The excellent PBS documentary from 2008, The Jewish Americans, is an in-depth account of three hundred years of American Jews. I have no idea why it took me 14 years to watch it!
The mix of presenters includes public figures, entertainers, and professional historians. No matter how much you know already, you’ll learn something from it. Although I could write 10,000 words about the film, I will refrain from doing so and will limit myself to a few eclectic comments; you can borrow the two-DVD album from your local library and watch it yourself.
You may be wondering about the title of this post. Although the show is nominally about “Jewish Americans,” many MOTs prefer “American Jews.” (We’ll come back to the initialism MOT in the next paragraph.) Does it matter? Well, I never gave any thought to the question until one day in the 2010s when one of my students happened to say that she should be called “American-born Chinese” or ABC, not “Chinese-American.” She is an American citizen, born in Massachusetts, with immigrant parents. We had a good convo about the pros and cons, so it got me wondering about other ethnicities. Am I an American Jew or a Jewish American? Does it matter?
The next year I had a related but different experience at Weston, when I was waiting in the hall with several high-school juniors outside our classroom door, as another class in the same room was not quite finished. One girl said something Jewish-related to me (I no longer remember what), and her friend said to her, sotto voce and glancing at me, “MOT?” The first student and I both simultaneously said yes. Both of these students are Jewish, and the implication is that a gentile would not know what MOT stands for. (If you’re in that category, it stands for “member of the tribe,” i.e. a Jew.) So my nationality is American and my tribe is Jewish, and what does that make me?
I also recall an awkward discussion with a Jewish colleague who had been offended when a gentile colleague referred to “Jewish culture” instead of “Jewish religion,” which is what she considered correct. I remained polite and pointed out that there are many different takes on what Judaism is: it can be a religion for some, a culture for others, a tribe or collection of ethnicities for a third group. I certainly grew up culturally Jewish but not religiously so; I didn’t have a bar mitzvah nor did I go to synagogue.
All of these issues are discussed well in the PBS documentary.
There’s also a good discussion of different subgroups of American Jews. I had learned a lot about that from my maternal grandmother, who talked with me in detail about the snobby German Jews who looked down on the down-to-earth Eastern European Jews, or Litvaks as she (and others) called them. She, of course, was a Litvak, so I didn’t get a very objective view of the German Jews, who are covered well in the documentary.
Orthogonal to the ethnic divisions are the denominational divisions. For some reason many gentiles seem to think that most American Jews are orthodox and keep kosher, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Take a look at the Pew Research data, which show that only 9% of American Jews are orthodox. The largest denomination is Reform. (I don’t know where Reconstructionists fit in; perhaps they’re included in “no particular branch” or else are lumped in with Reform.)
Finally, speaking of reminiscences, I have to recall my first week at Phillips Academy, when my schedule was being tinkered with for an interesting reason. (Bear with me for a minute; this has nothing to do with the PBS documentary but is still relevant.) The trouble was that two classmates and I couldn’t fit into Greek 2, where we were supposed to be, as the Powers That Be had unaccountably scheduled the single section of Greek 2 to meet at the same time as the single section of Honors Geometry. The other six students in Greek 2 had no conflict. The solution, which took a couple of days to work out, was to create a second section of Greek 2—so one section ended up with three students and the other with six! Only a private school would do such a thing. The side effect, as typically happens with schedule changes, was that I had to switch English sections, so I needed to meet with my new English teacher to find out what I had missed in his class the first day. One of their activities was that I was supposed to list as many words or phrases as I could think of that would complete the sentence “I am a(n) ___________________.” After I tried a few completions, I was astonished to find out from the teacher that he expected at least fifty. I had been paralyzed at whether I should include “Jewish” as one of my choices; this was Phillips Academy, after all.
Finally, let me conclude with a few remarks about a fascinating article in the New York Times from 2013 concerning a Pew poll (slightly earlier than the one cited above) of the 2.2% of American Jews. Here is a brief excerpt:
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, found that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
So there we are. I still don’t know whether we are Jewish Americans or American Jews.