SPECIAL REPORT

Are Jews vanishing?

Assimilation worries a close-knit community

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER June 9 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

Are Jews vanishing?

Assimilation worries a close-knit community

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER June 9 1997

Are Jews vanishing?

Assimilation worries a close-knit community

Perry Nodelman finds it amusing when people just assume he is Jewish. “I’m a third generation non-practising Jew,” says Nodelman, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Winnipeg. “I happily accept my Jewish ethnicity but it’s a culture of my ancestors.” Nodelman—whose wife and three children are Anglican— is surprised at how often strangers invite him to participate in Jewish events. “The community keeps trying to claim me,” he says. “I get phone calls asking me to contribute to the United Jewish Appeal and when I ask, Why did you call me?’ they say, ‘Oh, your name sounds Jewish.’ ” Nodelman is one of thousands of Canadians whose only link to their Jewish heritage is their name. And, in recent years, their numbers have increased so dramatically that some observers predict North American Jewry could virtually disappear within a few generations. More and more often, says Emil Sher, a Toronto writer and committed Jew, “we hear that we are effectively giving Hitler what he wanted.”

This perceived threat looms, paradoxically, at a time when Jewish life is experiencing a renaissance. The wave of spirituality flowing through North American culture is drawing many Jews back to Judaism. “Hiere is a resurgence at the grassroots level,” says Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, who embraced orthodoxy six years ago.

“If I look at my friends,” says the Israeli-born Jacobovici, “many who grew up eating bacon burgers are now eating kosher.”

Others—freed of the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Canada as late as the 1950s—are reclaiming their cultural, if not their religious, heritage. “Canadian Jews now hold positions in government, business and the academic world that our parents could only dream of,” says Irving Abella, a historian and past-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, noting that, with a population of roughly 370,000, Canada’s Jewish community is the fastest-growing in the world outside Israel. “There is no area of Jewish life that isn’t thriving,” adds Abella. “Yet we worry—and the worry is for our children. Will they remain Jewish?”

The statistics are not encouraging. In a provocative new book, The Vanishing American Jew, Alan Dershowitz—a prominent American lawyer who helped defend O. J. Simpson—laments that more than half of American Jews, who already have a low birth rate, marry outside their faith and that few of those couples raise their children as Jews. Dershowitz told Maclean’s he believes that Canada—with a somewhat lower intermarriage rate of 30 per cent—may be able to anticipate and, perhaps, avoid the problem. But James Prosnit, a Bridgeport, Conn., rabbi who served in Toronto in the 1980s, believes that Canadian Jews are “just a generation behind the assimilating trend in America.” What can be done? “I don’t want to tell anyone who to marry,” says Dershowitz, whose son married an Irish Catholic. Rather, he challenges Jews to attract younger generations with a more “positive Judaism” and to abandon their “anachronistic status as victims.” In fact, the changing global political climate since the end of the Cold War—including free emigration for Russian Jews and relative

peace in Israel—is already forcing many Jews to reassess attitudes formed over centuries of persecution. “If you’ve been defining yourself in terms of hostile forces,” notes Jacobovici, “you have a problem because there are no more demonstrations to go to.”

Some are turning, instead, to the spirituality of Judaism—but not necessarily in traditional synagogues. “The future is in connecting with the origin of the religion,” says Winnipeg’s Anya Makow, the 44-year-old daughter of Holocaust survivors who first turned to Judaism in her 30s. But Makow, a Jewish community worker, observes some laws and ancient rituals privately, explaining: “The traditional synagogues—like many traditional churches—don’t really speak to my generation.”

Others want to establish their Jewish roots, unhampered even by ritual. In a scenario that is playing _ out in an increasing number of I Canadian communities, writer Sher I and a dozen Jewish neighbors— I many of them married to gentiles— g began last year to gather informally £5 to observe Jewish holidays. “There ° is an emphasis on the secular,” explains Sher. “When you talk about things religious, people’s ears clamp up.” The group appears to be striking a chord—nearly 300 people attended a high holiday service held in a local church sanctuary last year. But religious Jews fear that the “warm, fuzzy Jewish feeling” that Sher and others are seeking may not prevent the slide into assimilation. “Judaism is not ethnic culturalism,” argues Jacobovici. “It can’t be, ‘I like chicken soup and that makes me Jewish.’ ”

Yet for all the concern, many Jewish leaders believe their ancient faith will outlive the worriers. “The danger of assimilation is serious and probably will claim a portion of our people,” admits Toronto Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a widely respected past-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “But we will not disappear. We may be fewer for a while, but we may also become more committed—everything that is a blessing also has its dangers.”

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER