Who Is a Jew and According to Whom

There are 3.7 million Arab Americans in the United States. According to Google’s rather inept AI: “As of 2023, the number of Muslims in the US is estimated to be between 3–4 million. Islam is expected to become the second-largest religion in the US in the near future.” According to official estimates, there are 7.6 million Jews in America. So, if you believe the official estimates, Judaism is in trouble in America.

The official estimates are, of course, dead wrong.

That 7.6 million number comes from a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2020. The Federal Government itself has no idea how many Jews live in America because the Federal Census hasn’t asked the religion question since 1950. That was the first census taken after World War II and therefore the first census taken after the Holocaust. No one was going to ask that question because it was obvious that Jews wouldn’t answer it after seeing what had happened in Germany. (Come to think of it, I don’t know where the information about the Muslim population in America is coming from either.)

In actuality, no one REALLY knows how many Jews live in America because that depends upon how you define who is a Jew…and who is writing the definitions.

Jewish organizations tend to deliberately underestimate the Jewish population. It’s like hiding in plain sight. They also use a combination of membership in Jewish organizations and synagogue attendance but many Jews don’t belong to any of those organizations or congregations.

Another Pew Research Study (why is Pew so interested in Jews?) from 2o21 indicates that, since 2010, the intermarriage rate for Jews has increased to around 61%…and the vast majority of those intermarried Jews – and their children – are not counted by Jewish organizations.

So, if we start out with 7.6 million Jews, we can extrapolate that there are at least 4.6 million more Jews than the official estimates, because many of those intermarried Jews have adopted the faiths of their partners….while the non-Jewish partners in other intermarried couples have become Jewish in the process. However, regardless of whether they have converted, Jews remain Jews. Judaism is the only religion that it is impossible to resign from.

A lapsed Catholic is no longer a Catholic. A lapsed Protestant is no longer a Protestant. An apostate Muslim is no longer a Muslim…and the same goes for lapsed Hindus, Buddhists, etc, but a lapsed Jew is still a Jew.

There’s a story that goes with that statement. Around a hundred and twenty-five years ago, in a small town in Ukraine, a farmer who lived outside an isolated hamlet was out late at night, checking his cattle in the middle of the winter to make sure that they were properly bedded down in the face of the extreme bitter cold.

When he went out to the barn, he found a man huddled in the doorway.

The farmer brought the man into the house. “I must tell you,” he said to the stranger, “that we are Jews here so that if you stay here you are breaking the law because Christians are not supposed to consort with Jews.”

“But I was a Jew,” the main replied.

“You were a Jew?” The farmer looked askance at the stranger. “What do you mean that you were a Jew?”

“I realized that I didn’t believe in God. My neighbors grew angry with me because I refused to attend services so I left my village.”

“In the middle of the winter? And they let you? Where was this?” asked the farmer.

The stranger named the place.

The farmer spat on the floor. “That shtetl?  Those stiff-neck mitgadim are no better than goyim themselves.”

“You left your village in the middle of the winter because you lost your faith in God?”  The farmer shook his head. “Your statement is meaningless. No one who does such a thing can claim to be an atheist. As far as I am concerned, you are still a Jew, whether or not you believe in God. You may not believe in the God of that shtetl but, here, you have found a different sort of God. Here, a Jew is a Jew regardless of what the Jew believes.”

I know this story only because the farmer was my grandfather, Avraham Penziner, whom I never met. (I  found this story in my mother’s unfinished memoirs.)

We need to re-evaluate the number of Jews in America up to around 12 million, and that doesn’t include the children of those intermarried couples. When you add up six generations of intermarried Jews, and their extended families, there may be upwards of 24 million Jews in America.

This is where it becomes relevant to remember that having one Jewish grandparent was enough to get you sent to the gas chambers in Germany in World War II.

If you use the Nazi’s definition of who was a Jew, with a known intermarriage rate of approximately 60 percent, then we can support a supposition that, under the German definition, there may well be MORE  than 24 million Jews in America, many of whom are not even aware of their Jewish heritage.

Today, however, in the present international situation, it is becoming more and more important for Jews to recognize themselves and each other.

In some places, that’s not hard, because Jews belonging to various communities and sects adopt characteristic and highly identifiable costumes to set themselves off from their non-Jewish neighbors, and even from Jews belonging to other sects.

The vast majority of American Jews do not, however, wear any kind of identifying garb that labels them as Jews…but maybe we should. Maybe we should be able to identify ourselves to each other…even at the risk of attracting painful repercussions from the Jew-haters among us…and that might be a blessing in disguise because it is just as important to know who your enemies are as it is to know who your friends are.

There are five major symbols that are emblematic of Jewish identity:  The Mogen Dovid (the Star of David), the Hebrew letters Chet and Yod which, together, make up the Hebrew word, Chai, which means Life,  the mezuzah, a small box holding a piece of parchment with a quote from the Torah inscribed on it, the menorah, the eight-branched candelabra used during the Hanuka celebration, and the Hand of Miriam, better known as the Hand of Fatima among Muslims, which provides protection against the evil eye and other bad influences. (No one knows whether the Jews stole it from the Muslims or the Muslims stole it from the Jews. Both claim ownership.)

Of these, the Star of David is by far the most recognizable, which was why the Nazis used it to identify Jews with the blue and yellow armbands they were required to wear during World War II.

There is a famous, and completely apocryphal, story about the King Constantine, the tenth of that name, of Denmark wearing the Star of David when the Nazis, who were then in control over Denmark, mandated that all Jews had to wear those armbands. According to the legend, which Leon Uris incorporated into “Exodus,” his novel about the founding of Israel, when the King decided to wear the armband, so did all of the Danish people, which never happened either. (It is true, however, that Denmark, uniquely among the countries that fell under Nazi domination managed to protect virtually all of her Jewish citizens through the end of the war. Of course, the Jewish community in Denmark was quite small.)

However, the story has the kernel of an idea that bears discussion. Perhaps it is time for us to start wearing such armbands voluntarily, and to encourage our non-Jewish friends (and relatives) to do the same. See what it feels like to walk around with a target on your back.

Which brings me to another story. In October of 1979, Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass on the Boston Commons. There was a problem, however. The pope’s visit coincided with the Jewish High Holy Days and there was a large synagogue on Boylston Street within the security perimeter that was established for the pope’s visit. The mayor of Boston came up with what was perhaps the stupidest idea anyone ever came up with: distributing armbands with the Star of David on them to the members of the congregation of the Central Synagogue of Boston so they could pass through the security cordon. I was living in Boston at the time. I don’t remember how that all worked out but I don’t think anyone wore the armbands.

Postscript:  As far as I can recall, I have never worn any “Jewish” jewelry. My father didn’t either. Yesterday, I bought a Star of David about the size of a silver dollar. I will be wearing it from now on. Inside my shirt. I’m not quite ready to wear an armband, but I am getting there.