Anyone wishing to understand the shifting realities of American Jewish life has reason to celebrate this month. After a four-year hiatus, the American Jewish Year Book is back in print.
This is no small thing. Begun in 1899, the annual volume was for 108 years the essential source of facts and figures on Jewish community life. Each year, it served up population data, major events of the past year, groundbreaking social analysis and a nifty catalog of all those bewildering Jewish organizations and institutions. Each year’s volume is a snapshot in time. Browse through several in a row, and you’ll see a flow of history that no one-volume narrative can capture.
Unfortunately, it was discontinued by the publisher, the American Jewish Committee, during the 2008 economic crash. It left a vacuum the Internet can’t fill. The yearbook was a reality check. It didn’t bridge the community’s divisions, but it got us arguing from the same set of facts.
The new edition, edited by a pair of social scientists and published by a European scientific press, should thus be a red-letter day for Jewish knowledge. And it is, mostly. The catalog of organizations is better than ever, with new lists of Jewish websites, summer camps and more. There’s also a lengthy, eye-opening study of Jewish secularism.
But the publication is also a cautionary moment. It spotlights new schisms in our basic perceptions of Jewish reality. There’s no longer a single set of facts. The new book reflects that.
Most jarring is the section on Jewish population. It’s the heart of the book, fully one-fourth of its 600 pages, and it offers two main conclusions. The first is that the best scientific estimate of America’s Jewish population is 6.722 million, although that’s probably wrong, mostly because of double-counting college students and snowbirds.
The real number is probably between 6.0 million and 6.4 million. (So 6.722 million is scientific but wrong? Go figure.) The second is that American Jews actually number 5.4 million, and anyone who thinks the total is above 6 million doesn’t know what he’s talking about.