Jewish Population and Identity

Concept and Reality

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Sergio DellaPergola, Uzi Rebhun
Studies of Jews in Society
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , June
     262 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The edited volume Jewish Population and Identity is primarily the product of the 2013 World Congress of Jewish Studies. The editors Sergio Della Pergola and Uzi Rebhun gather together fourteen papers by seventeen authors whose works primarily endeavor both to show how Jewish populations are shifting or stable, and indirectly tackle the question of what, or whom, is Jewish across modern and recent historical contexts.

The book is divided into six parts comprised of two or three papers each: (1) Jewish Family and Intermarriage; (2) Jewish Identity; (3) A View from the United States; (4) Jewish Identity: A View from Israel; (5) Migration and Demographic Change: Latin America; (6) Migration and Demographic Change: Europe; and (6) Historical Demography.

For those who follow the subfield of Jewish demographics, the authors and their chapters will mostly feel familiar. One of the more interesting methodologies is the application of facet theory and similarity structure analysis to the study of Jewish populations in both the American (in the fourth paper, by Sergio Della Pergola, Shlomit Levy, Uzi Rebhun, and Dalia Sagi) and Israeli (in chapter 7 by Maya Shorer-Kaplan) contexts. While the book is in honor of Sydney Goldstein, and every chapter builds upon and furthers Goldstein’s work in some way, he is only explicitly cited twice in the volume, so readers should not expect a book expressly digging into his work and legacy, but rather texts built upon the wider foundation of Jewish demography Goldstein helped to lay.

The authors employ an array of methodologies to explore Jewish populations and identities, though as may be expected in a volume edited by Della Pergola and Rebhun, it is skewed towards quantitative methodologies.

There are a few exceptions to this, especially in the later papers. Carmel Chiswick looks at religious pluralism and state religion through the lens of economic theory. He writes that religious monopolies offer poorer services for higher prices than the free market of religious pluralism, and concludes that a move by Israel to end Orthodoxy’s monopoly in the Jewish sector would “generate more rather than less Jewish religious expression” (150).

Throughout the book, each paper stands on its own. But they often dovetail and indirectly dialogue with each other not only within the editor’s divisions, but also across them. For example, David J. Graham writes about how censuses pigeonhole people into categories (3) in part I (Jewish Family and Intermarriage). Then, in part 4 (Migration and Demographic Change: Latin America), Yaacov Rubel examines the problems of labeling in the context of Jews in Buenos Aires in Argentina’s 1895 census. He writes that due to how Jews were labelled, they were undercounted to such an extent that Rubel’s revised enlarged Jewish population count for 1895 is nearly three times the census count of 753 Jews. For those interested in how census data can be used and/or is problematic, three other papers in two other parts of the book also focus predominantly on censuses and/or the data they gather in terms of Jewish population and identity.

As with most edited volumes, direct dialogue between the papers is not present. Irith Cherniavsky writes that Jewish emigration from 1930s Poland was not dependent upon push factors, but rather factors in (then) Palestine (202). Whereas Mark Tolts writes that in post-Soviet immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union the push factor is decisive (226). Without a direct dialogue this seeming contradiction is never explored or explained. While those following the field may readily theorize it is due to differences in the immigration policies of British Mandatory Palestine and the modern state of Israel, the question is not explored. Other possible explanations such as differences in the push factors in 1930s Poland and post-Soviet FSU states are not discussed as the papers are not in direct dialogue.

Many of the papers may have been novel in the context of a 2013 conference, or even when the book was published in 2018. But reading them in mid-2021 takes away some of their novelty. For example, reading Barry Kosmin’s insight that American Jewry have both a growing secular Jewish demographic alongside the growing orthodox contingent (as opposed to only a growing orthodox contingent) (81) is no longer new but rather readily supported by data from the Pew Research Center’s “Jewish Americans in 2020.”

Indeed, about half the chapters read as though they had little to no updates since they were presented in 2013. Two of the chapters cite no works more recent than 2013, while five cite only one work from 2014 or later. In four of those five, the lone newer work cited is either the author’s own work or one of the editor’s works. However, not everything is similarly dated: a few of the papers deal primarily with data from after 2013 and as such were clearly written after the conference.

Overall, while there is little which pops out as groundbreaking in this book, it presents a several papers which exemplify differing sides of Jewish demography; several of which offer up new data, insights, and theories. It is the first book in the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry sponsored series Studies of Jews in Society from Springer (which in many ways is a continuation of the thirty volumes in the series Jewish Populations Studies). It has already been followed up by a second volume (Barry Chiswick, Jews at Work, Springer, 2020), and I look forward to reading subsequent books in the series, especially some focusing on more qualitative approaches to compliment the quantitative approaches dominant in the first two volumes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tyson Herberger is a PhD fellow in religious education at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sergio DellaPergola is Professor Emeritus and former Chairman of the Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.

Uzi Rebhun is Professor and former Chairman of the Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and incumbent of the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations.


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