Assimilation has always been a challenge for Jews &mdash now more than ever

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Genesis 44:18-47:27
Ezekiel 37:15-28

Assimilation, a word that concerns the loss of Jews through attrition and absorption into other faiths or into no faith at all, harkens back to Joseph, the first Israelite to live in a diaspora. Joseph adopted Egyptian customs and clothes, took an Egyptian wife, and was given the Egyptian name Zaphenath-paneah (Gen. 41:54). He gave his firstborn son the name Manasseh, meaning: “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (Gen. 41:51), and his second son the name Ephraim, meaning: “I have been fruitful” (Gen. 41:52).

Joseph’s children, who could informally be called “Amnesia” and “Success,” highlight the struggle of living at the intersection of two cultures — one uniquely Jewish and one that competes for a Jew’s loyalty and allegiance.

In Vayigash, this week’s portion, Joseph invites his 70-person family to join him in Egyptian exile: “You will dwell in the region of Goshen, where you will be near me — you and your children and your grandchildren …” (Gen. 45:10).

The recently released National Jewish Population Survey highlights the concern of assimilation. Considered by many to be an important gauge of whether Jews are succeeding in passing on Jewish identity to the next generation, the report portrays a growing polarization between “affiliated” Jews who are fueling a revival of Jewish spiritual and community life, and “unaffiliated” Jews who are neither particularly involved nor observant. Lamentably, the survey reveals the first decline ever of the U.S. Jewish population by about 300,000 from the 1990 population.

A snapshot of the variety of American Jews is a key to understanding the results of the survey:

• “Not Very Jewish Jews” are often called psychological Jews or post-religious Jews. They are Jews with few, if any, passionate attachments or connections to the community, who keep a safe distance from community.

• “No Longer Jewish Jews” shock other Jews who hear about converts and their offspring who, without even the threat of persecution as an excuse, toss their Judaism aside. Heinrich Marx is a stinging example of a Jew who became a Lutheran in 1818 in order to avoid disbarment under a Prussian law that forbade Jews to practice law. He also converted all of his children, including 6-year-old Karl who, although the grandson of two Orthodox rabbis, grew up to become a rabid Jew-hater. These former Jews offer little hope of being drawn back into the fold. However, not all “No Longer Jewish Jews” are lost.

• “Suddenly Jewish Jews,” likened to a tiny oven pilot light that waits to be fueled into a blazing flame, discover their ancestry that results in a resurgence of Jewish life. Stephen Dubner, author of “Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family,” grew up in a devoutly Catholic home where he said the rosary every night. As an adult, Dubner interviewed distant relatives, rummaged through archives and discovered his Jewish roots that brought him back to Judaism.

• “Too Jewish Jews” are those whose lives are infused with Jewish culture and religious practice. For example, Sholom Secunda, a Russian-born songwriter, composed the Yiddish song “Bei mir bist du schön” (“To Me You are Beautiful”) in 1932. Secunda begged the then-megastar Eddie Cantor to introduce his song on his radio show. Cantor declined, saying, “Sholom, I love your music. But I can’t use it. It’s too Jewish.”

Sammy Cahn, another Jewish songwriter, convinced the popular Andrews Sisters to record the lyrics of Secunda’s song that he translated from the Yiddish into an English rendition. The song’s sales took off with the purchase of a quarter of a million records and 200,000 copies of sheet music in a one-month period.

• “Half Jewish Jews” are the progeny of Jews married to non-Jews. Called by one half-Jewish woman “a dazzling act of existential virtuosity,” half-Jewish Jews define the tension inherent in blending two cultures into a single hybrid where a half-Jewish child often becomes the consummate outsider/insider.

The threat of assimilation has not changed much since the day that Joseph settled in Egypt, but the variety of Jews living in the American Jewish community has grown in complexity, presenting as much — if not more — of a challenge than it was to Israelites of Joseph’s era.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.