The trajectory of American Jews, lessons from history

By Razib Khan | May 19, 2010 8:07 am

I notice that a peculiar piece of datum from First Things contributor David Goldman is being passed around, repeated by Ross Douthat no less. Goldman states:

Beinart offers a condescending glance at the “warmth” and “learning” of Orthodox Jews, but neglects to mention the most startling factoid in Jewish demographics: a third of Jews aged 18 to 34 self-identify as Orthodox. “Secular Jew” is not quite an oxymoron–the Jews are a nation as well as a religion–but in the United States, at least, secular Jews have a fertility barely above 1 and an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, which means their numbers will decline by 75 percent per generation. It is tragic that the Jewish people stand to lose such a large proportion of their numbers, but they are lost to Judaism in general, not only to Zionism. That puts a different light on the matter.

A reader of Goldman’s who happens not to be stupid and can actually read observes that 34% of Orthodox Jews are 18 to 24 according to the original source Goldman was citing. No surprise that Goldman makes such an error, he has a way with faux erudition which amazes the dull and dumb. In fact, the American Jewish Survey reports that 16% of Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 self-identify as Orthodox.

With that small error out of the way, in regards to the future of the American Jewry I think the story outlined in Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 may serve as a possible vision of the future. Elon notes that almost the whole of the German Jewish elite of the late 18th and early 19th century converted to Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn’s last Jewish descendant died before the 20th century; the rest of his descendants had become Christians. Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine were not atypical. But there was a large German Jewish community in the early 20th century, though even that was being eroded by intermarriage and conversion. If Elon is correct that the bulk of the 19th century Jewry became Christian, where did the Jews of the 20th century come from? It seems that as the German Jewish burghers abandoned the Reform temples for Lutheran churches, their spots were filled by assimilating Eastern European Jews who were immigrating into Germany and taking over the institutions which the earlier community had built. They were heirs in spirit, if not blood, to Moses Mendelssohn. In other words, a large bumper crop of Orthodox youth may be the salvation for the Reform and Conservative movements. There may be no third generation Reform, but not all third generations beyond Orthodoxy remain Orthodox either.


Comments (28)

  1. Intellectually… the trajectory of Sephardic Jews was powered not ballistic flight. Adding vowels to Hebrew was long overdue. Hungarian mathematiacins and scientists were legendary. Religiously… Judaism got ethics, Christianity got morals, Islam got obedience. Before choosing which side, ponder whether you want to choose any side.

    “Fundamentalist, Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Messianic, Lutheran” is an old joke.

  2. > their spots were filled by assimilating Eastern European Jews who were immigrating
    > into Germany and taking over the institutions which the earlier community had built.

    Happens again, as a law of return of sorts allows Russian & other Easterners with–often scant–German ancestry to emigrate to Germany, particularly when having–mostly even more scant–Jewish roots, too, as they are likely to have suffered discrimination. The latter influx mostly due to legislation enacted by former GDR government before dissolution, this to make up for GDR antisemitism; these regulations where adopted post-unification. This enlarged German Jewish community about 10fold post-unification, IIRC, with about 100.000 registered members of J. communities today. The newcomers are hardly Orthodox, though, and often lack halachic Jewishness, so many communities don’t accept them. A startling comeback, though. Related: 9.4% of the 2005 newborn in Germany come from Muslim families, estimates the federal stats office.

  3. > Islam got obedience … ponder whether you want to choose any side
    Served them terrifically for the last 600+ years downwards, up to the glories of Muslim world today. Ethics & morals seem to breed quite some number of Nobel prizes, patents, security, civic rights, supra-tribal and -familial solidarity ie. trust to strangers with ensuing fruitful low friction economic transactions, vibrant and potent intellectual life (lest the involved communities be vibrant, too), welfare state riches, and overall wealth for the taxed classes. Could be worse–I’ll ponder later, alligator. Come with uncle… um, Al …and hear all proper? …nah.
    <uncalledforsnark class=’off’ />

  4. dave chamberlin

    Thank you Razib for another fascinating historical perspective. It would be fun (for those of us of with an incurable cynical nature) if you could find the differences between fundamentalist Jews and agnostic Jews on something correlated to intellegence, like you did with the Cristians. Fun at the expense of the overly serious just never gets old.

  5. pconroy

    Another interesting example of population replacement.

    As long as there are enough Hasidim, there will be Jews, but the question is will the birth rate of the Hasidim drop? The older generation of Hasidim were exceptional fecund, just look at the case of Yitta Schwartz.

  6. You’d think that over time my hatred of Spengler would diminish. But you’d be wrong.

  7. pconroy, please don’t confuse chasidim with charedim. This is a common mistake. The charedim are the ultra-orthodox Jews. Chasidim are, roughly speaking, a subset of that population. The chasidicmovement was founded in the late 1700s. (I don’t know if anyone has checked to see if chasidim have a higher birth-rate than the general charedi population. I’d suspect that they don’t).

    Dave, that might be interesting but checking would be difficult. For one thing, the GSS data will fail at multiple levels in that even ultra-orthodox Jews don’t really literally interpret the Torah (some might say they do but when one describes what that means they generally realize they don’t do so. It might be accurate to ascribe literal interpretation of the Talmud to them but even then that’s not quite accurate). Also, a substantial fraction of the charedi Jews don’t speak English or speak it very poorly. They often grow up speaking Yiddish. So the wordum score won’t be as a useful reflection of intelligence since many people will be effectively non-native speakers.

  8. There’s a whole American “half-Jew” literature. This was also an issue for the Nazis, with the mischlings who were sort of probationary Aryans. Since I’m a racial and ethnic nominalist, there’s nothing strange about half-anything, except that creating a half-Jew category means you’re just complicating the pigeonholing system rather than going full-out nominalist.

    The actual functioning “caste system” of India, with the dozens or hundreds of sub-castes, has been explained as having been produced by a cascade of intermarriages, so that the four pure castes produce six mixed castes, totalling ten, and then these ten can intermarry to produce 45, and so on. This is probably not good history and may just be folk history or conjectural social science, but mixes are inevitable in any form of sexual reproduction.

  9. joshua, i’d be curious to look into it, but my understanding was that the hasidic proportion of the haredi is increasing. at least in the USA. aren’t the non-hasidic haredi more culturally continuous with modern orthodoxy?

  10. pconroy


    I wasn’t using the term Hasidim technically, but rather as a catchall for the extremely religious Jews with enormous families who subsist largely on welfare.

    In regards to not speaking English you are correct. When I was buying my house a couple of years ago, we looked at a few places owned by Hasidim, and in one place what looked like an 8 yo girl came to the door, and the broker asked her to get her mother, and she looked blankly at him, then he said, what sounded like, “Vis Mata”, and she ran and got her mother – so yea, they don’t speak English at all as kids.

  11. zach

    doesn’t cultural protectionism bother anybody else?

  12. diana

    Couple of points:

    1. In the modern world (Israel and US) Hasid and Haredi are interchangeable. WWII (and modernity) pretty much took care of the non-Hasidic Haredim. Unless anyone cares to tell me where there are pockets of non-Hasidic Haredim. Modern Orthos are not considered Haredim.

    2. Anyone’s guess as to what a fraction of those huge Hasidic families will fly off into, but I doubt it will be Reform/Conservative. It will be something different.

    3. Slightly off-topic because I realize the Beinert article really isn’t the point of this post but I can’t resist: he’s a twit and not one thing he says is original. I’ve been reading these “oy vei” articles for longer than I care to admit.

    “Young, secular Jews (as well as young Reform Jews, if you can find any) don’t care about Israel. They lack the impulses of their secular parents, who came from a religious world and still maintain Jewish loyalties.”

    Ahem, parents? Doesn’t he mean grandparents? Secular Am. Jews have kids late, but 20 year old’s parent’s, even if they are 60-ish, would not have been raised religiously.

    Also there’s a life cycle thing here. They are young and pretty spoiled and don’t know what dear old Aunty Semitism is. Let them go through 20 years of being blamed for every loser’s problem, being threatened with extermination (yep, it still goes on) and let’s see how they feel when they are, say, 40.

  13. liberal biorealist

    One crucial difference between the situation in Germany as you’ve described it and the situation in the US: there is no large pool of potential immigrant Jews who might replenish those “lost” in the US due to assimilation.

    If only 16% of Jews in the US even in the young ages of 18-34 identify as Orthodox Jews, and it is only Orthodox Jews who have a birthrate beyond that needed for replacement, then it will be a very long time indeed before they alone could effectively compensate for the number of Jews who are being assimilated or simply not replaced because of low fertility.

    Given the catastrophic reduction in numbers for Jews (or those of partly Jewish heritage) who self-identify as Jews, and Jews (or, again, those of partly Jewish heritage) who are much interested in traditional Jewish issues and culture, one can pretty well predict that, as an organized group (so far as they are organized), Jews will in the future have much smaller impact on American politics. Concretely, of course, the primary issue here is Israel and America’s support for it.

  14. diana

    ” and culture, one can pretty well predict that, as an organized group (so far as they are organized), Jews will in the future have much smaller impact on American politics. Concretely, of course, the primary issue here is Israel and America’s support for it.”

    Eh, Israel’s doing pretty good right now. It seems to have escaped the brunt of the worldwide recession, it’s cash-rich, Warren Buffett buys Israeli companies, and they were just invited to join some elite group of rich nations.

    Jewish demographics = Jewish decline = lessening of support for Israel. I don’t really buy this.

    Strikes me that if, somehow, the developed world finds a source of energy alternative to oil (a very big if, I concede, but a possibility), the Arab states will find themselves up the creek. What else do they have but oil?

    While I’m on the subject, I also take issue with Beinert’s bemoaning of the death of the wonderful, secular, left-wing Israel of his childhood and its replacement with an evil fundamentalist state.

    a) I’ve been reading this stuff for 30 years
    b) Israel was never as secular as the bemoaners moan
    c) It’s not as fundamentalist as they fear

  15. . In the modern world (Israel and US) Hasid and Haredi are interchangeable.

    if so why do they have two different parties in israel?

  16. diana

    “if so why do they have two different parties in israel?”

    Oh right, Shas & United Torah Judaism. (Although the latter has some Hasidic DNA in the form of Ger & Belz hasidism. As they say, “it’s complicated.”)

    OK, the perils of not qualifying one’s statements; I should have said “in the modern world, Ashkenazi haredim and hasidism are largely interchangeable. ”

    I was thinking of the pre-war Ashkenazi world, where ultra-Orthodoxy was decidedly not Hasidic, and the ultras were both demographically and intellectually dominant. It’s quite the opposite now.

    Unless anyone can point out surviving pockets of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy, like surviving Neandertal pockets. 🙂 Are they there?

  17. “Unless anyone cares to tell me where there are pockets of non-Hasidic Haredim.”

    Here are two (there are others):,_New_Jersey,_New_York

    BTW Here’s an Israeli reaction to the Beinart article:

    “Israelis who read the foreign press often have a surreal feeling: the reports purport to be about us, but there’s nothing in them that seems even remotely familiar.”

  18. Diana’s last comment was posted while I was composing mine. I think the parties Razib is referring to are

    Not Shas and UTJ.

  19. I think the parties Razib is referring to are


  20. diana

    OK. I was going to add that Shas is really more a cultural statement than a true haredi party but it’s moot.

    Yeah, I know about Monsey and Lakewood but (esp. the latter) they are nothing compared to the burgeoning ranks of the Williamsburg-Kiryas Joel Bermuda Triangle. Sure, there are pockets of non-hasidic Haredim, point taken, but c’mon – they are no longer the force they were pre-WWII. In the modern world haredim is essentially co-terminous with hasidic. Qualifications always apply but pockets don’t make a mainstream.


    Thanks so much for the link to the post/article about Boaz Neumann. Two others who went thru the same evolution would be Benny Morris and Barry Rubin. Did you know that Rubin used to be a big campus supporter of the PLO, back when Arafat was cool?

    Perhaps these are just individual examples but I prefer to think of it in terms of the life-cycle theory. It doesn’t work for everyone but most people do wise up, to a degree at least.

  21. diana

    Since this post is based on an article by Peter Beinart, I don’t think it’s off topic to say that we shouldn’t take much of anything he says seriously.

    “Which was that Australia seems to me like the world that Francis Fukuyama envisaged after the End of History: a little bit boring because there were no problems.”

    A guy who says something like that is totally dense.


  22. Eric Johnson

    What is dense, that idea that Australia has no problems, or the idea that some degree of struggle is part of the good life? The latter is a pretty venerable hypothesis; it might in fact be dense, but that is far from obvious or agreed-upon.

  23. diana

    “What is dense, that idea that Australia has no problems, or the idea that some degree of struggle is part of the good life?”

    That Australia has no problems.


    How big are those two parties?

  24. ben

    Diana is wrong. Hasidim are just a subgroup of haredim and a minority among them. The biggest group of the “mitnagdim” or lithuanians who used to hate hasidim. Their leader is the rav Eliashiv. And of course there are now the sefaradim.

  25. diana

    ok I stand corrected. I really did not know there were so many non-hassidic ultra-o’s still in existence. can you tell me what the numbers are, roughly?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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