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Jewish Journal

Mysteries of the Jews

January 6, 2000 | 7:00 pm

The big surprise of the holiday season, if you caught it, was Jerry Seinfeld's wedding.

It turns out the man whose television persona perfectly embodied men's fear of commitment was, in real life, simply waiting for the right Jewish woman. Once he found her, baddaboom, baddabing, you've got a traditional Jewish wedding, chuppah, broken glass, the works. It's so traditional, the crabmeat canapes come out only after the rabbi leaves. They even saw to a kosher Jewish divorce for the once-married bride. Who knew television's darkest satirist was such a sentimental traditionalist offscreen?

O.K., so it wasn't as big a surprise as the absence of global chaos at the passing of the millennium. Still, the wedding touched a nerve. It was one of those media moments that periodically come along to remind us how little we really know about our fellow Jews.

Another such moment came last spring, when Israel's daily Ha'aretz carried an interview with Hollywood actor-producer Michael Douglas. The reporter kept asking typical Hollywood-insider questions, like why movies are so violent and what it's like kissing Demi Moore. Douglas kept turning the interview around to his own angry question: How dare Israel tell him he's not Jewish?

There's a shocker. Douglas is the half-Jewish son of screen legend Kirk Douglas. Papa Kirk only recently reembraced his Jewish roots after a lifetime, so he says, of neglecting them. Son Michael never evinced any visible Jewish attachment. Now, offered a chance to woo a million Israeli fans in their own language, he'd rather vent about "Who is a Jew." Who knew he cared?

If you're like me, you're wondering what the heck is going on out there in the American Jewish hinterland. Well, so are a lot of highly trained social scientists. Increasingly, scholars of Jewish identity are concluding that much of what they thought they knew about the hearts and minds of American Jews is simply wrong.

After years of gloomy reports about declining observance and galloping intermarriage, evidence is piling up to suggest American Judaism is stronger than anyone realized. A great many Jews seem, like Seinfeld, to care more than anyone suspected. And a great many children presumed lost turn out, like Michael Douglas, not to be.

Of course, social scientists don't base their research on People magazine. They prefer weighted samples and focus groups. Lately, though, their picture isn't much clearer than ours. They keep bumping into the statistical equivalents of Seinfeld and Douglas, and they can't account for them. The more they learn, the greater the mystery.

Take that study of Jewish population surveys just completed at the University of Miami. The study, alert readers recall, compares local Jewish surveys conducted in 40 different cities in recent years. Printed alongside are numbers from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, presumably to provide a national context.

If you've been following the news, you already know the national survey is completely out of whack with the local ones. Whatever range of Jewish behavior the local surveys show, the national average is nearly always lower than the lowest, which makes no sense at all.

For instance, Jews who say they usually or always attend a Passover seder range from a high of 86 percent in Baltimore to a low of 62 percent in Denver. The national survey shows a figure of 60 percent. Similarly, lighting Chanukah candles ranges from 95 percent in Boston to 59 percent in Sarasota. The national figure: 57 percent.

At the other end, the percentage who have visited Israel ranges from 61 percent in South Palm Beach to a low 27 percent in Hartford. The national figure: 26 percent.

Then there's that 52 percent intermarriage statistic, the most famous figure in the 1990 national survey. According to the Miami study, it was all a misunderstanding. It counted non-Jews with Jewish ancestry as intermarried Jews. Counting only actual Jews, the 1990 survey found a 43 percent intermarriage rate. But that's clearly still too high. If every other measure of assimilation in the national survey is inflated, intermarriage must be inflated, too. The true intermarriage rate is probably between 33 and 38 percent.

All in all, the Miami study badly undercuts the 1990 survey. That's trouble for the survey's sponsor, the United Jewish Communities. They're planning a $4 million follow-up survey this year, and all its methods are suddenly suspect. It was put on hold last month while UJC leaders figure out what to do. Then they have to explain how they managed to ignite a worldwide intermarriage hysteria with a statistical error.

The really interesting part, though, is what happens when that's all settled. The mystery remains: What, exactly, makes American Jews Jewish?

We know from surveys -- the accurate ones -- that about four-fifths light Chanukah candles and attend a seder. Close to that number observe Yom Kippur. About 40 percent have visited Israel. Just 20 to 30 percent follow other Jewish practices, like attending synagogue regularly, lighting Sabbath candles or joining Jewish organizations.

How do the majority -- the 50 or 60 percent who only observe Chanuka, Passover and Yom Kippur -- relate to being Jewish? Do they think about it only three times a year? Or is something else going on that surveys don't detect?

Increasingly, scholars think something else is going on. Today's Jewish identity is fluid, idiosyncratic and reinvents itself constantly throughout adulthood, says Brandeis University sociologist Bethamie Horowitz. The focus might be traditional observance, Holocaust literature, klezmer music or pro-Israel activism. "It's like a salad bar, and everybody these days is putting a different collection of items on their plates," says Horowitz, whose 1999 "Connections and Journeys" is becoming a bible of the new Jewish identity studies.

Reworking the questionnaire is the other reason, besides the 1990 survey's flaw, that the Year 2000 national survey was put on hold. The researchers need to figure out how to measure a host of subjectively changing attitudes, from spiritual searching to pluralism-related anger at Israel. "We need to widen the way we define Jewish identification to include the idiosyncratic things people relate to Jewishly," Horowitz says.

They need to tell us why, despite low levels of traditional practice, so many Jews actually end up marrying Jews. They also need to tell us what the Jewish community will look like as growing numbers of half-Jews opt in, bringing their mixed heritage with them.

Until we clear up these mysteries we will never be, as Seinfeld once said, masters of our own domain.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

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