Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Gone with the Wind
Last uploaded : Wednesday 2nd Apr 2003 at 02:12
Contributed by : The Editor



Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Israel, has made a remarkable observation in an interview with today?s Jerusalem Post English language radio programme. He has remarked on the extraordinary statistic that in the fifty-six years since the end of World War II, the Jewish population of the United States has remained static at six million, but had intermarriage not overtaken that community there would now be thirty-six million Jews in the United States.

It is a sobering thought, and, in Rabbi Lau?s words, a community ?gone with the wind.? No-one can dispute the uncomfortable figures that confirm the intermarriage rate at 53%. No-one can dispute the low birth rate Rabbi Lau laments.

What I find troubling about the frequent discussion of American Jewry is the fact that intermarriage seems to be the only facet of North American Jewry that causes non-Americans such angst.

Here are some statistics that thrill me:

1. Virtually every Broadway composer and lyricist since Jerome Kern in the 1920s has been Jewish.
2. Virtually every North American (and in ?North American? I include Canadian) symphony orchestra and opera company has been encouraged by the Jewish community. The poor Jews spent their last penny attending performances and the wealthier ones have helped keep these cultural institutions going.
3.Some of the greatest literature, plays, art and of course movies have come from the Jewish community of North America, as well as the astonishing list of entertainers and virtuosi, from Sophie Tucker to Barbra Streisand to Leonard Bernstein.
4.Nowhere in the world have Jews enjoyed so hopeful a life -- notwithstanding anti-Semitism that still exists in pockets of North America -- than in the United States. I know. I grew up in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Nation in which Haym Solomon financed the 1776 Revolution and Rebecca Gratz established the outstanding Colonial educational tradition that continues today in my native town.

What is my point? I do not disagree that intermarriage is seriously jeopardising Jewish continuity. I do know that had I had children with a non-Jewish husband I would have risked his leaving me rather than raise my children as anything but Jewish. I would also like to point out that every family I have met in my life whose children have left the fold has been Orthodox. Why is this? I have no answer. (Your letters would be welcome.) One family I know, whose children were taken to Orthodox cheder and shul from early childhood, has seen all three children marry out and the grandchildren raised as Christians. My Liberal and Reform friends, some of whom are in mixed marriages, are raising their children as Jews. 100% of them. Their children, some of whom have names like Jones, Pierce and Milligan love Jewish youth groups and they all want to live in Israel.

There is another factor here that has caused me much grief and abuse since living in Britain, where 70% of Jews are Orthodox. The American Reform movement, in which I grew up, made Judaism a joy and a religion to which I, an educated and enlightened woman, will adhere throughout my lifetime. How can one explain to Orthodox people who have never been inside a Reform or Liberal shul, or listened to a brilliant lecture by one of our awesomely educated Rabbonim (Jackie Tabick and John Rayner come to mind) understand the magic of Reform Judaism? On many occasions through the years I have been browbeaten by Orthodox Anglo-Jews who accuse the American Reform movement of causing the rise in intermarriage. Do people think that when we go to a Reform shul for Shabbat services we meet and marry non-Jews? We meet other Jews! When Progressive shuls have singles nights, the invitees are Jewish. 100%. All.

What I believe has caused the rise in intermarriage is, to quote Dennis Prager, ?the goyim are nice.? Unless one has grown up in the United States or Canada, it is impossible to explain to a non-American the warmth that can exist, in the most favourable conditions, between ethnic and religious groups in the United States. There is the intriguing fact that Church and State are separated in the United States but religious life is a passion in that country. Here in Great Britain, the Anglican Church is in a crisis as attendance reaches an all-time low, and British synagogue attendance is a worry as well. Church and synagogue, however, mean everything to American Jews and Christians.

Had the American Jewish community not been so well-organised Israel might not have the support it gets from the super-efficient organisations that support the Jewish State. Lest we forget that 85% of North American Jewry is Reform and Conservative, the two groups comprising the Progressive Movement. Although I would not wish to dispute Rabbi Lau?s figures, it is possible that many American Jews are secular and have slipped through the market research statistics. I may be wrong.

What conclusions can we make from the strands I have assembled here? It saddens me that Jews are not marrying Jews in high percentages in North America. But the quality of life and the dignity that Jews experience there are unmatched anywhere except, of course, in Israel, and though I agree with Rabbi Lau that a population rise would have been a blessing, the impact of North American Jewry on world culture is a source of immense and enduring pride to me.

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