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The Rise Of The “Partially Jewish”

Survey shows more Jews have “unconventional identity configurations”

Irin Carmon
June 12, 2012
Photo of a "Jewish pupil" at a New York School, circa 1910. (Library of Congress Flickr)
Photo of a "Jewish pupil" at a New York School, circa 1910. (Library of Congress Flickr)

The big headlines from the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 are already about polarization — mostly between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews’ wildly diverging birthrates, level of Jewish participation, and income, but also in age, between the babies born to religious families and the growing elderly population. But that confirms already-apparent trends (many echoed in the only Jewish community that exceeds New York in size). There’s something else in the report that’s so far been mostly overlooked: What it says about shifting ways of identification among the intermarried and the multiracial.

The report, which results from 5,993 interviews, takes care to describe the New York Jewish population as it is and not how it’s commonly represented:

Reform congregants in Scarsdale, struggling single mothers in Queens, young adults on the Lower East Side, middle-class families in Staten Island, Russian speakers in Brighton Beach, Haredim in Borough Park, affluent businesspeople on the Upper East Side, isolated seniors in Suffolk, Modern Orthodox Jews in the Five Towns, Conservative congregants in Flushing, and biracial families in the Bronx. Secularists, Israelis, Syrian Jews, and others are all part of the mix, as are the vast numbers of poor people in Jewish households and the thousands of very affluent New Yorkers who are also part and parcel of the Jewish population in the area.

Lloyd Blankfein, you count too.

But seriously, here’s what caught my eye: The assertion that “rising numbers of people report unconventional identity configurations. They may consider themselves ‘partially Jewish’ or may identify as Jews even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002).” Such identification clearly corresponds to high rates of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews: 70 percent of the group that had a “both/and” style identification had a non-Jewish parent – or, the report adds, two of them.

That number should only rise, in light of the fact that half non-Orthodox couples that got married in the last five years were intermarried. Meanwhile, 87,000 households, or 12 percent of all New York Jewish homes, have biracial or non-white members, which the report contends “should serve as a reality check for those who are accustomed to thinking of all Jews as ‘white.’”

The elective flouting of the Jewish/non-Jewish binary isn’t on its own going to placate those worries about declining community and religious engagement, but it’s clearly not going anywhere.

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.