Contemporary Jewry

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 63–85 | Cite as

Accounting for Jewish Secularism: Is a New Cultural Identity Emerging?



Barry Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, and Egon Mayer have observed an increase taking place in the number of Jews who identified with “no religion” during the 1990s. They have proposed two explanations. Kosmin and Keysar interpret this increase as part of a larger American secularization trend. Mayer understands it to be a specific “disaffection from organized Jewish life.” Implicit in both explanations is the emergence of a new secular Jewish identity that excludes identification with Judaism. As such, this new identification represents a radical departure from the American Jewish norm. American Jews have long been comfortable identifying with Judaism even though their outlook is as secular as the most secular of all Americans. Using the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey and the 2001 American Jewish Identification Survey these two hypotheses are tested and rejected because secular Jews were found to be less “ethnic” than Jews by religion both in terms of attitudes and behaviors. Instead a third explanation is explicated which attributes the increase in the number of secularly identified Jews to a compositional change in the American Jewish population. Jews with no religion are overwhelmingly of mixed ancestry; and the number of such Jews increased dramatically between 1990 and 2000 as a result of intermarriage. Two OLS regressions show that both ethnic attitudes and behaviors are influenced primarily by Jewish background experiences. Jews of mixed ancestry are less likely to have these and thus score lower. A third OLS regression shows that these background experiences strengthen ethnic attachments which in turn influence ethnic behaviors. A logistic regression demonstrates that ancestry does have a direct influence on identification as secular above and beyond Jewish background experiences. Secular Jews choose the “no religion” option because it allows them to identify as Jews without having to choose between either of their parents’ two religions.


Jewish identity Cultural Judaism Intermarriage Mixed ancestry 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of ReligionLos AngelesUSA

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