Charles Silberman, a magazine writer-turned-author whose widely discussed study of American Jewry a generation ago portrayed a largely rosy picture of the Jewish community, died Feb. 5 in Sarasota, Fla., of congestive heart failure. He was 86.
Mr. Silberman, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, who grew up in New York City and moved to Florida after his retirement, sparked a conversation in the Jewish community with his book “A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today” (Simon and Schuster, 1986). The book described a renewal of Jewish life and involvement around the country, as exemplified by the burgeoning Havurah movement, while downplaying the extent of assimilation and the threat of anti-Semitism.
Calling the record of Jews in this country “an American success story,” he wrote that the United States “has broken open to Jews … in ways that were not expected — indeed, in ways that could not even have been imagined — a generation ago.”
While many American Jews were heartened by his reports of growth in Jewish affiliation, others found his book, which took six years of research around the U.S., overly optimistic.
“He presents an idyllic American landscape in which Jews are heads of corporations, presidents of major universities, legislators, professors in leading law and medical schools, editors and writers on powerful publications and partners in top law firms … represented in these prestigious areas out of proportion to the community’s population,” a review of “A Certain People” in The Jewish Week stated. The reviewer called the book “so fiercely optimistic … about the Jewish present and future that one is tempted to ask, ‘If things are so good, why is the author working so hard, even furnishing dubious proofs, to convince us?’”
Mr. Silberman, formerly a writer and editor at Fortune magazine, had earlier written books that dealt with a “crisis” in American education, and the American criminal justice system.
“A Certain People” “surprised everyone — everyone expected [a book about] a crisis in American Jewry,” said Steven Bayme, director of the contemporary Jewish life department at the American Jewish Committee. “He discovered pockets of Jewish renewal, people who were far more” committed to Jewish life “than their parents or grandparents would have imagined.”
Mr. Silberman, who studied economic history at Columbia University, worked for Fortune for two decades before becoming a fulltime author.
A lay leader in the Reconstructionist movement, he chaired its Prayerbook Commission and was a founding member of the West End Synagogue in Manhattan. In Sarasota, he created and led a Reconstructionist havurah, and was an active member of Congregation Kol HaNeshama, a recently established synagogue.
He was also active in the Synagogue Council of America, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress.
His wife, Arlene, died last May. Mr. Silberman is survived by four sons, David, Rick, Jeff and Steve; and six grandchildren.