- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a "Jewish Continuity Crisis"
This superb essay offers arguments that are at once personal and profoundly political, persuasive, and intensely courageous. It asserts in no uncertain terms how misguided it is to position one man accused of sexual harassment outside the framework of specific historical processes. To neglect those processes, the authors contend, is to opt to ignore the "patriarchal and misogynistic structures" under whose auspices such behavior occurred in the first place. The actions of sociologist Steven M. Cohen, they assert, can be understood most fully only when they are set in the context of a half-century of social-scientific ponderings about "a Jewish continuity paradigm."
The authors map the innumerable ways in which Jewish (male) "expert" commentary has "treated [Jewish] women and their bodies as data points." They chart the vastness of a social scientific project that has been dedicated to the foregrounding of the fragility of the Jewish family. They prove that this project has presented as descriptive what has always been almost entirely prescriptive.
What follows are preliminary reflections on what the authors themselves request, namely, that their essay be read as "a starting point for future analyses of the construction of a narrative that acquired significant rhetorical, financial, religious, social, and political power in American Jewish communal life." (Parenthetically: Everyone I cite in these reflections is Jewish. Whether they live at the "periphery" or the "core" of American Jewishness, or whether this matters in the slightest, I leave for each reader to decide for herself.) [End Page 229]
Should not the key phrase—"Jewish continuity crisis"—consistently be set inside scare quotes? I believe that it should. The essay makes abundantly evident that a "Jewish continuity crisis" has always been a fiction, an invention meant to ensure the populace toes a pronatalist party line. "Experts" in the 1970s produced their own phantasmagorical reality; the data they amassed in their countless surveys of American Jewish communal life were, as we say these days, weaponized from the jump.
What would it have meant if the authors had acknowledged the swift rise of the Haredim? How are the ultra-Orthodox—in New York, Jerusalem, and many places besides—altering the very content of what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century? This growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox undoubtedly has had serious communal and political implications. Indeed, one thing is already certain. If a "Jewish continuity crisis" is code for intermarriage and/or low child-bearing rates, the Haredim have turned this "crisis" on its head. Such concerns have virtually no traction whatsoever in the Haredi community. In that sense, their Jewish "continuity"—and ours?—is assured.
The essay speaks early and often of a "Jewish future." A typical example: "Instead of interpreting the midcentury indicators of increased Jewish exogamy as a sign of Jews' successful integration, however, Jewish communal leaders and social researchers responded with rising alarm, worried that these patterns foretold an enfeebled Jewish future." At the same time, there are recurrent references to communal leaders' "anxieties" at what a "Jewish future" might look like, given the existential threats that intermarriage and low birthrates are said to pose to the Jewish community.
"Anxiety," however, does not sound quite right. To state that Jewish social scientists and communal leaders were "anxious" means we take them at their own word. Is that advisable? What, then, to make of Jewish men who harped on the fact that they were feeling such "anxiety" as they documented the low birthrates of (more independent-minded) Jewish women? This was a post-Betty Friedan moment. Should we not historicize this notion of Jewish (male) "anxiety"? What ideological work might such a concept have been doing in that historical context? [End Page 230]
"Will men ever see women as full-fledged human beings rather than ego salves and receptacles?" Laura Kipnis inquires.1 Good question. Let us not underestimate (while guarding against anachronism) the degrading power that a toxic masculinity might have played in these historical developments.
There's more that could be said about masculinity, especially at precisely the historical moment when a...