Jewish Journal


October 30, 2013

The Jewish Little Big Man Demographic Phenomenon?



U.S. Jewish and American Indian self-identities are elastic.

6.7 million Jews in the U.S of 2012, a Pew Research estimate, rather than 5.3 million Jews based on earlier national Jewish population surveys? Well, I shouldn’t be so down on myself for putting my faith in the total U.S. Jewish population estimates derived from the Jewish community-funded National Jewish Population surveys of the last forty years. If the 1957 U.S. Current Population Survey was accurately portraying the 1957 American Jewish population, as the current 2012 Pew Jewish study argues, the American Jewish population has increased 15 percent in the 55 years from 1957 to 2012. 

Most learned analysts had predicted that the U.S. Jewish population would not experience significant growth.  As J.J. Goldberg recently pointed out:

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 national Jewish population survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.” 

Sidney Goldstein, being an expert on Jewish migration, left out the migration component of population change and probably for good reason. In 1990 the brunt of significant Jewish  international migration to the U.S. from the Soviet Union and to a much smaller numerically significant extent Iran, Israel, and the rest of the world’s remaining tiny Jewish Post World War II communities was largely over.

So, if trends of Jewish birth, death, in-migration, in-marriage and in-conversion, don’t mathematically lead from the 1957 Jewish population to the Jewish population found by the 2012 Pew survey on U.S. Jews, what might have happened?

An unexpected bump in the American Indian population in the 1980 U.S. census may be instructive. Dustin Hoffman’s picaresque schlemiel 1970 role in the Revisionist Western Little Big Man initiated a series of cinematic sympathetic historical portrayals of American Indians including Billy Jack (1971), and The Outlaw Josey Wales(1976), These movies are credited with increasing the sense of American Indian self-identification and likely resulted in the count of American Indians in the 1980 census being over 70 per cent larger than the 1970 census count.

The Pew study found 94% of U.S. Jews (including 97% of Jews by religion and 83% ofJews of no religion) say they are proud to be Jewish.  It’s arguable that American Jews have undergone a Little Big Man demographic phenomenon in the past half century.  Many have commented on the growing attraction of Jewish and being Jewish in popular culture.

It seems that even when Jewish ancestry parents chose not to raise their children as Jewish societal inputs supplant their neglect or intentions in the latest cohort of children who have grown to adulthood. as J.J. Goldberg points out:

The 1990 survey found that close to half of all Jews getting married at the time were marrying non-Jews, and only 28 percent of interfaith couples said they were raising their children as Jews. This led to another panic. Today, a generation later, Pew has caught up with those children, who are now adults. Whatever their parents intended, almost half identify unambiguously as Jews -- about 23 percent by religion and 23 percent without. It seems the ones who were “raised as Jews” became Jews by religion. The rest adopted their parents’ skepticism along with their heritage

The prestige of having a Jewish linkage in contemporary America, whether by marriage, relation or birth may have expanded the pool of self-defined Jews in to an extent that it has overcome the limitations of natural increase, international migration and religious in-conversion.

Pini Herman, PhD. specializes in demographics, big data and predictive analysis, has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:


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