Halloween was originally a Christian holiday, All Hallows’ Eve. Purim, the raucous Jewish feast that we celebrate this week [Feb. 23-24] with costumes, noise-makers, and the triangular cookies called hamantashen in Yiddish, has a lot in common with Halloween—including having been transformed into a largely secular holiday.
It should come as no surprise that many Jews enjoy a Purim that is light on religious devotion, because Jews are the most secular of Americans. They remain a vital community in spite of it. As authors of a new study called “American Jewish Secularism: Jewish Life Beyond the Synagogue,” we have been impressed by the richness and durability of secular Jewish culture and expressions of Jewishness beyond religion.
Only half of Jews compared with 80 percent of all Americans strongly agree that God exists. Forty-one percent of Jews never attend religious services aside from a family life-cycle event, and 87 percent of American Jews fail to observe kashrut (religious food taboos) outside their homes.
For many Jews, culture is what attracts, from political lectures at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y on separation of church and state, to art and photography exhibitions; from Modern Hebrew classes to the revival of the Yiddish language, to the new appreciation of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza; from the newly launched Jewish Review of Books to Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, whose comedy is both Jewish-inflected and universal. There is a revival of Jewish musical traditions such as klezmer (East European), Sephardic (Mediterranean) and mizrahi (Afro-Asian) melodies and recreational Israeli folk dancing. There are more and more commercial films and documentaries on Jewish topics feeding commercial cinema and the popular annual Jewish film and book festivals in all the major U.S. cities and which in the aggregate attract hundreds of thousands of attendees.
The previous heyday of American Jewish secularism of the early 20th century was unsustainable because it was not compatible with the aspirations of younger Jewish Americans. It was too closely tied to the past, to the Yiddish language, to the Jewish labor movement and the inner city immigrant neighborhoods. The rising generations of Jews at that time were attracted to the benefits of integrating into the wider American society, to communicate in English and to be socially and economically mobile in affluent suburbs where liberal religion was the badge of respectability. Now as Jewish Americans have become part of mainstream, they don’t feel the urge to “fit in.” They have produced a vibrant secular culture that is well adapted to contemporary lifestyles and has flourished with the help of 21st century information technology.
In mainstream religious America, Jews with their high degree of secularism can be viewed either as aberration and outlier or alternatively perhaps as the pioneers of a new secularization trend that has produced the recent population growth of the youthful “nones.” Secularism is not an organized movement among Jews. It is an organic, vibrant social and cultural phenomenon. While many Jews feared that they would assimilate and disappear into America, it is America that has adopted many aspects of Jewish culture. As Jewish secular institutions and productions are open to everybody and ever more accessible in the new media environment of the 21st century, the proliferation of a flourishing and diverse (secular) Jewish culture in the U.S seems assured.
The new study on the unique characteristics of modern Jews, “American Jewish Secularism: Jewish Life Beyond the Synagogue” is published in, American Jewish Year Book 2012, A. Dashefsky and I. Sheskin (eds.), Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, 2013.
“Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.