- Jan 31, 2004
January 31, 2004
Egon Mayer, Sociologist Who Dealt With Jewish Issues, Dies at 59
By JOSEPH BERGER
Egon Mayer, a Hungarian immigrant who became one of the leading sociologists of American Jewry, studying the intricate variety of religious observance and interfaith marriage, died yesterday at his home in Laurel Hollow, N.Y. He was 59.
The cause was cancer of the gall bladder said his wife, Marcia Kramer Mayer.
Dr. Mayer, who managed to sustain an old-world bonhomie in tackling some of the most contentious issues in modern Jewish life, spent more than a quarter century studying the religious habits of Jews. In surveys for organizations like the American Jewish Committee, or in studies he did as a professor at Brooklyn College and the City University's Graduate Center, he counted specifics, like how many Jews were lighting candles on Friday nights, or giving their children bar mitzvahs, or attending synagogues.
Although the results sometimes disheartened the most observant Jews, Dr. Mayer seemed to be reassured by the enduring connection even secular Jews found to their identity. But no topic was more difficult than interfaith marriage, and Dr. Mayer tackled it head on.
In one interview, he reported that 37 percent of Jewish men who married for the first time in the period from 1983 to 1987 married gentiles, a sharp increase from a rate of 7 percent in 1955. "This amounts to a total demographic revolution," he said.
Dr. Mayer suggested that these findings were producing a split between lay Jews and their rabbis, with overwhelming majorities of Conservative and Reform Jews wanting rabbis to officiate at such marriages if the couple raised their children as Jewish, while the preponderance of rabbis were adamantly opposed.
Departing from his researcher's neutrality, Dr. Mayer urged Jews to welcome gentile spouses, including those who did not want to convert or whose professed Judaism did not meet the requirements of Jewish law. By doing so, he said, Jews would sustain Jewish observance in families and maintain overall Jewish population numbers even as intermarriage and a low birth rate were contributing to a decline.
His book "Love and Tradition: Marriage Between Jews and Christians" (Plenum, 1985, and Schocken, 1987) examined some of these issues.
Dr. Mayer was born in 1944 in Switzerland. His parents had arrived there as part of a group of 1,684 Hungarian Jews who were allowed by Adolf Eichmann to buy their freedom after negotiations led by Dr. Rudolf Kasztner, a rescuer of Jews from the death camps. In recent years, Dr. Mayer's research focused on the life of Dr. Kasztner, who was killed in Israel in 1957 by extremists who felt that he should not have dealt with the Nazis.
The family returned to Hungary after the war, and Dr. Mayer grew up in Budapest. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the family emigrated to the United States. Dr. Mayer lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and attended an Orthodox yeshiva.
He studied at Brooklyn College and the New School for Social Research, and received his doctorate in sociology from Rutgers University in 1975. He had served on Brooklyn College's faculty since 1970 and was chairman of the sociology department before he fell ill six months ago. His book "From Suburb to Shtetl" (Temple University Press, 1979) was a study of his Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, examining how Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews adapted to modernity.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Mayer is survived by his daughter, Daphne; two stepdaughters, Rena Fox and Danielle Kramer; his mother, Hedy Mayer; and his brother, George.
CCC Metro TLC
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