The Editor’s Corner

Gene Lichtenstein

Gene Lichtenstein is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal


Reading about the Federation-sponsored 1997 Jewish Population Survey in last week’s Journal, I realized once again just how much charts and graphs and statistical surveys resemble novels. The numbers, like snapshots, sit there on the printed page, waiting for us to weave together a story. What they mean depends on your point of view, your bias.

So, forewarned, let me offer you my point of view, my bias.

I think the Jewish population shifts generally match the demographic shifts and profiles of non-Jews in the middle and upper-middle classes. Just like everyone else who is white and middle-class, Jews are free to move anywhere in the city and county, and do.

Not surprisingly, many have opted for areas where the air is clearer and cooler (near the coast); or where the enclaves are beautiful and pricey and spacious (parts of the Westside); or where schools are supposed to be better, where crime is low, where there is more available land and house for the money. Hence, the move to less populated areas of the Valley.

Single Jews — especially single Jewish women — appear to be moving where other singles live: Marina del Rey, Manhattan Beach, the South Bay area. These tend to be communities where there are lively single bars, restaurants, a handkerchief-sized urban strip (not unlike a college town), and weekends to join or watch a pick-up volleyball game on the beach. All stride for stride with non-Jews.

So, too, with the increase in religious participation. We are told that Jewish religious affiliation in Southern California is rising — just like the movement among those non-Jews who are seeking out churches and a religious connection. Why? A yearning for meaning? A desire for something in addition to consumerism and career? Or is it that the stable institutions of one’s real, or imagined, childhood are disappearing? (Divorced parents, changing gender roles, a new city, a vague yearning for something called spirituality, something to replace volleyball and the single life, or simply a desire to give one’s children some kind of imagined stability — take your pick.)

And then there are our education and income stats: There is a significant percentage of Jewish doctors, lawyers and college professors; of Jewish economic, business and professional success stories; of Jewish urban leaders. What are we to make of those numbers? America is the Promised Land? A nation of opportunity, without barriers, for our children?

So far, it’s nothing that most of us do not already know…without the statistics and the survey. It suggests to me what I already believe: That Jews are integrated into America and, in many statistical ways, are not different from the broader American population. Despite our modest population size, we are no longer a minority. We share with non-Jews the same issues, concerns, desires; we are part of the same nation, inhabit the same space.

Of course, we are the protagonists of this particular survey. (It is, after all, not about America or Southern California, no matter the similarities.) And so the missing ingredient, our part, being Jewish, comes into play. While we are coming to resemble the wider society, Jewishness is what differentiates us from the rest of America, even though we are often at the head of society’s parade, defining the trends, shaping the direction and articulating what it all means.

For those 4.3 percent of us who are Orthodox, the Jewish identity is the rounded world in which we live. Family, friends, neighborhood, traditions, they are all Jewish. It is the fixed, defining point of life…even though home may be in Hancock Park, the profession in law, and the children at Yale or Harvard.

The same is perhaps true for a good percentage of us who are religious Jews, be it under the banner of Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionism. Or for ardent organizational Jews, running the Jewish Federation, the ADL, JNF, Israel Bonds. But the rest of us, the majority, find ourselves at a fork in the road: Choosing to be actively Jewish or choosing to take a giant step into America? Which shall it be? Or can it be both?

That, of course, is where synagogues and Jewish study groups, the Jewish Federation and the Wexner Foundation, Jewish education and Jewish culture all come to the fore. They provide some of the specifics that pull us toward our past and our future. These are programs and support systems that, in a real sense, are feeling their way. And, in the process, are redefining (sometimes to their surprise) once again the meaning of Jewish identity for our pluralistic American Jewish tribe.

It is a form of discovery, perhaps self-discovery, and it is not without tension. Since we are replicating national and regional patterns, are we American and Jewish, or Jewish and American? I know that many of our community leaders decry this adaptive turn, complete with its accompanying friction. The fear is that we might let slip (whether via intermarriage or indifference or just plain ignorance) our connections to this force we call “Jewish identity.”

My bias (and my history) leads me to see possibility everywhere. It defines my point of view; it leads me to seek experience; it shapes the way I read Saul Bellow and other novelists. If I’m going to be a character in this future and ongoing Jewish American novel, I want conflict, tension, choices: Presumably, at times, I will make the right choice. But, of course, in this novel of our construction, there undoubtedly will be wrong turns in the road. Just like life in America. — Gene Lichtenstein