When both spouses share one faith and “model religiosity,” and when fathers provide “warmth, affirmation” and “emotional bonding,” religious cultures are vibrantly transmitted, according to Vern L. Bengston’s new book, “Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations.” Reading that book review yesterday, I visualized Dan Smokler carrying his toddler on his shoulders throughout one recent Shabbat morning at Darhei Noam, an Open Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side.
Smokler wrote one of the six position papers for a diverse group of American Jewish professionals, practitioners and academics that gathered on Jan. 9 in New York to discuss the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews. Professionally, Smokler, a young activist-scholar, champions programs geared to college students, but as a young father he is personally deeply involved in religious modeling and emotional bonding, just as Bengston recommends.
The women and men participating in the Pew conversation ranged from their 30s upward, from a broad spectrum of Judaic backgrounds, with very different ideas and approaches but united by a concern for the transmission of substantive Jewish culture from one generation to the next. As Gary Rosenblatt elucidated in his masterful follow-up articles, participants discussed initiatives ranging from education about infertility, communal vouchers for early childhood education, and support for Jewish activities for teens, college students and emerging adults.
That rich orchestra of multi-generational voices was sneeringly caricatured in Paul Golin’s Opinion piece, “In-Marriage Advocates Are Living In The Past,” in the Jan. 31 issue of Jewish Week. Golin misrepresented participants as an aging, univocal group of reactionaries seeking to replicate themselves — an “ethnic” Jewish community composed of those “born into from two Ashkenazi parents, preferably in Brooklyn in the 1950s.” Since Mr. Golin included me by name in his scornful reduction, here are corrections for the record: I grew up in Sheboygan, Wis., (quite far from Brooklyn in every way) and palled around with Christian Science and German Lutheran kids on the block. The shaping event of my childhood was demonstrating with my father against Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Golin is correct that I am older than he is and that my parents were both Ashkenazi — although I’m not sure why that is relevant, since Sephardi Jews are demonstrably not more liberal on intermarriage and conversion issues than Ashkenazim.
The other participants in the Pew study discussion each represented individual, independent backgrounds and insights as well. Golin’s attempt to delegitimize these necessary and urgent conversations through dismissive stereotypes is counterproductive and signals a poverty of ideas.
The writer is a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University.