Why should it matter? Why this hangup with continuity?
God, indeed, promises to make of Abraham a “great nation,” a “great and mighty nation,” several times—“I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore….” Yet, while millions are no doubt a much larger number than Abraham and his wife, the Jews have never been such a great nation demographically.
For the first century of the Common Era, before the catastrophic defeats at the hands of the Romans and the loss of the polity in Israel, the highest estimates run to about five million. During the Middle Ages there seem to have been no more than about a million Jews in the world at a time. At present there are about fourteen million, no more than 0.2 percent of the world population.
By far the largest centers are Israel, with over six million, and the United States, with 5.5 million. American Jewry, however, has high rates of assimilation and intermarriage. My impression is that—outside of the Orthodox community—there are by now few if any American Jewish parents like my father (or, for that matter, Abraham). That may be good for commonality and integration, but it’s not good for the “stars of the heaven.”
That leaves Israel. From about six hundred thousand in 1948, the year it was established, its Jewish population has grown tenfold. And it grows further every year; immigrants keep coming, and fertility rates are the highest in the Western world. From the time I left for college to the time I left for Israel twelve years later, hitching myself to this vessel of continuity became something I had to do.
And now it’s always around me, in a thousand manifestations, and I’m always exulting in it.