Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What's the fastest growing religion?

The answer may surprise you.

It's "No religion."

The source? The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, with comparisons to their last survey, done in 1990. While this is a little old, I see no reason why the trends should have changed over the past few years.

What prompted me to dig up this material? Well, the other day, I was at a talk given by a prominent non-Orthodox rabbi, and somehow he/she got on the topic of Mormons and Evangelical Christians. This led him/her to go off on a genteel quasi-rant about how liberal (in the religious sense) Jews could learn from these religions, that supposedly make religious demands on their followers. This was combined with some shreying gevalt about the Orthodox and their superior commitment and higher birthrate were going to inherit the entire Jewish religion.

This led me to wonder whether or not the Mormons and Evangelical Bible Thumpers were really as fast-growing as all that. And even whether the Orthodox are growing as rapidly as everyonte thinks.

Let's start with ARIS:

OK, the Papists are the largest single religious denomination in the USA
Catholics 1990: 46 million 2001: 51 million % change: +11

Now let's look at some of the Protestant Bible thumpers:
Baptists: 1990: 33.9 million, 2001, 33.8 million % change: ~0
stam "Evangelical"" 1990: 0.24 million, 2001: 1.03 million, % change +329
Mormon: 1990 2.5 million, 2001, 2.8 million, % change +12

Now for some non-Christian faiths
Jews (oy vey!) 1990: 3.1 million, 2001, 2.8 million % change -10
Muslims: 1990, 0.5 million, 2001: 1.1 million % change: +120
Hindus, 1990, 0.2 million, 2001, 0.8 million, % change +300
Wiccan, 1990 8 thousand, 2001, 134,000 % change +1,570

Note that the number of Jews refers only to those who identify religiously as Jews.
Also, I suspect that the growth in Muslims and Hindus (and probably Catholics, too) comes from immigration. We'll see how long their descendants hold on to their faiths after a couple generations of assimilation.

Now, for the piece de resistance, here's the numbers for "No Religion"

1990: 14 million, 2001, 29 million for a percent change of +107% !!

People without religion represent 14% of the population, the third largest religious group after Catholics and Baptists. That I suspect is where all those disappearing Jews are going.

What the data show is that religions that make heavy demands on their followers aren't necessarily destined to be the ones that inherit the earth. And the large growth in stam "Evangelical" merely proves my point, along with the growth in "no religion." Despite their profession of absolute rules, these popular Evangelical churches are actually quite lax about enforcement of those standards. The impending shotgun nuptials of Sarah Palin's daughter is a case in point. Their church rants about sexual purity, but the young lady doesn't follow the rules, and she's not kicked out of the family or anything. You can go to any random town in the Bible Belt on a Saturday night and see the "Evangelical" faithful committing sins for which they'll go to church the next morning and ask for forgiveness. In fact, I'll bet if the Bible Thumpers were to enforce their rules the way the right-wing Orthodox Jews do, you would see empty megachurches from Richmond, Virginia to Orange County, California.

So my rabbi friend was blowing smoke out of various bodily orifices. But why should he/she do this, as he/she's very knowledgeable and usually quite perceptive? The only thing I can think of is professional jealousy. After all those fundamentalist preachers and black-hatter gedolim have followers who actually listen and do what they are taught. This rabbi has to herd cats. Well, too bad for him, but good for personal autonomy and individual freedom that the American public is moving away from the authoritarian religious model. He/she should chill and let the flock do what they want, as long as they renew his/her contract with a decent cost of living increase.

Help me interpret this dream

My cousin Yosef heard this, and he wouldn't interpret it, but told me to go see a shrink. But maybe some of my loyal readers can help.

I'm driving a car through the desert. At first I thought it was the Negev, but then I noticed that the landscape was green. Green from all the cacti and other desert plants. No, this wasn't Israel. Then I saw a road sign: US 385. Where the hell was I? I was driving a 1967 Sussita with expired Israeli license plates, and I sure didn't want to get stopped by some redneck state trooper in the US.

Finally, a sign by the road, brown wood with the familiar National Park Service arrowhead logo:

Big Bend National Park

WTF? I'm in Texas! Come to think of it, I was in Texas when I went to sleep, but I was about 250 miles to the east. I've always wanted to go to Big Bend, but there certainly wasn't time to do so on this trip. And the rental car company at the San Antonio airport gave me a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, not a Sussita (thank God!).

Well, what could I do but stop at the entrance station to pay my fee, but it was closed. A notice tacked up on the window said to drive the quarter mile to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center and pay the entrance fee. When I got out of the car, I noticed that it was about 115 in the shade. Why I didn't notice that before puzzled me, because they didn't sell 1967 Sussitas with air conditioning, and so the car should have been hot as hell. Oh well, that's dreams for you.

So I walk into the Visitor Center, and there's this grandmotherly lady ranger at the desk, so I ask her about the entrance fee.

"Oh yes, it's $20 for a week," she says with a very pronounced Texas drawl, "But seeing from your car that you probably only have Israeli money, we'll take 80 lirot."

"Lirot?" It's been decades since Israel dropped the "lira," the Israeli pound, in favor of the "shekel. And why would the National Park Service take obsolete Israeli money? But I pulled out my wallet and found it was stuffed with Israel banknotes from the early 1970's. I guess that goes along with my driving a 1967 Sussita. I pulled out a bill.

"Do you have change for a Herzl?" I asked, referring to the portrait on the 100 Lira bill.

"I sure do," she says, and, after taking my money, handed me four banknotes with pictures of Albert Einstein, each worth 5 Lirot. For some reason I didn't reflect too much on why a lady park ranger from west Texas would know what a "Herzl" was and give the right change.

"So what do recommend I see in the park?" I asked after perusing an exhibit about how Jefferson Davis sent an army expedition to the area in the 1840's to see if camels would make useful mounts for the soldiers.

"Hell, the only place I'd come visit in July is the Chisos Basin, as it's about the only place where you won't fry your brain. But then, you're probably an Israeli, so you're used to brain-fries, I guess. Most people have more sense than to come here this time of year, so you won't have to worry about crowds. But go up to the basin, it's at 5,400 feet, that's 1,600 meters to your Israeli buddies, it should be tolerable up there.

"But when you're up there, watch out for the DovBears..."

"The what?" I said, mystified.

"The DovBears," she repeated. They look like regular bears, but they're chasidic or something. "

OK this is starting to get wierd when a lady with a west Texas drawl starts talking about chasidic bears.

"Anyway," she continued, "we had some folks visit here from some town in New York called Monsey, or maybe it was New Square, and they tried to talk the Superintendent into letting them hunt the DovBears. They said it was very important to protect the spirtual health of America from kefira. Well, the Superintendent didn't buy it. We just don't allow hunting in National Parks. Of course, if the Dovbears wander outside the park boundary....

"Come to think of it, I don't think you need to worry about the DovBears. You look like a Reform Jew, so protecting you from kefira is a lost cause..."

"No," I challenged her, "I'm not Reform, I'm Conservative."

"Yeah, right," she said, "if you're Conservative, then why the hell are you driving into the Park on Shabbos? Your rabbis only let you drive to shul on Shabbos... I guess you're another one of the dweebs who attends a Conservative shul, but is really Reform."

"Um, thanks," I said as I slipped out the door. What the hell is going on? A redneck Park ranger in West Texas is talking Jew stuff? And she has obsolete Israeli money in the till?

"Oh sir," the ranger came out the door and called out to me. "Y'all be careful out there. This here road is also the Comanche War Trail, and they sometimes send raiding parties down into Mexico to steal livestock and capture slaves."

What???!! Oh sure back 150 years ago, it was the Comanche War Trail, but is she serious that there are wild Indians about in the 21st century? Sure there are still Comanches, but raids to Mexico? I think she's been stationed out in this sun-blasted desert too long and needs a reassignment to a park with more moderate conditions.

Now thoroughly puzzled, I got back in my car and continued driving down the road through the desert. The scenery got a little more "Israeli," if you get my drift. More rocks and sand, less cactus and mesquite. I was starting to enjoy the drive, despite the sever heat shimmer that sometimes made it hard to see which way the road was going, when I noticed a large dust cloud ahead of me. As I drove up, my blood froze. For the dust cloud was raised by the hooves of hundreds of mounted and armed Indian warriors.

--To be continued

Monday, November 03, 2008

The "DovBear" of the 1860s?

The other day I was rooting around our local free book exchange with a buddy, when he shoved the following volume into my hot sweating hand:

The Polish Lad
By Isaac Joel Linetski
Translated from the Yiddish by Moshe Speigel
Introduction by Milton Hindus
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975
ISBN 0-8276-0065-8

The book in question purports to be the memoir of a human of the male gender raised in a Hasidic milieu in Poland during the 1840s/1850s. It is, of course, a "trenchant" satire of said milieu by a survivor. According to the biography provided in the introduction, Linetski was a son of a Hasidic Rabbi, who happened to be a "ilui," i.e., a Talmudic genius. It turns out that by the time he was 10 years old, his teacher told his father that there was nothing more they could teach him. (Of course that might say more about the quality of Hasidic educators of the time than it does about Linetski.) As you can imagine, Linetski soon got bored and started doing the 19th century equivalent of the "hasidic heretic" routine. This, as you could imagine, alarmed his father, and so he quickly married off his 14-year old son to a 12-year old (!) bride in an attemptto suppress the rebelion by giving the kid responsibilities. This didn't work too well, as the young Isaac quickly "corrupted" his spouse, so now Papa had two rebellious youths to deal with instead of one. Somehow he found a way to force a divorce (and those of us interested in a way to solve the aguna crisis need to research how this Hasidic rabbi was able to justify it under the halacha. I suspect it was not entirely voluntary on the part of two of the parties involved.) Anyway, after many trials and tribulations, our hero ended up in Odessa, where he found a love match raised a family, and became a well-regarded, if not financially successful writer.

This book was probably his best effort, and when it came out it was quite controversial. Unlike "Steimel," and the other athiest frummers on the web today, I would say that Linetski was more of a reformer, on the lines of DovBear. In fact, I think that DovBear would appreciate this short passage:

Chapter 2

At my age, my father expects me to be an Orthodox Jew

As soon as I reached the Age of four, my father took me in hand and began to drill me in the tenents of virtue and tradition. But if you suppose he taught me any of those stupid pprecepts with which the German Jews indoctrinate their children, such as giving homage to one's parents...--- well, if that is what you yhink, you are entirely wrong. Jews in Poland regard putting on such fine airs as clumsy and deserving of scorn. My Fathers teachings were diametrically opposed ... he urged me to be rude to my mother; my mother, in turn, exhorted me to show disrespect to my father, and they both encouraged me to greet honered guests with rude comments.

At the same time, he insisted on my observing certain precepts which even an elderly Orthodox Jew is not obliged to perform under Mosaic Law, but which muyst be heeded becuase of tradition. For instance, he taught me to hold on to my yarmulke at night, so as to keep it from slipping off my head while I slept. At the Festival of Purim I was supposed to do eighteen somersaults on the table in obedience to a certain ritual. During the Passover Seder he directed me in observing the ritual down to the last detail, and until the crack of dawn. On Yom kippur, I had to abstain from food until noon and to move about in my stocking feet thoughout the day. During the Feast of Tabernacles, I had to sleep in the booth even when it was freezing weather. I was adjured to comb my sidecurls once, and only once a week, on the eve of the Sabbath, when I also had to accompany my father to the ritual baths and have my head completely shaved. And other such virtues.

This is followed by a passage describing the riual baths that hints at things more ominuous:

"I could describe still other bizzare scenes for you ... but to my father, such practices were the quintessence of Judaism."

Now back when Linetski was writing, the Ashkenazic Jewish world was split into roughly 3 camps: The Hasidim, the Misnagim (what we might call today the "yeshivish") and the Reformers/Maskilim. Linetski was in the Reform/Maskil camp, but he doesn't apparently have much to say about the Misnagim. Maybe that's becuase they were less numerous in Poland than they were in other places (like Lithuania.) But today, there are really only two basic camps, because the Misnagim, for all their original violent opposition to Hasidic superstition, have by now more or less embraced many Hasidic practices and even viewpoints. I say this from the vantage of 30 years of close observation of an Orthodox Jewish community that had very little Hasidic influence when I first started observing them, but today they are virtually one and the same as Hasidim. The differences are superficial matters of ritual, and the fact that in this community, they still value their menfolk having careers and earning an honest living. (But, to be honest, some Hasidim earn an honest living, too. I'm thinking of a couple in Midtown Manhattan 20 years ago who had a camera store and actually gave me a fair price without too much of the BS that passed for marketing tacticis in that industry.)

Alas, today Linetski doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Everybody knows about Shalom and the Tevya Tales, but who knows about Linetski and The Polish Boy? Google him and see what I mean. The phrase descrining him is "obscure 19th century Yiddish writer." Well, I think that Isaac Joel Linetski's spiritula descendants should work to lift his memory from obscurity.