Being Jewish in America today has less to do with religious belief and more to do with cultural attitudes like “having a good sense of humor,” according to a major survey released today by the Pew Research Center.
Religion surveys are a dime a dozen these days, but this one deserves some attention because the unusually larger number of people surveyed—75,000 Americans—allows us to take a deeper look at what people mean when they say they are “Jewish.”
The survey’s findings also confirm a larger trend showing a steady rise in the overall number of Americans who reply “none” when asked their religion, including growing numbers who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
Since the late 1950s, the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half. They now comprise less than two percent of the population.
But telephone pollsters with Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project asked a series of follow-up questions to find more people with some kind of Jewish connection. Three groups other than “Jews by religion” were identified:
- Jews of no religion
- People of Jewish background
- People with a Jewish affinity
That last group includes people who had no Jewish parents and were not “Jewish by religion” but who nevertheless answered “yes” when asked, “Do you consider yourself to be Jewish or partially Jewish?”
Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project, said these people include a surprisingly large number of Christians who said they felt partially Jewish because Jesus was a Jew.
But the only people considered “Jewish” in the Pew survey were those who said they were “Jews by religion” or “Jews of no religion.” Based on these results we can estimate that there are 5.3 million Jews in America.
But there are another 2.4 million “people of Jewish background,” plus an additional 1.2 million “people with a Jewish affinity.”
Cooperman gave a preview of the findings at the annual convention of the Religion Newswriters Association, which met over the weekend in Austin, Texas.
Sitting there listening to Cooperman, I started thinking about how “Jewish” I am.
My mother was born Jewish, but she had no religious upbringing whatsoever. I was baptized as a baby into the Presbyterian Church and went to church until I was twelve. But if I had to pick a religion these days I would have to place myself somewhere in the Buddhist/Taoist neighborhood.
When I was working as a religion reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, people I would interview—especially evangelical Christian people—would sometimes ask me about my religion.
“It’s complicated,” was one of my answers. “I guess you could call me a Jewish Presbyterian Taoist.”
That usually shocked or confused them enough to stop asking me questions.
Listening to Cooperman, I wondered aloud, “Am I a Jew?”
“Don, you’re a Jew,” said Laurie Goldstein, the religion writer for the New York Times, who was sitting next to me that morning.
According to Orthodox Jews, I am automatically Jewish because my mother was Jewish. According to Cooperman, however, I do not fall into the “Net Jewish” category. I’m standing somewhere on the sidelines with people of Jewish background and Jewish affinity, both of which I would claim.
Jews in the survey were asked “What does it mean to be Jewish?” More than twice as many respondents (42 percent) thought being Jewish was more about “having a good sense of humor” than it was about “observing Jewish law” (19 percent.)
According to American Jews, the leading Jewish indicators are remembering the Holocaust (73 percent), leading an ethical/moral life (69 percent), and working for justice/equality (56 percent).
So my question for you is, “How Jewish are you?”
Don Lattin may or may not be Jewish, but his book, Distilled Spirits—Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk, was named the nonfiction “Religion Book of Year” at the Saturday night awards ceremony at the Religion Newswriters Association meeting in Austin.