being a Jew, Bubbe?

I’ll never forget her answer: A Jew is what a Jew does.

For the religiously observant, Yiddish-speaking immigrants of her generation, the outlines of what “doing Jewish” meant were clear and defined. But no such clarity existed for my generation, and my children’s. Ever since I became editor of the Forward in 2008, I became more and more convinced that too many people claimed to speak for American Jews politically, religiously and culturally without much proof for their assertions. The surveys that existed were suspect. The last major one, the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, was so rife with problems that the version expected in 2010 was cancelled.

Pew Survey! Click Here! Click for more on the survey.

There’s a reason why this was a long, complicated and expensive undertaking: Jews comprise such a small percentage of the American population but are so diverse and dispersed that surveyors must reach out to an incredible number of people just to ascertain a representative sample. An even larger task was deciding how to categorize Jews. Are we a religion? An ethnic group? A modern tribe? All of the above?

That’s when I approached some folks I knew at the Pew Research Center with the idea of conducting one of their trademark national surveys on a group they’d never researched in the past in such detail — American Jews. Or, as Pew refers to us, Jewish Americans.

Pew’s first, understandable predilection was to think of Jews as they do Catholics, evangelical Christians, or Muslims — that is, a group defined by religious beliefs and practices. But there is a proud history of secular or cultural Judaism (whatever you like to call it) that doesn’t fit that definition at all, and Jews who identify that way needed to be counted, too. So the decision was made to allow respondents to identify themselves as Jews, however they chose to, and then probe their attitudes and behaviors without judgement.

Pew could do this with authority not only because of its stellar history of conducting nonpartisan, first-rate surveys on religion, but because, well, it’s not part of the Jewish community. It had no agenda here. The results would be what they would be, without concern for the public perception or policy implications. That’s for the Jewish community to worry about. (And we should be worried.)

There was another benefit in Pew’s experience with surveying other religious groups: being able to ask similar questions, and so adding a richer level of analysis by comparing Jews to other Americans. Hence Pew’s term “Jewish Americans.” Being Jewish is the descriptor, the adjective, to the core identity of being American. Substitute “Christian” or “Muslim” and you see where we are on the continuum.

But “American Jews”, the term you see used at the Forward and countless other places in the Jewish community, has a different connotation. We feel no less American, but we recognize that being Jewish transcends nationality in time and space, connecting us to Jews in Israel and the world over. It’s a semantic difference, but a powerful one. Whether it will remain so — whether American Jews will continue to prioritize being Jewish over assimilating into a more amorphous American culture — is one of the profound questions raised by this study, one I hope we will all grapple with in the days and weeks to come.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: jewish, pew, 2JewishAmerica2013, survey

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.