Where'd All the Jews Go? Alan Caruba

Dec.5 2011
Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University wrote a commentary in the December 2 issue of The Wall Street Journal lamenting the “American Jewry’s Data Problem.” It might as well be titled “Where’d all the Jews Go?”

According to Prof. Sarna, there hasn’t been a census of American Jews for a decade and the last one was not particularly accurate for a variety of reasons, but the most hilarious problem of all was the dilemma of determining who was a Jew. The 2001 survey divided respondents into three categories, “Jews”, “People of Jewish Background” and “non-Jews.”

Non-Jews? Or maybe some great Sanhedrin of rabbinic scholars got together, went through the responses to the census (the U.S. Census is not permitted to ask one’s religion, so this was an independent survey) and put them into three stacks.

“This one could be a Jew because his mother is Jewish, but his father is a Korean and, according to his response, he’s into Buddhism. Definitely not a Jew.”

“This one is married to a shicksa, (Christian) but raising their kids as Jews. Definitely a Jew.”

“This one says he hasn’t been inside a synagogue since his bar mitzvah, but gives to his local federation every year. Definitely a Jew.”

“This one converted, keeps kosher, and is a big shot in B’nai B’rith. How much more Jewish could he be? Definitely a Jew.”

As Prof. Sarna points out, right now there is no way to know where self-identified Jews live, who they are marrying, and whether they adhere to a particular Jewish religious movement such as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The last time it was possible to know who a Jew was, they got rounded up and shipped to concentration camps. The other side of the coin may well be that among Americans it just doesn’t mean all that much whether one is Jewish these days. It used to be a very big deal.

“Different demographers estimate America’s Jewish population today at anywhere from fewer than 5.3 million to more than 6.5 million,” said Prof. Sarna. That’s barely the population of New Jersey where I live. We’re elbow to elbow in the Garden State to the tune of 8.6 million.

In my youth, New Jersey had a thriving Jewish community and, in 2010, there were just over 500,000 Jews or 5.8% of the population of the State.

I would have thought the largest concentration of Jews, other than in Israel, would be in the Sunshine State of Florida, but according to the “Jewish Population in the United States, 2010” by M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsy, Florida has an estimated 613,235 Jews or a mere 2.1% of its population

Not surprisingly, New York State is home to 1.6 million Jews. Most presumably can be found on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or in the outer boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn. The Orthodox are easily identified by garb that hasn’t changed since the bad old days of the Eastern European and Russian Jewish villages called shtetls (think “Fiddler on the Roof”).

So where are the Jews hanging their yarmulkes these days? Rivaling New York, California is said to be home to 1.2 million, mostly clustered around Los Angeles (which is a description of a huge part of the State). The estimates are that Texas has 130,170, but Texas is so big you can hardly pick one out of a crowd. A lot of the local Jews wear boots and cowboy hats.

Washington, D.C., where anti-Semites are convinced Jews control everything has a mere 28,000, but nearby Maryland has just over 241,000 while neighboring Virginia has 97,790.

One clear indicator of Jewish population can be found in States such as Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota where there are so few Chinese restaurants you’d be lucky to get a “minyan” (ten or more Jewish males) together.

“So,” asks Prof. Sarna, “is any national Jewish population survey foredoomed? The who-is-a-Jew question will never be resolved to anybody’s satisfaction.” A scholar by trade, Prof. Sarna declared a lack of current data “on Jewish communal trends in the U.S. is something of a scandal.”

Maybe not.

Maybe American Jews are so assimilated at this point they don’t feel the need to protect themselves against the modern day Cossacks or the idiots who pass themselves off as Nazis. Maybe they are so content in their Jewish lives they don’t have to do anything other than live those lives?

Maybe the Anti-Defamation League has done such a splendid job that it has all but put itself out of business?

In a classically American way, it just doesn’t matter anymore. We’re still all hyphenated in some fashion or other, but in a nice way, not a divisive one.

Where are the Jews? Nobody cares.

© Alan Caruba, 2011


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