The new American Jewish secularism

Halloween was originally a Christian holiday, All Hallows’ Eve. Purim, the raucous Jewish feast that we celebrate this week [Feb. … Continued

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.

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  • WmarkW

    Among large populations, there’s an almost-perfect inverse correlation between religious belief and education, with Jews and African-Americans at opposite ends of the spectrum. A couple of decades ago, the most educated Christian denomination was Episcopalians, and their ranks fell by two-thirds when many of them could no longer accept religious dogmas.

    Much of Jewish religious practice, dates to ancient times when Jews were a highly distinctive people, living surrounded by great empires whose values included fertility cults and gladiator duels for public spectacle. Today’s Jews, live around neighbors practicing a minor variation of their faith. Being a Jew today, does not make one’s value system distinctive in society.

  • Ocosingo

    Good points, all. It’s important also to point out, however, that there are huge numbers of Jews who are deepening their traditional Judaism – more people are studying Talmud today than at any other time in history. Lots of people keep kosher and Shabbat, too. I think both trends are useful and productive for Jews in general – unfortunately there are many on both sides who condemn the other side – typically confrontive – I say get over it and L’Chaim!

  • xexon

    It’s not new. In fact, it’s been around for decades. The zionist movement that Theo Herzl started some 100 years ago gutted Judaism of God and replaced it with secular nationalism.

    Judaism as a spiritual path has been in a state of decay ever since.

    American secular Jews became that way because the religion proved to be more trouble than it was worth in the modern day and time. So they’re now adrift. Cut off from their spiritual roots, but still afloat on a boat with a Jewish flag.

    Israel isn’t such an attractive place to land. Too many guns and violence and outright racism towards Arabs. So they sail on. American is about as good as it gets for a Jew in the world today.

    Had Jews discovered America, history would have no doubt been written on a different level. But in the past couple of centuries, the Jewish contribution to making America great has been staggering.

    Nothing to be ashamed of. But if American Jews get involved with radical Judaism, either the religious or secular groups working inside Israel, you bring trouble upon all American Jews for what you do.

    Please remember this.

    Your roots are not secular. You may be, but not your beginnings. It gave you an identity that is now evolving into something else.

    It is the high path “spirtually” to leave religious belief behind. It is the low path to replace it with something worldly.


  • northernharrier

    Agreed, in that many of us reject both theism and Zionism, but we still treasure our Jewish identity as we try to assimilate in our daily life, at the same time. I feel more Jewish personally every time one of my colleagues at work or a columnist at the Washington Post spews bigoted anti-Jewish hate or willful ignorance regarding Jewish people and Judaism.

  • Shteln

    Not a mention, though, of a major shift in Jewish progressive thought: challenging the ethics and need for Bris Milah. American society at large is rapidly abandoning this cruel practice- though practiced without a religion reasoning- and American Jews have been championing the rights of boy children right from the beginning of the national movement. This religious ritual directly harms almost all male Jews directly and female partners indrecttly. The abandoning of genitla cutting to an age when the person involved can make an informed, adult decision is a major and positive development in Jewish experience. For that- l’chaim!

  • efavorite

    What happens to all the Rabbis? Looks like they will be out of work.

  • Astorix

    The world is secularizing. People hang onto culture when they feel it slipping away, but assimilation is inevitable. Even the Christian Right are losing their young people. Assimilation is not always a bad thing. It allows bad ideas and superstitions to fade away and it allows good ideas to become part of the culture.

    We’re still Americans first and foremost. Watching young people embrace change and accept others of different ethnic groups and cultures with no problems is admirable and leads to inclusion and a letter sense of belonging.

    My family has been secular for generations. It’s good to see the company growing, not shrinking. As others accept others we should accept others

  • Astorix

    As others accept us, we should accept others.

  • Astorix

    Idiots come in all stripes. Others get it too. Every time somebody blanketly demonizes an entire group, black people, Muslims, poor people, women, atheists, the French (and overseas it’s Those Yanks) imagine them wearing a hat that’s two sizes too small. Brain squeeze.