Pew Has The Score: Red Sox Pitcher Is No Koufax
Tue, 11/12/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Steven Bayme
Steven Bayme

I am anything but objective when it comes to Red Sox baseball. A long-suffering fan since the days of Ted Williams, I rejoiced in the 2004 miracle comeback, the 2007 Series sweep, and, now, the thrilling 2013 turnaround.

Notwithstanding these unapologetic biases, however, I believe this most recent Rex Sox triumph holds profound implications for American Jewry, especially in light of the widely-cited Pew portrait of the Jewish community. The reason is Craig Breslow, star reliever whose pitching heroics were critical to the team’s success throughout the season and the post-season playoffs.

Breslow is certainly wealthier than most, but otherwise he resembles closely the Jews portrayed in the Pew study. He attended Hebrew school, even taking courses in Yiddish and Jewish comedy. A Jewish mother’s dream, he attended Yale, majored in biochemistry, and was admitted to NYU Medical College.

Moreover, Breslow is candidly ambivalent about expectations for his personal Jewish future. He prefers not to play on Yom Kippur, a la Sandy Koufax, but confesses he has done so. Breslow recently married. I do not know whether his bride is Jewish. In an interview in American Jews and America’s Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), he noted that he hoped to marry a Jewish woman and raise Jewish children but acknowledged that he is as likely to marry out. If he is unable to raise children as Jews, however, he prefers to raise them without religious identification — what Pew refers to as “nones.” In the interview, he noted, “The more generations you go back, the more stringent the religion appears.”

This ambivalence is reflective of the larger American Jewish narrative. For Sandy Koufax, hero to so many Jews of my generation, playing professional baseball on Yom Kippur, even in a World Series game, was simply non-negotiable. For the latter-day Craig Breslow, it is a painful but, in his view, necessary reality. Other professional Jewish athletes largely agree.

But an even more important barometer of American Jewry’s current temperature is Breslow’s stated preferences for a Jewish spouse and Jewish children, coupled with the candid acknowledgement that he may well fail to realize those aspirations. Most Jews, in fact, retain preferences for Jewish marriage and family. Yet, as the Pew study indicates, American Jewry is at risk of further erosion due to diminished commitment, assimilation, and mixed marriage.

By contrast, a recent New York Times op-ed departs sharply from Breslow’s expressed ambivalence, extolling the virtues of raising children in two faiths, an increasingly widespread trend, as reported by Pew. The author, Susan Katz Miller, concedes that most Jewish leaders reject her choice to give her children the best of both faiths, but maintains that dual-faith parenting works for the family and “even for Judaism.”

Miller’s choice reflects the “American way” — two faiths are better than one, and experiencing both in many ways constitutes a true multiculturalism.

Jewish leaders disagree. First, raising children as both Jewish and Christian crosses the theological boundary between the faiths and insults the integrity of each. Second, Miller’s hope that children raised in both faiths in the majority Christian culture of America will choose Judaism appears hopelessly naive. The low rate of conversion to Judaism within mixed marriages itself testifies to the difficulty of abjuring the majority faith of Christianity, even when one’s spouse is Jewish, let alone when one has been raised as partly Jewish and partly Christian. The far more likely outcome for dual-faith parenting is a large number of “persons of Jewish background” or other tenuous Jewish connection. As the Pew study reports, such individuals are most unlikely to participate in Jewish life beyond an occasional reference to a Jewish culinary taste or other tangential association.

But most problematical is Miller’s implicit advocacy for a transformed normative Jewish culture. Historically, the Jewish voice articulated the value of endogamy. In recent decades, Reform Judaism, to its credit, restored conversion to Judaism as an expressed communal goal. In the absence of conversion of the non-Jewish spouste, Jewish leaders underscore the importance of raising children exclusively as Jews. Pioneers of outreach to mixed marrieds, Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her late husband Paul, of blessed memory, consistently counseled the need to raise children in one faith rather than two. The American Jewish Committee, repeatedly over the past three decades, has adopted policy statements advocating a multi-track approach — underscoring preference for endogamy, welcoming the participation of mixed marrieds in Jewish communal life, securing the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse as the single best outcome to a mixed marriage, and, in the absence of conversion, the need to raise children exclusively as Jews.

By contrast, Pew reports that a plurality of children of mixed marriages are being raised partly as Jews, partly as something else, with, frankly, only the most minimal involvement and participation in Jewish communal life. Nonetheless, Ms. Miller embraces a theologically incomprehensible approach, arguing that its adoption will enable Judaism not only to survive but even prosper.

Truth to tell, had Craig Breslow emulated Koufax and declined to play on Yom Kippur, he would have made a resoundingly positive statement about Jewish identity in America, and garnered great respect for his commitment to his tradition. Nonetheless, Breslow’s expressed ambivalence does, at least, uphold historical Jewish norms with respect to marriage and parenting. By contrast, Susan Miller advocates fundamental change in those norms, placing at risk future Jewish continuity and distinctiveness.

As a fervently devout Red Sox fan, I admit my biases. But Craig Breslow’s personal narrative — realizing American success accompanied by Jewish ambivalence — illustrates Pew’s portrait of American Jews, which urgently challenges communal leadership to reconsider direction and recalibrate priorities if it is to realize the  aspirations that Breslow embraces.

Steven Bayme is national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee (www.ajc.org)

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