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How Boomers Ruined American Judaism

And whether the damage can be undone

Liel Leibovitz
November 21, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

With a couple of new books out, my colleagues at Tablet magazine and I are currently on book tours around the country. The indignities of domestic air travel aside, visiting communities nationwide is a pleasure, enough to convince even the most ardent New Yorker that Jewish life is as robust, creative, and brimming with potential in Detroit, Denver, and Houston as it is on the Upper West Side—and arguably more so.

But there is one thing we all keep hearing—wherever we go—that is not just depressing but downright infuriating. If you spend time with Jews of a certain much-talked-about generation, you’ll almost inevitably hear some variation on the following story:

Our son/daughter/children wants nothing to do with Judaism. He/she doesn’t go to shul, not even on the High Holidays, or maybe just on Yom Kippur, or maybe only when they visit. We didn’t mind so much when he was in his 20s, but now he’s older and he has a child of his own, and it’s just so important to us that our granddaughter/grandson/grandchildren be Jewish. Woe is me/us.

The first few times I heard this story, I replied with empathy and what I thought could be helpful advice. “If you’re the only lifeline to Judaism this child has, why not make a habit of telling her Bible stories,” I suggested, being myself a believer in the power of the tales that bound us all in a chain going strong for millennia. The minute I utter this sentence or one just like it, I can almost feel the air leaking out of the conversation. “Or maybe light Shabbat candles together?” I offer, trying to salvage the chat. “Like, once?” I get more desperate: “Before you go out for dinner?”

I am careful to make what seem like reasonable suggestions, requiring little investment of time or money and delivering an uncomplicated message of Jewish pride that is likely to take root in a young person’s heart. Time and again, my boomer interlocutors demurred.

“But don’t light candles,” one of them actually sniffed to a colleague. “I don’t do any of that stuff.

At this point, the boomers usually like to start telling their life stories. They were born on Long Island or in Shaker Heights or somewhere in the Fairfax District. They went to public schools that were thick with Jewish kids, and lived on blocks that boasted kosher delis and bagel bakeries aplenty. They played stickball and collected baseball cards and came back to homes that were often still kept by grandmothers and grandfathers who came from the Old Country and told stories of the vague dangers of yesteryear. None of these threats, though, were felt in America, and no effort was required to maintain what we sometimes so clunkily call a Jewish identity. Judaism, to so many boomers, happened almost by osmosis; it was simply something you were, not anything you did.

For the most part, these people joined shuls, attended infrequently, and dispatched their young ones to Hebrew schools run by well-meaning but not particularly competent educators. I know more than a dozen men and women my age who languished in the classrooms of Beth this or Bnei that and who cannot, after years of weekly attendance, utter one sentence in Hebrew or tell their Joseph from their Jehoshaphat. Their parents seem undisturbed by this absurd waste of dollars and years; to them, Hebrew school was an insurance policy, a service they purchased simply to make sure their kids “stayed in the fold.” This was a pathological impulse predicated mostly, if not entirely, on shame and guilt: Too often, the best reason these people could come up with to the timeless question of why anyone ought to be Jewish is that not to do so would be a shanda.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how toxic this particular emotional stance is, and how ruinous its effects on American Jewish life have been. Instead of giving their children the gift of being Jewish—without reservations, complications, hesitations, or calculations—or, alternatively, freeing them to become Americans who aren’t burdened by some pit in their stomach every time they go on a date or order at a restaurant, boomers put the onus entirely on their children, asking the younger generation to sacrifice so that their parents’ unexamined consciences could be clear.

Let me use a crass analogy that ought to resonate with an age group approaching or already solidly in retirement, borrowed from my friend Alana: We see Jewishness as $1 million in an escrow account; you can use all of it, some of it, you can use it now or later—the point is that it’s an inheritance that is there for you, to enrich your life. But the boomers taught their kids the exact opposite: that Jewishness, and Jewish life, was someone else’s bank account—one they were expected to make regular payments into, never themselves reaping any particular rewards.

Which is why it shouldn’t really be much of a surprise that Judaism is becoming just another dying American denomination, its buildings and services empty and its heart perpetually ambivalent. In its seminal 2013 survey of American Jews, the Pew Research Center measured what percentage of American Jews identified as such. The generation born in the late 1920s and early 1930s considered itself strongly Jewish, with 86% of Jews identifying as Jewish; the numbers were similar among their parents, the so-called Greatest Generation, and among their children, the boomers—among the latter, 81% identified as Jewish. This means that in the course of four or five decades that saw some of the greatest upheavals in American history—including the nation’s mass urbanization, the rise of both radio and television, and the Great Depression—American Jews were just as likely to consider themselves tethered to their religion, their tradition, and their community.

But then it all goes bad. Look at the boomers’ children, the generations born anytime from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and you’ll see a precipitous decline in Jewish affiliation: Among millennials, for example, the number plummets to 68%, which means that a full 32% of Jews of that younger generation identify as having no religion.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that they don’t see themselves as still somehow Jewish. But it does mean that the first thing that comes to mind when they’re asked about being Jewish isn’t a single positive note but a discordant jumble of sortas, kindas, and not reallys. Why? We learned it from watching you.

Look, I’m not without my sympathies here. The boomers I meet are, for the most part, lovely and well-meaning people. If they’ve sinned, it’s mainly by not taking the time to stop and think clearly about Jewish life, which is hardly the most malicious thing you can do, especially if the circumstances of your upbringing rarely required you to do anything of the sort. But as we’ve a real crisis on our hands, we should address it by looking at things soberly and without illusion, and admit that training your kids to replicate your own ambivalence and discomfort isn’t some laudable and ancient Jewish tradition; it’s a species of dysfunction that makes it that much less likely that anyone’s children would willingly and lovingly be Jewish.

What, then, is to be done? The answer is shockingly simple. If being Jewish makes you feel jittery rather than joyous, if your instinct is to seek out problems rather than pride, just leave. I mean this without an ounce of malice or bitterness: I consider being Jewish the greatest privilege, honor, and responsibility of my life, but I fully understand that many others may not feel the same way, and if they don’t, they should absolutely seek something else that makes them feel happy and fulfilled. They can turn to Buddhism, or volunteer in homeless shelters, or do whatever else feels purposeful. They should not hold on to anything, especially not a religious tradition, simply because they’re locked in some sort of bizarre conflict with their parents or grandparents who demand that they pledge allegiance to something that feels uncomfortable or worse.

But if people leave, you may ask, what of Jewish continuity? Here, too, the answer is not too complicated: If continuity is what you care about, then be happy and proudly Jewish—or at least try and learn how. Start by loving it yourself. Then jump into learning and doing more—of whatever. Do you enjoy cooking? Make something Jewish with your kids. Dig TV? There’s a glut of meaningful Jewish TV, much of it made in Israel, there for you to binge on.

And maybe even start studying something. Don’t worry—as too many educators these days do—that the ancient texts might offend modern sensibilities. First give kids a foundation, then let them form their own opinions. Before you teach them that Judaism is all about dissent—just look at the Talmud, one never-ending argument!—tell them that our father, Abraham, was the embodiment of faithful obedience, answering God’s call by saying hineni, here I am. Before you teach them that Judaism compels us to be kind to others, inform them that it insists first that we embrace our Jewish brothers and sisters. And, above all, resist the urge to relabel political sloganeering—about Israel, Palestine, immigration, health care, freedom, democracy, capitalism, socialism or anything else, on the left or the right—as Judaism in an attempt to “connect” with people who feel ambivalent or lost. Whatever the virtues of your politics, left or right, they have little to do with Judaism, even if they are preached by a person who calls themselves a rabbi or packaged neatly in a bunch of Hebrew words that sound profound. Judaism is far more intricate; it contains multitudes. We are each encouraged to examine each of of its values and practices, embrace some, reject others, and struggle to find our own personal way into the faith. But for our journey to be in any way meaningful, it has to start with simple love and unmitigated joy.

If American Jewish life is ever to rebound, then, the effort to inject it with new meaning and new energy must be intergenerational. It’s not, as demographers and philanthropists and other muckety-mucks often believe, just the young who are adrift; it’s the old, too—and, to quote my own children, they started it.

And so: OK, boomer. You want to make sure your grandchild identifies as Jewish just as you did and your parents before you? Work for it. Take the time to study something, anything—it can be a page of Talmud a week or the latest book from Etgar Keret. Reclaim a ritual: Havdalah if you’re spiritually minded, Friday night dinners if you’re just into some challah, wine, and good cheer. Whatever it is that you choose to do, do it with all your heart. It’s the least you could do.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.