Fewer Jews in Congress? Why?

Journalist Nathan Guttman of The Forward has written an interesting article pointing to the declining number of Jews in the House and Senate. Guttman notes:

The massive overrepresentation of Jews on Capitol Hill, long a source of pride for the community, has been shrinking in recent years and could drop in the coming election cycle from 41 to the mid 30s, a level last seen 15 years ago.

The catalyst for the piece was the departure of Anthony Weiner (and let me say that my fellow Brainstormer, Professor Gina Barreca’s quip that one didn’t see the congressman twittering images of his jewels to Justice Sotomayor and Secretary of State Clinton was, hands down, the funniest thing said this year by the fun bunch that the CHE has gathered together here). Whether Weiner’s resignation calls attention to a trend, or an inconsequential blip is the question that the article explores.

I was quoted in the piece by Mr. Guttman and haven’t stopped thinking about our discussion since. A few additional thoughts on the possible significance of the phenomenon noted in the article:

The Drawing Down of Secular Judaism’s Golden Age: There was a period stretching from roughly the 1940s to the 1990s of staggering, unprecedented Jewish achievement in the American public and private sector.

In my own writing I have referred to this half century as the era of “secular Yiddishkeit.” It was the moment when the children of immigrant Jews of Eastern and Central European appeared to take over the world. They excelled in art, science, politics, journalism, academe, etc., and they did so in numbers completely out of proportion to their actual size.

Of late, Jewish population growth has stagnated somewhat. The great generation of secular liberal Jews is graying. This may be one reason why we are witnessing a substantial, though not necessarily alarming, decrease in Jewish representation in many fields.

I, for one, have noticed far fewer Jewish grad students in the humanities coming down the pike. One way to look at this is that Jews are simply regressing to the norm after an almost aberrational 50-year run.

The Energy of Orthodoxy: As goes the world, so goes Judaism. The passion and energy (and demographic upticks) in American Judaism today are to be located among the orthodox and the ultra-orthodox. These groups have not yet shown great interest in public service as a vocation. This may have to do with a cultural ethos which is less inclined to “universalism” and more group centered.

All of this may change, but as secular Judaism recedes in numbers, one consequence might be a decline in the number of Jewish politicians.

Who is a Jew?: One question that is left unaddressed in these discussions is the question of persons who are not Jewish according to Halakah, or normative Jewish law. I do not know what the number of Jewish congresspersons would be if we counted representatives who are the offspring of mixed marriages.

Yet as Jewish-identified children of intermarrieds start to “build out” in the coming decades one very interesting (and likely to be divisive) question will concern their status as Jews.

Will a Jewish child of a mixed marriage raised in the Reform Jewish tradition be reckoned as a Jew by other Jews? I certainly hope so; such individuals are the future of secular Judaism in America. And they are, of course, Jews.


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