Book Review: In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People.
The authors’ main focus is on what they call “diverse Jews,” and their primary study relates to the United States. They estimate that “at least 20 percent of the Jewish population in the United States is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrachi, and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage” (21). “White” Jews are loath to ac- cept them. They also describe Jewish groups in places such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, India, and China in the chapter “Jews Have Always Been Diverse” which argues that the historical fact of Jewish diversity should serve as a basis for acceptance of a wide variety of people as Jews. This is a valuable chapter for people who are unaware of these communities. Based on a 2002 national telephone survey conducted by their Institute for Jewish & Community Research in the United States (D. Tobin is Associate Director of the Institute, G. Tobin is President, and S. Rubin is senior research associate), Tobin et al. claim tremendous potential for Jewish growth, having found 4.2 million adults in the United States with Jewish heritage in addition to their claim of six million persons who are actually Jews. The authors also say that there are an additional 2.5 million adults in the United States who are not Jewish but have a connection to Judaism or to the Jewish community. All of these groups, in the United States and elsewhere, can be sources of Jewish growth, if properly encouraged.
Why should “diverse Jews”—those persons who are the authors’ main focus of attention and who are basically defined as people of color who have converted to Judaism, or have Jewish heritage, or identify with Judaism, or who are on the path to Judaism—be welcomed by the Jewish community and taken in as equal members? The reasons Tobin et al. give include: an expansive Jewish community is healthier than a shrinking one; being unwelcoming violates Jewish values; more people accepted as Jews in the world can be counted on for support in the face of rising anti-Semitism; and “diverse Jews” undermine the race card of antisemitism by exploding the myth of Jews as the “white race.” Increasing the visibility of racially and ethnically mixed, or diverse Jews, can actually bridge the gap between racial and ethnic groups.
The methodology of their study determining the numbers in the United States can be questioned. The samples are small, and the sampling error large, but the issue of methodology is basically irrelevant to this book. The number of diverse Jews, whether large or small, is secondary to the basic argument of the authors. This book is a political and social treatise to develop Judaism in a way that expands its boundaries so as to make it more open to all. Basically everyone who wants to be included should be accepted, and all should be done to make more people want to be part of the Jewish people. To this end, the book includes a chapter of recommendations on how to incorporate “non-whites” into the Jewish community, and how to get “white” Jews to accept them. The authors describe the work of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue)—a research and community building initiative created by their Institute for Jewish & Community Research, to support a Jewish world that is more racially, ethnically and culturally inclusive in the United States and around the world. In the United States,
some Jews have persistently chosen to ignore or combat our own many flavors. That much feared goblin, assimilation, and its henchman, intermarriage, have become such villains in contemporary Jewish mythology that we have purposefully kept out of our consciousness all reminders that we have never in our history been homogeneous . . . Jewish survival is credited to tradition, those ineluctable practices that transcend time and place. Jewish survival owes just as much to our adaptability across time, whether by choice or necessity (173).
Just as much? What do they really mean by this? Are their reasons for expanding the base of the Jewish population convincing? Do the authors expect the leaders of those religious denominations who, in contemporary times, determine inclusion on the basis of religious criteria to forego them so easily? Have pluralistic forms of Jewry been so successful as to convince more parochial (or traditional) adherents that an even more universalistic accommodation will succeed in leading to more vibrant Jewish life? What might be the nature of such a Judaism? The authors state that “Jews, like all religious and ethnic groups, have boundaries. Those who would pass through the gates must fulfill certain requirements. How those boundaries are defined remains the most challenging question. . . .Who has the authority to determine legitimacy?” (104).
And this is the challenge of this book. The authors have given us a very interesting picture of a more expanded world of Jewish culture and identity than many might have been aware of before. The debates over whether some of the groups described are indeed Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards have been quite acrimonious, especially in Israel when large numbers of these people have migrated or seek to migrate. Tobin et al. need to discuss the implications of their argument for relations between Jews of different denominations, and with the religious establishment in Israel. They do not ignore the question of who is a Jew, but basically claim that there has to be more to being Jewish than Jewish lineage and Jewish blood. What should the test be? Who can determine it? Who, indeed, has the authority to determine legitimacy? While some of the attempts to deal with these issues in the Orthodox community are described in the book, these questions are significant and have to be addressed by those who argue for greater inclusion, just as they have to be dealt with by those who argue against inclusion.
Diane Tobin, Gary Tobin, and Scott Rubin have struck a chord in this important book that deals with the fears that some white Jews, and some whites in general, have regarding “others.” Even if one discounts the calls for attracting persons who are much further away from core Judaism to look into Judaism as a viable option, there is enough strife within the Jewish community to make the reading of this book necessary in order to deal with Jew vs. Jew issues. Policy makers, educators, rabbis, and thinkers (without intending to imply that these are mutually exclusive categories) would do well to read the book and consider the implications for Judaism and the Jewish people. Grappling with these issues might help clarify what it means today to be Jewish. The deliberations of various bodies over conversion procedures, or acceptance ceremonies, are a rich source of data concerning the meaning of boundaries today. Such analyses might also lead to a larger question that is generally silenced: why is Jewish continuity important?