The price of “cool”
Speaking at last week’s annual dinner of the American Jewish Press Association, Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, promised to share some good news. This caused some consternation, since the room was filled with a) Jews and b) Jews who work for Jewish publications. Good news is not our brand.
But among the positive tidbits Cooperman shared was the rising percentage of children of intermarriages who identity as Jews. According to Pew, 59 percent of adults under 30 with one Jewish parent are Jewish today; by contrast, only 25 percent of Americans age 65 and older with one Jewish parent say they are Jewish.
Cooperman asked us to guess why. Some credited outreach by Jewish organizations to the intermarried, which has made a place for their children in Jewish life. Others suggested that intermarriage was such a taboo for the Greatest Generation that only the most disaffected would marry out.
Cooperman offered a third explanation: Judaism is cool. As in hip. As in a Pew study showing that Americans view Jews more warmly than any other religious group, ahead of Catholics and evangelical Christians (atheists and Muslims didn’t fare so well).
Jewish means Seinfeld and Jon Stewart. Mark Zuckerberg and Seth Rogen. Amy Schumer and Billy Eichner (two comedians named to the Forward’s 2015 list of the 50 most influential Jews).
If this congregation of cool Jews has an anthem, it is Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” First performed by Sandler in 1994 when he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, the song is essentially a list of Jewish celebrities, from Dinah Shore and William Shatner to Goldie Hawn and Henry Winkler. The song is an unabashed expression of Jewish pride, going so far as to “out” celebrities who tended not to have advertised their Jewishness. It makes Jewish ethnicity “cool” by identifying it with secular cultural heroes.
At a comedy festival this month at Carnegie Hall, Sandler updated the song for a fourth time. The cast of Jewish characters now includes Scott Rudin, Judd Apatow, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, the rapper Drake, the “kosher crush” Scarlett Johansson, and “the two guys who founded Google.” There’s also a shout-out to a Jew who accomplished something outside of the world of entertainment: “We may not have a cartoon with a reindeer that can talk/ But we also don’t have polio thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk.”
I’m not a big fan of Sandler or his films. He always reminds me of the funniest kid in anybody’s high school class, the one who can do one thing that makes everybody laugh, like imitate the science teacher or sing Devo songs in a Swedish accent, but isn’t quite ready for prime time. Still, I love it that young Jews love “The Chanukah Song,” which stakes a claim for Jewish pride amidst a barrage of Christmas carols. It rejects the idea that Judaism is a stigma, or a burden, or the very thing that separates you from the mainstream.
At the same time, I worry that the song speaks for generations for whom Judaism may not be a stigma nor a burden but may not be very distinctive either. Sandler’s celebrities are cool because they happen to be Jewish, not because they represent a particular Jewish way of being in the world. Cooperman reminded us that among Jewish millennials who have one Jewish parent, 51 percent identify themselves as “Jews of no religion,” compared with just 15 percent of millennials who have two Jewish parents. “Jews of no religion” means they identify as Jews on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture. That doesn’t sound bad until you consider, as Pew reported, that Jews of no religion are “much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.”
In sociological terms, religion is a lot “stickier” than secular identity; the idea that Jewishness is a set of beliefs and countercultural behaviors, however you act on them, is a better indicator of Jewish continuity than mere pride in being associated with other Jews.
Sandler’s unapologetic, casual Jewishness is a far cry from the conflicted or neurotic Jewish identities exemplified by his comic ancestors, from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen to Richard Lewis. Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz once described Sandler as a “normal dude from New Hampshire who was proud of his Jewish heritage the same way an Irish-American might celebrate his own on St. Patrick’s Day — that is, loudly and with a never-ending supply of good cheer and high spirits.”
But in some ways “The Chanukah Song” is the Hanukka of songs. Hanukka’s integrity as a Jewish holy period has been overshadowed by its role as a consolation prize to Jews left out of the Christmas hoopla. Hanukka kitsch affirms Jewishness in the mainstream — See the blue and silver decorations right next to the green and red ones! — without conveying much sense of what we’re celebrating or why. Pride is a wonderful thing — but pride without meaning or responsibility is a hollow sort of cool.