The Concept of De-assimilation

Stanisław Krajewski: "The Concept of De-assimilation: The Example of Jews in Poland" and "Contemporary Jewry" discussion: Anna Landau-Czajka, Michał Bilewicz, Aleksandra Bilewicz, Diana Pinto, Geneviève Zubrzycki.

Contemporary Jewry

Vol.:(0123456789) Contemporary Jewry

The Concept of De-assimilation: The Example of Jews in Poland

Stanisław Krajewski

Accepted: 17 October 2023© The Author(s) 2023


After the 1968 emigration, very few Jews remained in Poland, and even more minis-cule was the number of “Jewish Jews.” Since then the number has grown somewhat,and much of it is due to the process of de-assimilation; i.e., some people with Jew-ish ancestors raised in completely Polonized families began to recover, reclaim, andreadapt their Jewish background. An analysis of this phenomenon is offered with aseries of putative reasons for its occurrence. The individuals constituting the “prod-ucts” of de-assimilation are the majority of Polish Jews today and form much ofthe current leadership. While individuals everywhere can strengthen their ties to the Jewish people and can experience teshuvah or another kind of “Judaization,” theprocess of de-assimilation does not seem to be reducible to those moves. It beginswith no Jewish identity, and is highly dependent on the attitudes and cultural trendsin the majority society. It does not remove the de-assimilationists from the major-ity culture. The phenomenon is general and deserves to be studied as a sociologi-cal mechanism working in other cases of assimilation to a majority culture. In the Jewish case, it is especially dramatic. Probably the first example can be found in theevolution of the Marrano communities settled in Holland. The presence of de-assim-ilation seems to differentiate some European, first of all East European, communi-ties from the globally dominant American and Israeli ones. Probably this rather newconcept is needed to describe a significant part of the world of the Jews of twenty-first century Europe.


The present paper basically presents a case study. At the same time, this case is con-sidered to be an example of a general phenomenon. The current Jewish communityof Poland is described and analyzed from the point of view of assimilation, or ratherthe reverse assimilation, herein called “de-assimilation.” The definition of de-assim-ilation is given in the section “The Concept of De-assimilation,”, including a discus-sion of its nature and of the term itself. The extent of assimilation of Polish Jewsin the wake of World War II, the shock of the 1968 antisemitic campaign, and theresulting emigration of Polish Jews is indicated in the section “Assimilation of Pol-ish Jews in Post-World War II Poland.” Against this background, the de-assimilationprocess and its impact is described in the section “The Process of De-assimilation.” An illustration provided by the comparison of names of Jewish leaders is given inthe section “An Illustration of the Extent of (De)Assimilation.” The putative reasonsfor de-assimilation are presented in the “Reasons for De-assimilation” section. Inthe “Further Research” section, further possible research problems are mentioned./1/

Before describing the Polish case, it is useful to pose the problem of whether thisspecific de-assimilation story is representative. As explained in the next sections,the de-assimilation of Polish Jews in recent decades begins with no Jewish identityand, while it is an individual identity evolution, it has a supra-individual quality:Most members of the present-day Jewish community have appeared as a result ofde-assimilation. So is it a special case or does it represent a more general trend inrecent Jewish history, present in other nations, especially the post-Communist ones?No definitive answer can be given by the present author; contributions of researchersfrom other Jewish communities are needed. However, it seems that similar processeshave been taking place in other countries, at least since 1989. In all East Europeanstates to the west of the former Soviet Union, small Jewish communities are recon-stituted, and new generations of members and leaders seem to emerge as a resultof the de-assimilation process, even though it is unclear whether this phenomenonexists elsewhere to the same extent as it does in Poland.

Similar processes, or at least processes similar in appearance, probably existedearlier and in other locations. The famous case is offered by the Spanish conversos (aka Marranos) who arrived in Holland in the seventeenth century. Recently, someof the Polish Jewish emigrants of 1968–1969 who went to Scandinavia or the USAexperienced their own de-assimilation, distinct from those who remained in Poland.Those who went to Israel had yet another powerful experience.

How similar or different all those cases were with respect to the Polish case, con-sidered here as paradigmatic, cannot be said without close analysis. Yet the con-cept of de-assimilation seems useful. It is related, but not reducible, to (religious) teshuvah, (re-)Judaization or identity strengthening. According to Konstanty Gebert, in the 1990s journalists began to write about “a Jewish rebirth, or revitalisation, orrenaissance. Clearly, something re-Jewish was going on there” (Gebert2020, p.66)./2/ My proposal: rather than “re-something,” it was de-assimilation.

More: ....

1/The sections “Assimilation of Polish Jews in Post-World War II Poland,” “The Process of De-assimi-lation,” and “Reasons for De-assimilation” are partly taken from the present author’s chapters in (Polish)books 2019a, 2019b, 2019c, 2019d. More autobiographical details can be found in those books than inthe present paper. Also Krajewski (2009) contains a personal accoun

2/The paper by Gebert (2020) gives an informed personal account of the recent story of a segment ofthe Polish Jewish community. A variety of accounts in English can be found in the Taube Foundationbrochure (2015). The issue of de-assimilation is not sufficiently stressed in more comprehensive accountsof Jews in Poland in the last 50 years such as Polonsky (2012) or even the catalogue to the Polin museumcore exhibition (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Polonsky2014), in which Krajewski (2014) is included.


A Response to Stanislaw Krajewski’s De-assimilation Proposal (12.2023)

Anna Landau-Czajka

De-assimilation Without Assimilation? The Continuities in the Polish Secular Model of Jewishness(12.2023)

Michał Bilewicz, Aleksandra Bilewicz

The Concept of De-assimilation: The Example of Jews in Poland(11.2023)

Diana Pinto

The Social Context of De-assimilation and Its Challenges(11.2023)

Geneviève Zubrzycki

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There were a number of factors, some connected to American society and others to specifically issues, that led to the establishment of the ASSJ at that particular juncture. The preceding decade had been characterized by broad social activism in American society. Toward the end of the 1960s, a growing number of committed Jews had become involved in the ongoing protest campaigns on behalf of Soviet Jews wishing to emigrate, as well as in efforts to alleviate the situation of the Jewish poor in America's cities.

Within academia, there was widespread rejection of the rigid, “values-free” approach within sociology in favor of more intensive engagement in matters of race and ethnicity. Indeed, American society as a whole was characterized at this time by heightened ethnic consciousness (for Jews, the watershed event was the Six-Day War of June 1967). The late 1960s was also marked by a heightened religious consciousness, which appeared to spell an end to previous discussions concerning “the death of God” or America as a secular society.

Among Jewish college and university students there appeared to be emerging a new breed of Jews, some of whom were survivors of the Holocaust or the children of survivors, many of them Orthodox or traditional Conservative in religious orientation, who were proud to be “Jewish Jews.” Notable among these were individuals who had gone to Jewish summer camps, who belonged to Zionist or synagogue youth movements, and/or were members of Jewish student organizations such as Hillel or Yavneh. One of the main outcomes of this heightened Jewish identification was the establishment and rapid proliferation of Jewish studies courses and programs. Organizationally, it was reflected in the founding, in 1969, of a specifically Jewish academic association, the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). By the end of its first year, 2000, AJS had about 1,400 members and it grew to 1,881 members by 2011. Another significant factor which provided fertile ground for the emergence of the ASSJ was the enhanced ties between Jewish communal agencies and scholars engaged in Jewish social research projects. Prominent among such projects was the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), which was first conducted in 1970–1972 under the auspices of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF). The existence of an organization such as the ASSJ came to be viewed as providing a reservoir of social scientists help analyze and disseminate the data, which would then serve as an important planning tool for CJF and other communal agencies. At the same time, it was hoped that such data would also further social science research. As it turned out, no full-scale analysis of the first NJPS ever appeared. However, several important reports were issued in the wake of the survey, and from the mid-1970s until the 1990s, these reports were the major source of empirical data for the growing social scientific literature on American Jews.