Carmel Chiswick. Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition.

Author:Fishman, Sylvia Barack
Position:Book review

Carmel Chiswick. Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2.014. pp.

In Judaism in Transition, Carmel Chiswick, Research Professor of Economics at George Washington University, uses economic concepts to demystify recent developments in American Jewish life. Chiswick distinguishes between her understanding of the "Great Tradition" of foundational Judaic belief over millennia and "Small Traditions" in particular communities. Historically, "each Small Tradition faced the same basic problem of how to preserve the Great Tradition for future generations" (201). American Judaism represents a particular, evolving "Small Tradition." The concept of scarcity illuminates American Jewish lifestyle choices: Jews on every income level have limited quantities of time, money, and personal energy; what they choose to spend on religion competes with other possible choices. The popular phrase "the high cost of being Jewish" refers not just to direct financial costs but also to indirect costs in scarce personal time and energy.

Chiswick explains that in America's pluralistic open environment, Jewish religious rules are often experienced as expensive. American Jews--especially in liberal wings of Judaism that reject the concept of religious obligations-fulfill Jewish expectations "only if the benefits were seen to be large, while low benefit rules might be obeyed if the cost was low" (8). Passover Seder attendance is perceived has having large benefits and low personal cost, as a yearly activity that enjoys popular general social approval. In contrast, observance of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) carries a high cost socially, perhaps professionally, and financially. American Jews also weigh their children's educational choices, assessing direct and indirect cost against perceived benefits.

Chiswick explains how Jewish education-both formal and informal--creates "Jewish human capital" that enhances a person's participation in Judaism's religious, communal, and cultural life. In addition to the cognitive information about Jewish history, laws, and folkways imparted in the classroom, synagogue attendance and Jewish summer camps often add the dimension of learning traditional Jewish liturgies and songs and Hebrew as an ethnic language-an important part of Jewish human capital. Feelings of connection to the modern State of Israel also increase Jewish human capital. As Chiswick notes, in economic...

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