Struggling with anxiety: demographic statistics and an emotionalised American Jewish public sphere

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  • 1 Tel Aviv University, , Israel
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Over the last three decades, the American Jewish communal public sphere has been flooded with sociodemographic concerns about numerical decline, and a sense of threatened ability to maintain a vibrant collective life. This article argues that this discursive site functions as a means, or technique, for the emotionalisation of Jewish identity and citizenship in the community.

The article shows that public discourses on what is known by now as ‘the Jewish continuity crisis’ are shaped by an emotionalising feature of anxiety. Anxiety serves, all at once, as a tone-setter, an anchor of communal identity, and an object of debate: it sets an intensified volume, assigns its interlocutors particular emotionalised tags, and has also provoked its own fire as an emotional style. On the one hand, the organised community struggles with – that is, it suffers from – deeply entrenched anxieties about how to secure the future of American Jewry. On the other hand, the organised community struggles with having anxiety as such a defining position from which to work towards continuity and to articulate Jewishness. Ultimately, continuity is often taken as a communal struggle, with demographic and affiliation trends, but anxiety is in itself a source of struggle as well. I analyse this double-edged public dynamic, and argue that emotionality in itself constitutes a key component of involvement in the Jewish community. This component develops not only along and against the grain of anxiety, but also against the grain of indifference.

Abstract

Over the last three decades, the American Jewish communal public sphere has been flooded with sociodemographic concerns about numerical decline, and a sense of threatened ability to maintain a vibrant collective life. This article argues that this discursive site functions as a means, or technique, for the emotionalisation of Jewish identity and citizenship in the community.

The article shows that public discourses on what is known by now as ‘the Jewish continuity crisis’ are shaped by an emotionalising feature of anxiety. Anxiety serves, all at once, as a tone-setter, an anchor of communal identity, and an object of debate: it sets an intensified volume, assigns its interlocutors particular emotionalised tags, and has also provoked its own fire as an emotional style. On the one hand, the organised community struggles with – that is, it suffers from – deeply entrenched anxieties about how to secure the future of American Jewry. On the other hand, the organised community struggles with having anxiety as such a defining position from which to work towards continuity and to articulate Jewishness. Ultimately, continuity is often taken as a communal struggle, with demographic and affiliation trends, but anxiety is in itself a source of struggle as well. I analyse this double-edged public dynamic, and argue that emotionality in itself constitutes a key component of involvement in the Jewish community. This component develops not only along and against the grain of anxiety, but also against the grain of indifference.

The trope of Jewish anxiety

‘Is there really such a thing as Jewish anxiety?’, wonders journalist Philip Eil (2018) on the pages of The Forward, a mainstream US media venue catering to an American Jewish audience. Under this evocative title – perhaps exploratory, perhaps rhetorical – Eil alludes to a common wisdom: anxiety is a cultural marker of the Jewish experience, both individually and collectively. Eil’s question feels familiar. It resonates with a plethora of artefacts and tropes from Jewish popular culture, which reinforce the conventional wisdom – if not the scientific truth – that anxiety is integral to being Jewish. Interestingly, Eil is quick to move from a personal and rather intimate account of his own suffering from anxiety to an exploration of the salient, almost ahistorical underlying presence of collective anxieties, including continuity anxieties, among Jews.

I read Eil’s journalistic item as a telling public engagement with continuity anxieties among American Jewry, the topic that lies at the heart of this article. Eil confesses early on that he is an ‘anxious Jew’, explaining further: ‘By which I mean (a) I am Jewish, and (b) if I had to pick the overarching emotional theme of my life, it would be fear. Or worry. Or panic.’ Reflecting on the manifestations of this affliction, Eil ultimately openly ponders the possibility that ‘there is something inherently Jewish about [his] affliction’.

The medical literature briefly surveyed by Eil in his essay does not lend empirical credibility to the idea that Jews are more anxious or more prone to mental illness than other communities. The psychologists, psychiatrists and medical experts whom Eil consults repudiate the likelihood of a particular or unique Jewish vulnerability. However, Eil does indulge in the trope of anxiety as an ethno-religious state, while aiming to explain its cultural currency (in relation to this, see also Margolin, 2015). This exploration leads him to additional conversations with a different kind of authority: experts in Jewish identity, including rabbis, intellectuals and Jewish studies scholars. Within this framework, he turns to Simon Rawidowicz’s (1986) aphorism, ‘the ever-dying-people’ – a maxim oft-cited in the context of anxious demographic discourses on the American Jewish future. In so doing, he reiterates the idea of the unrelenting, persistent preoccupation of Jews with a ‘sense of being on the verge of ceasing to be’ (Rawidowicz, 1986: 53): a sense of being the last Jewish generation.

Eil’s essay employs the trope of Jewish anxiety to bridge the psychologised with the cultural, the individualised with the collective. The label of ‘anxiety’, which originates in private domains of suffering and in professional spheres of diagnosis, serves to describe a pervasive collective sentiment and ambience. Put differently, anxiety traverses from conversations revolving around the psychological wellbeing of individuals, to being deployed in discussions assessing the collective wellbeing.1

Townsend Middleton, who gestures ‘towards an anthropology of anxiety’, construes anxiety not as an individuated phenomenon but rather as a ‘historically produced, socially experienced phenomenon’ (Middleton, 2013: 611). In line with this emphasis, I explore here the social life of ‘Jewish anxiety’ in its naturalised location in the public sphere and its embeddedness in historical sensibilities; I do so by thinking through the framing notion of this special issue: emotionalisation. This term enables me to ask how emotional expressions, connotations and intensities, emanating from private domains, reconfigure collective conversations about the communal situation.

Looking from this prism, we can trace how conversations on sociodemographic data associated with ‘Jewish continuity’ are shaped by an emotionalising feature of anxiety, and how this feature serves, all at once, as a tone-setter, an anchor of communal identity, and an object of debate. Anxiety sets an intensified emotionalised volume; it demarcates the conversation on continuity, and assigns to its interlocutors particular emotionalised tags; and it has also provoked its own fire, as interlocutors fiercely debate the correct position, register and emotional style through which Jewish continuity issues can and should be addressed.

Put differently, it is not only the numbers, the narratives distilled from them, and the policy routes crafted in response to them, that are being contested. The anxiety that informs or accompanies these engagements is also a source of deliberation, in ways that throw into relief both its empirical justification and communal productivity. Ultimately, the continuity debate is upheld along and against the grain of anxiety, a double-edged dynamic which I allude to in the title of this article. The organised community struggles with – that is, it suffers from – deeply-entrenched anxieties about how to secure the future of American Jewry. These struggles shape anxiety as a locus and language of Jewish identity. But the organised community also struggles with having anxiety as such a defining position from which to work towards continuity and to articulate Jewishness. Ultimately, continuity is often taken as a communal struggle, with demographic and affiliation trends, but anxiety is in itself a source of struggle as well.

The prism of anxiety

I chose to frame my discussion through anxiety, although this term does not exhaust the full range of sombre emotional designations aroused, often in intertwined fashion, in the framework of continuity discussions. Interlocutors would repeatedly invoke related terms, such as fear, depression, panic, hysteria and worry. In what follows, I trace all these related and resonating emotionalised labels, as relevant displays of an emotionalised continuity public discourse.

If so, then why do I hang my discussion on anxiety? First, because anxiety is undeniably central and salient, and it does function as a tenacious and recurring trope. Second, anxiety indexes an emotion (and even an embodied, visceral affect) invoked in response to a perceived threat to one’s survival. It is a defensive reaction that mobilises action and reaction in response to intimidating conditions (Farley, 1998: 277). Anxiety thus reverberates issues of continuity and survival, the kinds of issues that bother the American Jewish elite figures who have taken upon themselves the burden of worrying on behalf of the collective.

I am not taking a normative position in the debate about whether anxiety is a realistic or inflated defensive communal response. Nor am I suggesting that continuity anxiety is an excessive or unfounded fear. This emphasis is important, first because anxiety is indeed considered as the hyperbolic version of fear (for example, Cucchiara, 2013); and second, because it has been widely pathologised as a recognised disorder. As Townsend Middleton writes with regard to an anxious politics of belonging among Gorkha minorities in subnationalist Darjeeling, India, collective anxiety appears ‘[n]ot without history, and not without reason’ (Middleton, 2013: 619). Later, I will briefly address how continuity anxieties are grounded in the particular historical sensibilities of a minority group; it suffices here to highlight the fact that as an ethnographer, I take such anxieties seriously, and I treat them as a shared structure of feeling (Kravel-Tovi, 2018).

Interestingly, the term ‘anxiety’ appears frequently as a topic of scholarly accounts of American Jewry. Anthropologist and historian Riv-Ellen Prell writes, in her Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation, about the gendered anxieties of acculturation and Americanisation across the 20th century (Prell, 2000). The philosopher Berel Lang examines the condition of anxiety that pervades ‘hyphenated’ American Jewish identity in a multi-ethnic United States (Lang, 2005). Historian Lila Corwin Berman writes about the layered anxiety of postwar American Jews, in relation to assuming power and cultivating middle-classness (Corwin Berman, 2007). And anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj contextualises her discussion of the contemporary fascination of American Jews with genetic testing by taking into account the anxieties surrounding declining Jewish religious practice and rising intermarriage (Abu El-Haj, 2012: 19).

Equally interesting, scholars working on the effect of statistics and numerical measurements have paid attention to the galvanising power of numbers to cultivate negative feelings – anxiety included. The ‘dark side of numbers’, to borrow William Seltzer and Margo Anderson’s term reveals itself in anxiety as the inescapable result of being regimented by numbers in a variety of contexts (Seltzer and Anderson, 2001). For example, there is the anxious ‘structure of feeling’ academics develop in response to an intense audit culture and quantified control (Burrows, 2012); the anxiety that workers develop in response to workplace quantification (Moore, 2018); and the anxiety students and administrators alike feel in response to law school rankings and quantified accountability of excellence in the US (Espeland and Sauder, 2016).

Attitudes towards demography in numerous contexts are likewise associated in the literature with anxiety and its related vocabulary. Overpopulation, underpopulation, and demographic shifts often arouse alarmist and anxious public and policy discourses (Krause, 2001; Connelly, 2008; Leykin 2020). Some titles are particularly telling. For example, Liav Orgad explains in his chapter on ‘demographic anxiety’ how new waves of immigrants trigger exaggerated reactions which constitute ‘demographobia’ (Orgad, 2015); and Uradyn Bulag explores the ‘linguistic anxiety’ of Mongols in China, where they are an absolute demographic minority (Bulag, 2003).2 The continuity anxiety which I focus on is immediately entangled with demographic anxieties, and with the popularisation of the idea of a ‘demographic crisis’.

Studying an emotionalised American Jewish public sphere

I will discuss anxiety as an emotional position and style employed, but also debated, by public interlocutors engaging with Jewish continuity. To be more precise, I follow how public interlocutors describe and prescribe their own and others’ sentiments - those of public figures as well as the general community - regarding the collective Jewish future in the US. The individuals whose articulations and engagements I will focus on are public figures, all part of the Jewish elite to some degree and in different capacities. Whether scholars, rabbis, public intellectuals, or Jewish professionals in community organisations, they are all active speakers within communal conversations on sociodemographic data and what has been tagged as ‘Jewish continuity’. While talking about their concerns, arguing about the value of anxiety, or, instead, suggesting alternative emotional styles to enact and frame communal Jewish life, these individuals embody – and thus model for others – intensified care for the community, what one could describe as an emotionalised Jewishness. This discursive cultivation of care for and in the name of the community – in the form of anxiety, or in countering anxiety – is part of what may be seen as emotionalised citizenship in this community, a point which will conclude this article.

Much has been written on the American Jewish establishment across a variety of political and historical contexts, in which communal leaders and organisations govern collective Jewish life, and represent the community’s interests and anxieties vis-à-vis other political entities (among many, Goldberg, 1996; Sanua, 2007; Schultz, 2011). My analysis of the articulations of (and against) continuity anxieties is grounded in a study of specific community leaders, who participate in producing, mediating and consuming sociodemographic studies as a part of their professional roles and personas. A significant proportion of them are social scientists and intellectuals whose engaged scholarship (Kravel-Tovi, 2016) – some of this produced collaboratively with communal organisations – positions them as experts on the subject matter. In dominating communal conversations about shared concerns, these intellectuals follow in the footsteps of other engaged Jewish experts and social scientists, in the US context as well as elsewhere (Hart, 2000; Corwin Berman, 2009). Pre-eminent as they are in setting the public discourse and agenda, one can also find alongside them a variety of other professional interlocutors who occupy the public communal space and engage, broadly speaking, with Jewish continuity issues.

My analysis is grounded in a broader ethnographic and sociohistoric study of the construction of a ‘sociodemographic crisis’ among American Jewry, beginning in the early 1990s. I take the 1990s as my point of departure because this decade witnessed the remarkable intensification of demographic preoccupations over Jewish continuity, building on, but also immensely dramatising earlier iterations of, similar communal concerns. This heightened presence of anxious continuity discourses is connected to the impact of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), and subsequent studies (NJPS 2000–01; Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans), in exacerbating a sense of demographic crisis, and the need for communal awareness and institutional intervention.

My broader study includes: multi-sited fieldwork in community, scholarly and policy-oriented conferences and public events; archival work tracing the production of sociodemographic studies; 60 interviews with differently positioned American Jewish leaders and social scientists; and textual analysis of professional and media publications for American Jewish audiences. In this article, I draw mostly on journalistic and professional items that host and popularise Jewish continuity discourses (most of which are accessible digitally), and interviews with key social scientists and Jewish professionals within these animated conversations. The textual items consulted demonstrate, within the limits of a single article, an emotionalised public space and commentary on anxiety as a point of departure for conversations about Jewish continuity. Interviews with agenda setters in these conversations have enabled me to create an oral history of the main statistical studies conducted since the 1990s, and to situate these precisely within the professional biographies and interpretive frameworks of the actors who help fashion the data and its public circulation. While each interview was tailored to the particular positioning of the interviewee, in general the interviews included questions about participation in Jewish continuity endeavours and representations, eliciting impressions of and attitudes towards prevalent trends within these spheres. In some of the interviews, the theme of anxiety was raised organically by the interviewee; in others, I deliberately brought it up as an opportunity for reflection on the interviewee’s publications and public performances.3

Before I explore what these materials can teach us about the public struggle with continuity anxieties, and about emotionalised citizenship in the American Jewish community, some historical contextualisation of Jewish continuity and the preoccupation with communal statistics is in order.

Demography and continuity

The interest of American Jewish leaders in procuring population statistics originated in the 19th century, an administrative response to the expansion westward of Jews, and the rapid development of local Jewish congregations in ever-growing number of destinations and forms. As historian Sari Rabin argues, leaders wanted to introduce some order and consistency in this diversifying landscape of Jewish communal life, and to stave off the threat of Jewish disintegration in its numerous and varied reiterations. The attempt to assess the number of Jews and Jewish organisations and their locations evolved significantly, from publishing descriptive news reports to a more standardised endeavour to map and count American Jewry (Rabin, 2017).4

Over the decades that followed, statistical forms of knowledge made further inroads into the American Jewish communal sphere, primarily through studies featured in key communal venues and organisations. These institutional developments would more fully consolidate during the post–Second World War period. Those trends would eventually constitute what Lila Corwin Berman (2009) describes as the social-scientific turn. Berman’s concept of a ‘social-scientific turn’ can help explain both the remarkable production and the high consumption of sociodemographic data, whether appearing in national or local surveys (Sheskin, 1994; 2005), in studies produced by communal agencies, or by external research institutions and think tanks.

The communal investment in sociodemographic knowledge is usually justified by two intersecting logics, the epistemic and the governmental. The first logic builds on the aura of statistics as objective, reliable and standardised scientific measurement of the population;5 the second points at quantified information as the infrastructure of communal service, policy and administration. Perceived as an essential and elementary tool of any responsible, accountable communal action – from building a Jewish senior citizens’ assisted living residence or a nursery in a certain neighbourhood, to formulating top-priority issues on the national agenda – numbers feed the communal action and imagination, on practical and discursive levels.

‘Jewish continuity’ is precisely such an issue, in resonance with the sacred role of demographic consciousness in post-Holocaust Jewish politics worldwide, and with the demographic sensibilities of a numerically negligible and assimilating minority in the US. In the aftermath of NJPS 1990, a study which identified increasing rates of intermarriage, ‘Jewish continuity’ achieved a paradigmatic status – informing the sociological study of American Jewry, and naturalising a way of thinking and policy making (Tenenbaum, 2000; Corwin-Berman et al, 2020). Over the course of the 1990s, continuity became the motto and hallmark of communal preoccupation with demographic trends, and the springboard for endless policy programmes and initiatives aimed at bolstering Jewish identity, commitment, affiliation and education – all in the name of encouraging marriage-in and ‘Jewish families’ (Kravel-Tovi, 2020a; 2020b).

The 1990 NJPS provided a synoptic and detailed profile of American Jewry, formulating a wide array of sociodemographic parameters: age, sex, household structure, marriage, fertility, geography, philanthropy, education, labour, social stratification and Jewish identity. As extensive as the survey was, public reception seemed to focus mostly on the 52 per cent intermarriage rate reported (this number referred to the percentage of Jews who intermarried between 1985 and 1990). This number was soon iconised and came to permeate the American Jewish communal sphere at an unprecedented level. It featured and was debated in a range of venues of Jewish and general media, communal sermons, organisational statements and academic publications, serving as a bogeyman threatening identity erosion and eventual demographic erasure. Following Martin De Santo’s conceptualisation, one can see the 52 per cent figure as a ‘fact-totem’: ‘a statistic with high media presence that captures the imagination of diverse publics and becomes articulated with basic identity narratives of a collectivity’ (De Santos, 2009: 466).

That the intermarriage rate of 52 per cent became iconic of the survey as a whole, and that it provoked such a grave sense of continuity crisis, should come as no surprise. A ‘crisis mentality’ was not invented with the 1990 NJPS (Corwin Berman, 2009: 44). Rather, as the late Jonathan Woocher, a senior federation professional, told me during an interview in 2011, this study “gave it [the crisis mentality] a number”. Historians demonstrate that both in early 20th-century Europe and throughout the 20th-century US, Jewish social scientists have drawn attention to intermarriage, treating it as a social pathology or at least a one-way road to assimilation (Corwin-Berman, 2009; Hart, 2000). Furthermore, the 1960s, the decade of ‘the first continuity crisis’ (Sanua, 2007), witnessed institutional and public decry over what Look magazine famously dubbed the ‘vanishing American Jew’ – a term intimately linked with increasing rates of intermarriage, and projections of demographic decline. The 1971 NJPS reported a 30 per cent population of intermarried Jews; in 1975, two esteemed Harvard University professors offered a dire population projection for the 21st century, based mainly on a calculation of possible intermarriage rates (Gordis, 1982).

Following the infamous 52 per cent of the 1990s, the iconic number of the 2000s (based on NJPS 2000–01) was the estimated population of 5.2 million American Jews – a decrease from the 5.5 million of NJPS 1990. More recently, there is the 32 per cent of millennial Jews who described themselves in the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans study as ‘Jews of no religion’, which correlates statistically closely with the decline in Jewish in-marriage.

Emotionalised demography talks

When I remarked to my interviewees about the emotionalised – that is, mostly, anxious – nature of demographic discourses, I would often hear something along the lines of ‘You must understand, these issues are highly loaded.’ By ‘these issues’, my interlocutors mean all the issues captured, indexed or induced by demographic data: from the controversial question, ‘Who is a Jew?’, that underpins survey decisions, to the charged topics measured in studies and taken as indicators of assimilation and decline – intermarriage, population size, levels of affiliation, self-definition and communal boundaries. As weighty issues, ‘these things’ imbue the signifier, that is the numbers, with heightened sensitivity and intensified emotionality.

The fact that my interlocutors point at ‘these things’ as volatile and emotionalised subject matters makes sense; so too the implied assumption that it is not the numbers in and of themselves that induce emotionality. Numbers or quantified data do not carry any particular emotionality of their own. Far from it: numbers, big ones in particular, are associated with remoteness and dispassion. In fact, precisely because statistics are considered ‘cold’, ‘dry’ and remote artefacts of information (Porter, 1996; Kravel-Tovi, 2016), they are often used in alignment with visual and narrative tropes, which compensate for the distance within numbers, helping to target audiences through ‘affective pedagogy’ (Howes-Mischel, 2017) or ‘affective evidence’ (Adams, 2016: 48). In the American Jewish case under discussion, ‘dry’ demographic statistics are ‘made wet’ by powerful narratives of crisis and emotionally laden metaphors of catastrophe and social illness (from depicting Jews as an ‘endangered species’ to describing the continuity crisis as a ‘silent Holocaust’).

The academic (but nevertheless highly accessible, jargon-free and communicative) orientation of the NJPS 1990 expounds the survey results quite straightforwardly. It indicates that ‘the choice of marriage partners has changed dramatically over the past few decades’, but it does not make a drama out of the 52 per cent number. However, the public and professional framing of the data stoked considerable alarm, feeding into the hyperbolic language of pessimism that characterised public descriptions and interpretations of the data.6 The anxiety is captured unmistakably in the blunt question: ‘Will your grandchildren be Jews?’, the title of a widely circulated demographic analysis, based on NJPS 1990, authored by two American Jewish public figures (a rabbi and a philanthropist), which was widely discussed in the popular Jewish press as well as in notable non-Jewish media outlets such as The New York Times (Gordon and Horowitz, 1996). This tone is also evident in the highly emotionalised title of American legal scholar and author Alan Dershowitz’s book The Vanishing American, as in its opening paragraph: ‘The bad news is that American Jews – as a people – have never been in greater danger of disappearing through assimilation, intermarriage, and low birthrates’ (Dershowitz, 1997: 1). Drawing on a similar theme of impending crisis, Michael Steinhart, a mega-philanthropist of American Jewry, wrote, following the release of NJPS 2000–01: ‘the news should have set off a code orange for Jewish organizations […] all would agree that the Jews in America […] are demographically endangered […] the NJPS, after all, revealed palpable evidence of a crisis’ (Steinhardt, 2003: 9).

Given this pervasive rhetoric of alarm, it is no wonder that astute observers of American Jewry quickly took notice of it (Sarna, 1994). See, for example, how Theodore Ross, an American Jewish author and observer of American Jewry, portrays (ironically) the emotionalised spate of commentary in response to NJPS 1990, turning collective anxiety into a marker of the discussions about NJPS. He writes:

Jews – or at least those Jews aware of and concerned with Jewish censuses – panicked […] The reaction in the Jewish and mainstream media bordered on the hysterical. The findings of the NJPS were described as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’, ‘shocking’, ‘disturbingly bleak’, ‘notorious’, and – inevitably – a ‘Holocaust’; the census ‘sent shock waves around the world’, ‘permanently altered the tone of Jewish communal discussion,’ ‘inflamed communal debate,’ and caused ‘deep anxiety,’ ‘anomie’, and a ‘radical inner shift’[…] the data was ‘devastating,’ the demographic changes were ‘not only unparalleled but catastrophic;’ people were anxious, depressed and ‘scared out of their wits’. (Ross, 2013: 61)

The highly emotionalised, anxious tenor within the organised community can also be detected in the following recollection of Professor Bernard Reisman, a Jewish communal studies professor at Brandeis University, of the mood in two forums from the early 1990s dedicated to discussing the published results of the NJPS:

In both cases, I and most of the other participants, initially emerged depressed and confused […] the first day was not so much the demographers’ findings but the depressive affect and concomitant sense of helplessness among the participants. And then I reasoned if we, who were mainly academics, were so demoralized and immobilized, would it not be likely that the professional and lay leaders would have even a more severe reaction? (Reisman, 1993: 351)

Interestingly, this debate, between scholars and other advocates of the decline narrative (that is, the numbers indicate a future demographic decrease and continuity crisis) set against those who endorse a narrative of transformation for American Jewry (that is, American Jewry is changing in form and character, but definitely not facing disappearance), has come to be framed through the emotional tags of ‘pessimism’ and ‘optimism’: as a debate between those who are ‘in panic’ and those who are ‘euphoric’, ‘doomsayers’ and ‘triumphalists’. See, for example, the comments of the late Sidney Goldstein – a senior demographer and key architect of NJPS 1990 – on these emotional tags:

The tone of the debate has gone well beyond neutral and objective academic and scientific discussion, to embrace such value distinctions as ‘pessimists’ and ‘optimists’ [...] unfortunately, an increasingly emotional tenor has come to affect the debate on Jewish population and, to say the least, this has contributed little to the quality of the debate. (Goldstein, 1992: 3)

Professor Goldstein observes the overt emotionalised style of the debate, but does not tilt to either side of it. Rather, his critique seems to point more broadly at the toll that such a style has taken on what should be held, to his mind, as a straightforward and impartial scientifically based conversation on demography. For him, the debate is too emotional. But for other interlocutors, this emotionalised style of impending crisis is precisely what they insist on. A few voices from the continuity crisis camp construe bleak emotional language as both a logical response to the ‘dire news’ (Wertheimer and Cohen, 2014a) – one which requires no apology (Wertheimer and Cohen, 2014b) – and a rhetorical achievement (Cohen, 2012).

Yet, this construal is filled with dilemmas regarding what anthropologist Terre Satterfield describes as ‘emotional agency’: that is, the appropriate strategic use of emotional discourse (Satterfield, 2004). Like Satterfield’s interlocutors (loggers and environmental activists disputing logging in Oregon), my interlocutors struggle to find the right emotional chord. As they seek to mobilise their audiences into taking demography seriously, they ponder how exactly, and how much, to draw effectively on anxiety as a rhetorical resource.

See, for example, how sociologist Steven M. Cohen, during a panel on demographic narratives held during the 2011 Association for Jewish Studies conference (a panel which I attended), seemed to be unsure about how to rally this kind of rhetoric: “I’m still wishing, or my dream is, can we rhetorically express anxiety, dread, harada [anxiety in Hebrew] about intermarriage without pushing away all those intermarried?” In an interview with me in October 2011, he elaborated on his constant vacillation between levels and tones of anxiety: “You always need to negotiate between complacency and paralysis. So if you’re too cool, then people don’t get aroused so they’re complacent. If you’re too anxious then people get paralysed and they don’t want to hear it.” In the interview, he bemoaned the general ambience of communal indifference, the point of departure against which he works: “I came to realise that on the demographic side, people were being oblivious to these ongoing challenges.” But he was also pleased to identify some signs of anxiety – “there is anxiety about the Jewish future” – manifested in philanthropic and communal efforts to secure a Jewish future (that is, birthright trips to Israel, Repair the World initiatives)7.

Jack Wertheimer, a prominent historian and public intellectual, and a close ally of Steven Cohen within the continuity debate, noted with satisfaction the initial communal response to NJPS 1990: “It was perceived as a threat […] by enough concerned Jews, including concerned Jews with money, who pressed various institutions […] and people were also speaking out of their own fear, fear for their own children and grandchildren.” At the same time, he expressed some frustration with what he identifies as the organised community’s attempt to “stress the upbeat, the positive”. The potential benefits and risks of the emotional language of crisis appear in Wertheimer’s answer to my question about his own emotional style of anxious public address. He replied:

‘I am shocked at the passivity and the seeming lack of concern when what I see is something that is worthy of concern, and so this emotional language is designed to grab people by the throat and get their attention...but I feel that I need to limit the amount of crankiness because otherwise people are just going to tune me out completely.’ (October 2011)

Cohen’s and Wertheimer’s incessant public advocacy for continuity anxiety is far from securing a triumph, partially because they represent a conservative vision of Jewish life, one which emphasises in-marriage, conversion and Jewish fertility, and partially because of their particular emotionalised style of anxiety. These two aspects, conservatism and emotionalism, are obviously interrelated; as one online commenter – tellingly tagged ‘just1guywhocares’ – responded to Wertheimer and Cohen’s lengthy and generally gloomy op-ed following the 2013 Pew study: ‘It’s hard to get people to “worry” about a future they never bought into’ (Wertheimer and Cohen, 2014a). As I will show now, this particular emotionalised style of anxiety serves as a point of departure, as well as a punching bag, for differently positioned actors who seek alternative emotionalised discourses.

Questioning anxiety

In May 2020, during the first peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, prominent historian Jonathan Sarna published an op-ed in The Forward titled ‘Enough doom and gloom: history shows American Judaism is much more resilient than you think’. The op-ed responds directly to the communal outcry that has erupted in the face of the current economic and organisational downturn. Sarna builds on his authority as historian, one who knows a thing or two about past crises, to rebut the determinist dire projections concerning post-coronavirus American Judaism, and to encourage leaders to plan communal resources wisely. What interested me about this was how Sarna goes beyond the current historic moment to recognise the common tendency of the organised Jewish community to retreat to scripts of crisis and despondency. What Sarna asks of his readers is to not fall all too easily into collective anxiety (Sarna, 2020).

Other scholars and commentaries draw on their own fields of expertise, mainly professional proficiency with statistics, to conclude that continuity anxiety is not called for. This thread of debate is highly empirical, and grounds the call against anxiety in alternative readings of the ‘social facts’ disclosed in the numbers. In this vein, one can find articles by Bethamie Horowitz (2006; 2014), a sociopsychologist and a quantitative researcher, who repudiates a common gloomy reading of influential studies on American Jewry, calling on the community to ‘stop worrying’. Or one can find similar logic in the alternative calculations made by the journalist J.J. Goldberg (2013), who asserts impatiently: ‘Enough already with the worrying about America’s Jews’.

These arguments implicate anxiety as a debatable conclusion of the data. Alongside such arguments, other lines of critique interrogate anxiety more directly – questioning its value, its productivity and its effects. Interlocutors engaged in such a critique question the utility of working toward a secured Jewish future out of anxiety: the kind of Judaism given form and meaning based on anxiety, and the likely price to be paid when anxiety serves as the hallmark of communal Jewish life. These critical voices present an alternative emotional style as well as a competing mode of emotionalised Jewish continuity.

Dr Yehuda Kurtzer, a public intellectual and thinker, does not dismiss anxiety as such but distinguishes between productive and destructive anxiety. He writes:

Anxiety about the Jewish future – and the number of people we will have in that future – is totally reasonable. It is a long-standing hobby of Jews going back to Abraham, and an especially popular pastime of late 20th and early 21st century Jews […] Anxiety can be both productive and destructive, and this is no exception. Productive anxiety feeds creative investment and problem solving, while destructive anxiety results in the demonization and isolation of the perceived causes. (Kurtzer, 2014)

Building on this distinction, he points at the Taglit-Birthright endeavour (free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, with the aims of promoting networking, dating, and bolstering Jewish identity) as a tangible and goal-oriented approach, as opposed to Jane Eisner’s (former editor of The Forward) recent exhortation (her article, ‘Be fruitiful and multiply – please?’, 2014), aimed towards increased reproduction (see also Kelner, 2010; Kravel-Tovi, 2020a).

Elianna Yolkut, a millennial Conservative rabbi and educator, reflects on the price of what might be considered as destructive anxiety in Kurtzer’s thinking. ‘The problem with worrying about “Jewish continuity”’, as suggested in her op-ed in the English edition of Israel’s Haaretz, considers how continuity anxiety, so deeply ingrained in Jewish leadership, defeats the target of fashioning meaningful Jewish life. She writes:

Rabbis like me are trained nearly from the first day of rabbinical school to worry, to literally stay up late with board members and other leaders, to convene conferences and address the crisis of the numbers in the Jewish community […] They are simply not the right ones, perhaps they never were. They do not address what the Jewish community and Jewish leadership should be worried about, should be asking ourselves and with which we should be concerned. (Yolkut, 2011)

The quote that follows, also written by a millennial Jew and published in the pages of Haaretz, takes continuity anxiety as a barometer for the intergenerational gap between the elite and young Jews. The author writes:

There’s no easier way to calculate the disconnect between Jewish leaders and their constituents than to compare their deepest concerns […] A quick survey of my friends and colleagues reveals an enormous ‘concern gap’ between elite and average American Jews. The reality is that anxiety over theoretical grandchildren is not a luxury my generation can really afford. Rather, what keeps my demographic up at night is the staggering burden of student loan debt, the skyrocketing cost of childcare, and the intimidating price of Jewish education. (Kafrissen, 2016)

It is telling that a millennial Jew, representing the cohort that Jewish institutions are most worried about demographically (Eisner, 2014), speaks sardonically about the ‘elite obsession with demographics’. Likewise, it is telling that the author is fully aware of the elite’s preoccupation with demographic worries about the distant Jewish future – at the expense of an affordable Jewish present. Finally, it is telling that, in writing against the grain of the pervasive culture of surveys, the author offers her own informal ‘quick survey’, one clearly untied to numbers and scientific aura.

These critical engagements with continuity anxieties resonate with arguments sounded more than once by my interviewees concerning the discursive trajectory of ‘continuity’ among Jewish professionals: first its emergence during the 1970s and 1980s, then its consolidation as the most effective catchword in the early 1990s, before falling out of use after a few years, partially because of its anxious baseline. Indeed, during the period of my research (2010–20), the term ‘continuity’ could rarely be found on conference programmes of the Jewish Federation world; along with, or instead of, continuity, one could find alternative buzzwords such as ‘engagements’, ‘connections’, or simply, and as abstractedly, ‘Jewish life’ or the ‘Jewish future’. The late Jonathan Woocher, a pre-eminent Jewish education specialist, explained during an interview I conducted with him in 2011 that although projects, initiatives and discourses related to continuity (that is, concerning Jewish identity, in-marriage and fertility) existed before NJPS 1990, it was this study that turned the term ‘continuity’ into an emblem of anxiety. The massive watershed moment created by NJPS 1990 drew people, over time, away from an anxiety-filled ambience. Woocher explained that people did not want to work out of anxiety and crisis, but rather out of the excitement and joy of Judaism: “Anxiety was not called for, nor was it useful,” he contended.

Discussion: against the grain of indifference

In this concluding section, I want to build on this account of a double-edged struggle with anxiety. I suggest that the emotionalised public space is playing host to various interlocutors, whose care for the Jewish future presents both a model and prescription for emotionalised Jewishness, or emotionalised citizenship in the Jewish community. In October 2015, two years after the publication of the Pew Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, a group of more than seventy American Jewish leaders published an online statement on Jewish vitality (eJewish Philanthropy, 2015). The lengthy list of signatories includes senior rabbis, deans of rabbinical schools, chairs of foundations, board members and chief executives of Jewish organisations, and scholars of American Jewry. The shared call for strategic action was anchored in the assertion – or reprimand – that ‘despite the evidence of deeply disturbing population trends, the community is bereft of any sense of crisis’(eJewish Philanthropy, 2015).

The statement foregrounded public figures, also individual American Jews, whose strong emotions for and about Jewish continuity (within their own families, and in communal terms) stand out as public, idealised demonstrations of involvement and citizenship in the community. The statement prompted continuous debates about its conservative underpinning and ensuing policy recommendations. But even those who challenged the policy (themselves community leaders, of all persuasions) obviously share – and model, in their own terms – profound care about the fate of the American Jewish future. As these individuals debate how to interpret the data and optimise communal interventions, they exercise exemplary emotionalised involvement with the collective future. They articulate their stance as concerned citizens. The statement illustrates how discursive sites anchored by sociodemographic data function as a means, or technique, for the emotionalisation of Jewish identity and citizenship.

At the same time that engaged Jews debate the right intensity, style and vocabulary of emotionality – and thereby the nature of organised Jewish community life that they hope to cultivate – they also reinforce a common ground of what we may think of as emotionalised Jewishness and emotionalised citizenship in the community. In other words, emotionality, which constitutes an object of debate and contestation, also functions as an area of agreement, serving as a marker of a shared cultural commitment to the imagined collectivity that is ‘the Jewish community’. Emotionalisation thus refashions what it means to be a ‘good Jew’: not only or necessarily one who attends traditional communal institutions, or gives money to Jewish philanthropic bodies and causes. Rather, a Jew who enacts his or her citizenship in the voluntary Jewish community by caring about its future; a Jew who is willing to debate the aspired emotionalised tone accompanying the discussions of that future. A Jew who does not fall into indifference.

Whether American Jewish public figures claim or counter anxiety, embrace or reject it as a narrative and governmental strategy of the community, they model emotionalised citizenship in the community, in the hope that the general American Jewish public will follow. In a sense, these figures articulate their emotionalised reactions to the numbers not only along and against the grain of anxiety, but also against the grain of indifference, that is, the grain of nominal Jews (sometimes called sarcastically ‘Jew-ish’) who hardly care for the communal future. From this perspective, the ‘concern gap’ mentioned above may transpire not only intergenerationally, between the competing agendas of ‘the establishment’ on the one hand and millennial Jews on the other; it also transpires between a caring elite that demonstrates through emotionalised rhetoric an exemplary citizenship, and a disengaged, indifferent and unconcerned public. This chasm resonates with the fault line identified by J.J. Goldberg, a prominent journalist and observer of American Jewry, ‘between the activists who conduct the Jewish community’s business […] and the broader population of American Jews, who are almost entirely unaware of the work being done in their name’ (Goldberg, 1996: 7). This cleavage, I suggest, should be understood as emotionalised in nature.

The notion of ‘emotionalised Jewishness’ or ‘emotionalised citizenship’ in the community may help us explain why, in the aftermath of the 2013 Pew survey – a study which aroused, once again, a great deal of anxiety – the one statistic that loomed large and brought comfort was the 94 per cent of Jews who stated their pride about being Jewish. In fact, among my tens of interviewees, this figure recurred over and over in response to my question about the most memorable and significant number that they took from the survey. This proliferation of ‘the pride number’ suggests that pride may arise as an alternative emotional marker to anxiety. The notion of ‘emotionalised Jewishness’ may also help to explain the salience of the trope of ‘concerned Jew’ in public communal discourses, serving as an emotionalised tag and almost as a flattering attribute of active Jewish citizenship within the community.

My suggestion to think through this case study in terms of emotionalised citizenship corresponds with a rich literature on the role of emotions in mediating public life, political discourses of citizenship, and civic participation, mostly in the context of state-citizen relationships. These studies teach us, for example, how emotions trigger public deliberation and action (Goodwin and Jasper, 2003); how therapeutic governance helps fashion emotional wellbeing as a key component of desirable citizens (Plotkin-Amrami and Kiper, 2020); how the ‘citizenship’ (that is, democratic) challenge revolves around public disaffection (Flinders, 2020); how the public sphere inhabits emotional clashes among groups, and prescribes a particular expression of emotions by citizens (Pantti and van Zoonen, 2006); how citizens and publics ‘feel for the state’ (Laszczkowski and Reeves, 2017); how ‘affective states’ elicit a profound and diverse range of feelings and sentiments, including anger, hope, fear, pride and love; and ultimately, how the state is positioned as an object of emotional investment (Yang, 2014). These scholarly threads allow us to think of citizenship as a political construct filled with, and dependent on, the emotionalised presence of the state. As Anne Marie Fortier writes about the ‘affective turn’ in citizenship studies, ‘citizenship “takes place” by demonstrating its affectivity, which emotions and feelings it involves, or how feelings are “deemed to reflect or express the truth of citizenship”’ (Fortier, cited in Plotkin-Amrami and Kiper, 2020).

The case study under discussion here invites us to think about the emotionalised citizenship in a voluntary, non-state political entity, in this case an ethno-religious minority group (Kravel-Tovi, 2020a). By looking into how this form of citizenship is mediated, articulated and shaped in and through communal public spaces, we can trace moments of heightened emotional engagement with the community, its existence, its essence, and its future. These moments afford us a glimpse into the meanings and vulnerabilities imbued in membership in such communities.

Notes

1

A compelling comparative example to such a traversing of psychological diagnosis, from private realms to collective ones, would be the emotionalised designation of phobia. Phobia has now travelled widely, and is used to describe a range of collective sentiments of intolerance – mostly as a means of marginalising specific groups. This includes Islamophobia, fatphobia and homophobia, among others.

2

The proliferation of the anxiety trope in all these scholarly contexts may be part of a broader tendency in the social scientific and humanistic literature to draw on mental health metaphors and discourses.

3

One of my interviewees was Professor Steven Cohen, a distinguished sociologist who has dedicated his entire professional life to studying various aspects of American Jewish life, identity and continuity. Professor Cohen (as will be discussed later in the article) is a passionate advocate from the conservative, and anxious, camp of Jewish continuity. In summer 2018 (seven years after I interviewed him for the first time, and a year after I interviewed him for the second time), Cohen was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct. Interestingly, the accusation itself quickly became an emotionally intense springboard for discussions of Jewish continuity itself – a paradigm that he is widely identified with.

4

The engagement of American Jews with counting themselves rests on the fact that Jews (like other religious groups in the US) cannot be surveyed in the national decennial census – a prohibition associated with constitutional church-state divide. The only serious attempt by the American Bureau of the Census to include a question about religion (in the context of the Current Population Survey in 1957) proved a failure. As Kevin Schultz recounts regarding the debates surrounding this attempt, the failure is attributable to the fervent opposition of Jewish organisations (see Schultz, 2011, pp. 159–78).

5

For a critical discussion of the overt quantification of Jewishness in the US, see Debra Kaufman (2006).

6

On the hyperbole of optimism, see Vanessa Ochs (2016).

7

Birthright is a not-for-profit educational endeavour to bring young adults (Jews or belonging to Jewish families) to a fully-sponsored trip to Israel. Repair the World initiatives include various grassroots social activism projects, mobilizing individuals and communities to serve those in need, within and without Jewish communities.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Israel Science Foundation under Grant 14/375. I would like to thank Julia Lerner for inviting me to participate in the superb workshop she organised on emotionalisation at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in May 2019, and for inviting me, together with Michele Rivkin-Fish, to contribute an article to this special issue. Traces of their thorough and nuanced comments can be found in the article, and I am grateful for this dialogue.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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