Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984
Jewish identity is more than a definition. It is an experience.
Most of the usual definitions of the Jew have very little to do with Jewish experience today. They are propaganda pieces, designed to prove a point more than to reveal a reality.
Interfaith banquet definitions of the Jew express the need of many rabbis and lay people to prove that Jews are a religious denomination, a theological fraternity of like believers. Zionistic definitions of the Jew emphasize the importance of nation and culture to justify the creation of a Jewish state. And anti- Semitic perceptions of the Jew dwell on racial uniqueness, a convenient excuse to justify exclusion or extermination.
Even the familiar fallback position— “Jews are an enigma” — is a convenient way to avoid examining our reality. It cloaks us in mystery: a preternatural puzzlement in a natural world
Defining what we are is not the province of propagandists with ideological vested interests. What we are depends on what history has made us. Being Jewish today in America is living the results of that history, whether or not those results conform to preferred labels.
A humanistic definition of Jewish identity, being empirical, starts with the Jewish experience and works up to the definition — not the other way around.
What is that experience — especially in North America?
Being Jewish today means that no single set of ideas and values makes you Jewish. There is just too much variety. A group that includes theists and atheists, Lubavitchers and civil libertarians under the same label, with the acknowledgment of the outside world, is no ideological fraternity. Dealing with Jewish identity as a belief system is naive. When Jews are behaving normally, they rarely ask each other theological questions. Only when they are interrogated by the Gentile world do creedal presentations become important. Converts are forced to affirm convictions that born Jews are never asked to endorse.
Being Jewish today means that philosophic affinity transcends the Jewish connection. Many Jews feel a stronger bond of shared belief with non-Jews than they do with fellow-Jews. The secular Jew can communicate more easily with the secular Gentile than with the Hasidic Jew. And the Hasidic Jew can talk more easily about the Bible with a fundamentalist Christian than with a humanistic Jew. “A Jewish world view” is an illusion. In a world in which religious fanaticism is on the rise, the Jewish community is becoming polarized. Because Orthodox segregationists share no major belief premises with secularized professionals, each group communicates better with its counterparts elsewhere than with each other. While liberal and fundamentalist Jews may agree on the value of Jewish identity, they agree on very little else.
Being Jewish today means that Jewish holidays are the major expression of Jewish culture. Jewish languages are virtually nonexistent in the English-speaking environment of North America. Yiddish is a nostalgic exercise, and Hebrew is an Israeli phenomenon. Ashkenazic delicatessen behavior is only uniquely Jewish when Jews are celebrating Jewish festivals. The holidays are the pragmatic heart of Jewish cultural activity in the Diaspora. Even part-time traditional Jews get more traditional when the festivals roll by. Rosh Hashana, Hanukka and Pesakh become the special signs of Jewish identity. They are the bonding activity which unites all Jews, whether traditional or secular. No other Jewish cultural enterprise has survival value in the American milieu.
Being Jewish today can be a significant experience even without formal religion and culture. In a world in which Jewish identity is important to non-Jews, Jews are always having to deal with their Jewishness. Anti-Semitism persists and provokes some Jews into reluctant confrontation. But it is the overwhelming presence of American Jews in American high culture that makes them a very visible and significant minority, even to friendly Gentiles. The importance of Jews makes Jewish identity important. Books, newspapers and periodicals deal with Jewish identity to such a degree that even the uninvolved Jew frequently is compelled to reassess his attitude to Jewishness. From Philip Roth to Norman Podhoretz, the American literary scene reserves a special place for Jewish anxiety.
Being Jewish today is often a name game. Cohens and Levis have to deal with their Jewish identity even if they choose to be Catholic. Kurt Svensen does not, even if he chooses to be Jewish. Names arouse expectations. In an urban world of strangers, stereotypes become the only reasonable way to fend off chaos. The Katzmans and Finkels of America bear the expectations of their neighbors and of their fellow Jews. Intermarriage proves the point. Offspring with Jewish last names have to deal with their Jewish identity. Children with alternative labels have other options. Internal belief is often less significant than appellative packaging.
Being Jewish today is living with intermarriage. With two out of five Jews marrying Gentiles, the varieties of Jews proliferate. Converted Jews, half-Jews and quarter-Jews dot the American social landscape and replace the comfortable tightknit tribal solidarity of years past. Many Jews, typically American, straddle two or more ethnic origins. They simultaneously enjoy Ashkenazic grandmothers and Italian ones, Jewish cousins and Anglo-Saxon ones. The social isolation that Jewishness used to bring is replaced by an ethnic conviviality, characteristic of the American experience. Jewish establishment institutions are so geared to dealing with either- or situations that they are having great difficulty handling the mixtures.
Being Jewish today is an experience of more funerals than baby namings. The birth rate of American Jews has very little to do with the reputed fertility of Hebrew women in the Exodus story. Ambition, education and female liberation have produced the inevitable preference for small families or no families. The focus of Jewish attention is shifting from scarce children to profuse mid-life anxieties. “Passages” and the anxieties of personal fulfilment have now entered the programming of Jewish institutions with a vengeance. Singles and the unattended old are important elements of community caretaking and concern. The fanatic ultra-Orthodox segments of the Jewish world are bound to maintain their clout — even with attrition — because they are the only Jews committed to reproduction. Liberal Jews are the ones who have the most reason to worry about maintaining their numbers.
Being Jewish today is always bumping into a discussion about the Holocaust. During the past ten years public awareness of the greatest of all Jewish disasters has spread. The media, university curricula and even presidential commissions have made millions of non-Jews aware of this twentieth century horror. The revival of Holocaust consciousness is coincident with another development. As Jews throughout America move into the neighborhoods and professions that signify success and power, they prefer to be seen as vulnerable outcasts and victims. In a time when commentators point to Jewish economic and political power, it seems safer to focus on our humiliation.
Being Jewish today is handling the anxiety of Jewish survival. Many Jews in America spend so much time worrying about the future of Jewish identity that they have very little energy left over to enjoy its present. Such worriers take all the fun out of Jewish programming. Unless the book or play, the talk or meditation deals with a uniquely Jewish theme (and how many are there?), the value of the event in a Jewish institution is questioned. Countless community centers and culture providers are intimidated into settling for second-rate programs that demonstrate some vague Jewish connection. American synagogues and cultural institutions are less interesting than their members, who are quite universal in their interests and behavior. Israelis have it easier. They just do anything they want to, in Hebrew. Shakespeare in Tel Aviv is a Jewish event.
Being Jewish today means thinking about Israel a lot. Zionism is the greatest Jewish passion of the twentieth century. Nothing Jewish excites Jews more than Israel. (Even the rabbis who regret this overwhelming attachment have come up with no real alternative; talking about spirituality seems a lackluster substitute.) Jews in America often know more about the internal politics of the Knesset than about the deliberations in their own state legislatures. Political candidates who present themselves to Jewish audiences often find that the major issue of interest is their commitment to the strength and survival of the Jewish state. And Jews who talk about Israel with Gentiles frequently discover that these outsiders view the Israeli prime minister as “their” leader. As American Jews become less ethnic in their own behavior, their self- image and observed image are becoming more nationalistic. As Israeli Jews — because of their birth rate — become a higher and higher percentage of world Jewry, this connection will grow more intense.
Being Jewish today in America is dealing with the guilt of making Jewish identity a secondary identity. Most Jews have professional and recreational agendas that are far more powerful than the religious and ethnic attachments that continue to be an important part of their lives. Since many of them were taught to view their Jewish loyalties as primary, they struggle to negotiate between official indoctrination and the reality of their own behavior. The ideal solution would be to acknowledge that Jewish identity in America is indeed secondary, though valuable. But most of the Jewish public are not ready for such a confession. Their historic skills make them much more comfortable with guilt.
Being Jewish today is to feel a sense of extended family with other Jews. Underneath all the veneer of official pronouncements about shared beliefs and shared values is this consciousness of cousin kinship, shared history and shared danger. Neither a unique culture nor a unique religion defines the Jews of America in the broadest sense. Sentimental attachments, an awareness of residual hostility from outsiders, and a non-linguistic ethnic solidarity come closer to reality.