What’s a “Jewish city”, you may ask. Is it based on the number of Jews that reside there? Perhaps it is a city which celebrates Jewish holidays or favors classically Jewish foods? Is a city more Jewish because of the amount of Torah studied within its borders? Could a city be thought of as being more Jewish because it runs according to values claimed by people who identify as Jewish?
All of the above are perfectly legitimate ways to measure the Jewishness of a city, leaving aside for a moment why one would even want to do this. Though for the Daily Beast, none of those criteria were employed when they published a list of America’s 30 most Jewish cities.
According to DB, the following 3 criteria, all on a per capita basis, were used to come up with their top 30 list: Jewish population, synagogues, and kosher restaurants. And what did they come up with?
- New York
- Los Angeles
- Las Vegas
- San Francisco
- San Diego
Click here for the rest.
My guess is that many people, including Jews living in some of the named cities, will be surprised by how they scored out. For Example, having spent time in Both Pittsfield, MA and Denver, it’s hard to see how the former out-ranked the latter.
It’s not that Pittsfield is bad. In fact, there is at least one lovely synagogue, small to be sure but a sweet congregation, in which I have prayed. And years ago they even had a bagel shop which worked with a local rabbi to attain kosher certification. But in terms of vital Jewish life, with options and institutions, it’s hard to see how Pittsfield got ahead of Denver…until one looks again at Daily Beast’s criteria.
They were not measuring overall vitality of Jewish life, but how great a percentage of a city has religiously identified who need/want kosher restaurants. While I want a town with many religious institutions, and would hate to live without the option of going out for a meal, I hardly think that those are the ultimate markers of Jewishness and worry when people think that they are. Were that to be the case, then the 6.5 million Jews which Daily Beasts says we have in America would be a much smaller number.
Also this business of measuring on a per capita basis suggests that something is more Jewish simply because Jews make up a larger portion of the whole. When paired with the other criteria, that suggests that Jewishness is some kind of “dilutable” essence which needs not only to be vibrant, but to live among as few Gentiles as possible in order to be so. That’s simply wrong.
While numbers matter and having a critical mass of people who identify a certain way is essential for the maintenance of any community’s institutions, once that critical mass is met, it should make no difference among how many non-Jews those Jews live. The only way in which the per capita deal would matter is if we took into account things like public culture e.g. the feel of the city around Jewish holidays, the ubiquity of Jewish food, symbols, etc. And if we did that, then the whole synagogue/kosher restaurant thing would be relatively unimportant.
I think that like many Jews, the people over at the Daily Beast are deeply conflicted about how to score our Jewishness. Part of them looks to religious institutions and practices, even if they are not terribly important to most Jews. And part of them looks to how Jewish a community feels, regardless of what contributes to that feeling.
Whatever it is that makes a city Jewish, or identifiable with any other religious/ethnic group for that matter, is certainly more complex than a few simply criteria and it opens a most important question in our nation of fluid identities and multiple affiliations: what is it that marks any community as identified with a particular religious/ethnic group and who is it that makes that decision?