Book Review: “In Every Tongue” shows changing community

A newly published book, In Every Tongue, by Diane Tobin, Gary Tobin and Scott Rubin, proves conclusively, based on solid research, that today’s Jewish community is absolutely NOT that of your Zayda and Bubbe from the Old Country – or even that of your Mom and Dad from l950s suburbia. The book, published by the prestigious Institute for Jewish and Community Research based in San Francisco, proves the surprising fact that at least 20 percent of Jewish America is ethnically and racially diverse.

Not only does In Every Tongue demolish long-held stereotypes both within and outside the American Jewish community, but it also proves that perhaps the American Jewish community, estimated to be 5.2 million strong, is a multiracial community, and perhaps “the most diverse people in history.”

The book’s authors bring solid credentials to their research project. Gary A. Tobin is familiar to his former St. Louis Jewish community, having directed numerous Jewish population surveys, starting with the l98l St. Louis Jewish Population Survey, which was the first under Tobin’s direction. He also directed the l995 Jewish Demographic Study, which found that the St. Louis Jewish population in that year was 59,400 Jews and related non-Jews living in 24,600 households.

Tobin is currently president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and is also director of the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Program in Jewish Policy Research at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He earned his Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of California-Berkeley. He directed the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University for 14 years. Prior to joining Brandeis, Dr. Tobin spent 11 years on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. He has also worked extensively in the area of patterns of racial segregation in schools and housing.

Diane Tobin is the associate director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. She manages the projects of the Institute and produces the publication series. She is the co-author of Jewish Family Foundations and is currently director of the Be’chol Lashon Project.

Scott Rubin, also a native of St. Louis, is a senior research associate at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. He has been involved in several other projects with the institute, including Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. He is also working on a biography of philanthropist Harry Weinberg.

Among the more startling findings of In Every Tongue, which is subtitled The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People are: Of the United States Jewish population of from 5.2 to 6 million, roughly l.2 million, or 20 percent, consist of African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Sephardic (of Spanish or Portuguese descent), Middle Eastern and mixed-race Jews. “This minority within a minority is growing and has the potential to change the traditional debate over the future of American Jewish life,” the authors note.

Latinos reclaiming their Jewish origins, 500 years after the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, view themselves not as “conversos,” or converts, but “reverts” to Judaism. There is an entire village of such Jews in Portugal who continued to practice rudimentary Jewish practices some 500 years after the Inquisition. They were still called “Los Judios” by the local Roman Catholic population despite their normative membership in the Catholic Church. Increasingly, such Jews in both Europe and in the American Southwest are returning fully to their Jewish roots.

The authors provide fascinating details about long-established communities of African-American Jews in many cities, such as Chicago and New York City, with their own institutional structures. These, along with as many as l0,000 African-American Jews by choice, or Jews with mixed race parentage, are taking their place as leaders in Jewish communal institutions not only within their own communities through groups like Ayecha, which serves African-American Jews and other Jews of color, but within the mainstream Jewish community at large. Yavilah McCoy of St. Louis is a prime example of an African-American Jewish activist, who has served in various roles both within Ayecha and in such groups as the faculty of the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, the ADL board and the Jewish Light board of trustees, among others.

In addition, close to l million “diverse Americans” closely connected to Jews – spouses, children, parents or siblings – include many who practice some Jewish customs and identify with Jewish issues. Many synagogues within the Reform and Reconstructionist movements are especially welcoming to such people, and many of them who initially studied Torah and Judaism to “keep up” with their spouses, become Jews by choice.

The Tobins and Rubin conducted over 200 personal interviews and focus groups, collecting original survey data on more than l,000 people from over 300 households in 36 states, and visited numerous communities of diverse Jews to observe and understand their institutional structures.

While some Jews from diverse communities feel isolated from both their own racial and ethnic communities as well as from the Jewish community, they still identify strongly with both communities. Another organization that serves such Jews calls itself “Pareve,” to denote its “in-between” status, like those food products that are neither “kosher” or “treyf.” The survey’s findings should be a wake-up call to the normative Jewish community organizations and congregations to not only take note of such diverse Jews as a source of curiosity, but also as potential active and involved members.

The authors quote Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas, a New York-based rabbi of Cuban descent, as observing, “People from a broad range of backgrounds find Judaism a comforting home, and they do not feel they have to choose between their racial, ethnic and religious identities simply because they are part of the Jewish people.” Rabbi Vinas is an Orthodox rabbi serving a diverse group of Jews in New York City.

The prevailing belief for many decades, that genetic heritage (being born of a Jewish parent) is the only way to join the Jewish people, must be substantially modified as a result of this ground-breaking and timely book. Conversion, adoption and intermarriage are “significant ways in which people become Jewish,” say the Tobins and Rubin.

“More than ever,” says Gary Tobin, “people in America are crossing boundaries and redefining race and religion. The changing American Jewish people are a reflection of America as a whole.” If one needs a concrete reality check of the data produced by In Every Tongue, just take an informal look at those congregations in St. Louis that welcome and embrace diverse Jews. Among them are the fasting-growing and most dynamic local Jewish institutions. Jewish organizations that do not provide a means for welcoming and including Jews from the multi-colored tapestry of American life are out of step not only with the present, but with what the authors of this important book believe is the wave of the future.

This book will be welcomed not only by the serious scholar and the general Jewish public, but it is required reading for any lay or professional head of any Jewish organization or congregation that wants to assure that they will not only survive, but thrive as American Jewry begins its next 350 years of history.


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