BOSTON — Whereas some find statistics to be dry and detached, the editors of a recent book about counting Jews believe that numbers hold the key to deciphering modern Jewish life.
In their book, “Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life,” editors Michal Kravel-Tovi and Deborah Dash Moore examine what they call modern Jewry’s “profound cultural investment in quantified forms of knowledge and representation.” From Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, to Massachusetts’ tucked-away Yiddish Book Center, nine essayists pondered how Jews “take stock” of themselves and the world around them. The pieces are handily divided by the editors into sections for counting the dead, the living, and objects.
After a section focused on numbers in Holocaust commemoration and Israel’s memorial culture, the spotlight shifts to Jewish demography in the Jewish state and the United States, including — most provocatively — the manipulation of numbers by political and communal leaders.
“As a Jewish Israeli citizen, I grew frustrated with the obsessive political discourses about the ‘demographic problem’ and its existential threat for Israel’s future,” said Kravel-Tovi, a cultural anthropologist and lecturer at Tel Aviv University.
In compiling the book, Kravel-Tovi said she “wanted to take some distance from these existential narratives and to better understand the deployment of numerical logics and discourses in both Israel and other Jewish contexts.”
The role of demography in creating the Jewish state also fascinated Kravel-Tovi’s co-editor, the US-based Moore. A professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Michigan, Moore was particularly intrigued by Anat Leibler’s contribution to the book, “Counting People: The Co-production of Ethnicity and Jewish Majority in Israel-Palestine.”
Leibler’s essay on the role of demography in Zionism probed the early Israeli government’s efforts to push higher reproduction rates among Mizrahi Jews, which, wrote Liebler, was a response to “a demographic imbalance in which the birthright of [the land’s] Palestinian population had increased while its Jewish population demonstrated a decrease in reproductive rates.”
As explained by Liebler, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, worked with Italian demographer Roberto Bachi to identify “the most fertile Jewish group” within the country. The “Mizrahi woman,” wrote Liebler, became known as “the national womb” of Israel. In targeting Mizrahi Jews to alter population trends among Jews and Arabs, “a deep ethnic split between two Jewish ethnic groups” was forged.
“Human conduct was a political task that should be managed by Zionist ideology,” wrote Liebler, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. Having consigned Biblical prohibitions against counting Jews to ancient history, Ben-Gurion and Bachi conducted demographic engineering that became, according to Liebler, “the basis of a systematic paradigm of eugenics.”
American Jews take stock, offer prescriptions
In Moore’s assessment, the highly touted national Jewish population studies have been exploited by Jewish communal leaders to foster a sense of impending demographic doom. Although demography plays a “less pervasive” role in American Jewish life than it does in Israel, said Moore, the issue “rises to consciousness mostly when there are surveys to be done,” she said.
“I have been frustrated and annoyed for over a decade at the ‘continuity’ debates regarding what is happening to American Jews and the uses of statistics to support politicized programs that would channel money to Conservative and Orthodox Jews,” said Moore. “Specifically, I do not see day school education as a panacea for American Jews that will ‘save’ them from intermarriage. Nor, I should say, do I see intermarriage as a ‘silent Holocaust’ or a foe of ‘Jewish continuity,’” said Moore, who recently completed a history of Jewish New York.
‘I do not see day school education as a panacea for American Jews that will “save” them from intermarriage’
In Kravel-Tovi’s essay on the role of “continuity crisis” appeals among American Jewry, she noted the “bleak emotional language” deployed to rally Jews behind institutions and causes.
“Because [American Jewish leaders’] work inevitably draws on post-Holocaust schemes of Jewish biopolitics, reproduction of the population depends on a constant production of a sense of collective crisis,” wrote Kravel-Tovi.
For Moore, any frame for counting Jewish Americans hangs on what she called “Zionist-inflected numbers,” or the belief that the Diaspora will continue to shrink as Israel’s Jewish population grows. In the US, there is more willingness to count “fellow travelers,” such as non-Jews married to Jews, among the Jewish community, said Moore. However, many of these self-identifying Jews would not be considered Jewish by the state of Israel’s rabbinate, adding a dose of ambiguity to the statistics.
“One major difference between Israeli Jews and American Jews in this context is the fact that, in Israel, numbers take their public shape in the framework of a sovereign nation-state while, in the US, the dynamics of numbers take form in the context of a minority and voluntary community,” said Kravel-Tovi, whose next book will examine “how American Jews quantify their communal life.”
For Kravel-Tovi, “Taking Stock’s” most eye-opening essay on American Jewry was Joshua B. Friedman’s, “Let’s Start with the Big Ones: Numbers, Thin Description, and the Magic of Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center.”
‘In the US, the dynamics of numbers take form in the context of a minority and voluntary community’
As the world’s first museum devoted to Yiddish, the Massachusetts-based center has “rescued” thousands of Yiddish books from attics and basements around the world since 1980. Although fewer than five percent of the collection is on display in the center’s shtetl-themed campus, the evocative installation demonstrates what Friedman and others call “the wetness of numbers,” or their ability to personalize what might appear as dry statistics.
For Friedman, a “wet” aspect of the Yiddish shrine’s numerically-oriented mission is that visitors can encounter Yiddish books “with the nose as much as the eye,” experiencing what he called “a sense of mission, a call to action, a feeling of belonging.” The “wetness” of the center’s collection can — for instance — forge bonds between a visitor and the Jewish past, or transmit a sense of relief that Yiddish texts will continue to be seen — if not always heard — by future generations.
The emotions behind wet numbers are a favorite topic of editor Kravel-Tovi, who believes their use helps explain US Jewry’s role as a “biopolitical community.” Such a community both takes stock of itself and offers prescriptions for change, including, for example, the creation of Birthright Israel trips in 1999 based on communal leaders’ concern with bleak-sounding “intermarriage” statistics.
“When supported by numbers, emotions appear seemingly well-grounded in reality,” wrote Kravel-Tovi in her chapter on wet numbers. “…Because emotionality pervades everyday life in profound ways, it lends meaning to an abstract reality captured by numbers, as if indicating what ‘really counts’ about that reality.”
For both editors of “Taking Stock,” working on the book was a reminder of how infrequently professional demographers consider the deeper meaning of their work, including how their statistics are deployed to alter society.
“Most of the demographers write extensively about such matters as fertility, family size, religious observance, and such,” said Moore. “What they rarely do is reflect upon their categories and the social meaning of their work,” said the editor.