Jewish Identity, Up For Grabs

Special To The Jewish Week
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
‘Very few people know who I am,” Salvador Dalí is reputed to have said, “And I am not one of them.” Well, count me in — at least when it comes to the question of what is a Jew. Are Jews a national group? A religion? A race? Are Jews an “ethnicity” — whatever that means? A language group? All of the above? Some of the above? These questions — the classic “Who are we?” and the tougher “Who am I?” — have bedeviled Jews since Hellenistic times and earlier.  Periodically, the “Who is a Jew?” stew bubbles over into crisis, creating rifts between the pluralistic dispensation of American Jewry and the sovereign dispensation of Israel. Further, in America, for most Americans ethnicity has been defined by ancestry — ethnic options and ethnic choices are the norm — being Jewish can be most elusive. Is “Jewish” an ethnic or religious adjective? With everything that has been written about Jewish identity — indeed, about identity, period — one would think that there is not much new to say. Guess what? There is. University of Michigan political scientist Zvi Gitelman, who has written extensively about the Jews of Eastern Europe, tackles this estimable question of Jewish identity from a historical perspective. The 15 essays in his superb book “Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution” — each by a master of the field — track nothing less than the idea of Judaism itself from ancient times to the murky present. Gitelman’s authors seek to understand the relationship between Jewish religion and Jewish ethnicity by surveying the ways in which Jews, for these many centuries, have defined, and in fact re-defined, themselves. Right off the bat, though, there is a definitional problem. The very title of Zvi Gitelman’s book leads us into a deep dilemma. The three words that are used — “religion,” “ethnicity” and “identity” — are simple on their face, but they are collectively a semantic morass. What is “religion?” What is “identity?” Most difficult, what is “ethnicity?” Identity, at least in the United States, in recent decades has been all about demographic measurement. Jewish identity used to be easy to measure. Back in the 1950s, when the early identity studies were conducted, identity was about religion and ritual: if you scored high on the “ritual package” — lighting Shabbat candles, attending a Pesach seder — you scored high on Jewish identity, period. Non-observant Jews, however, began asking, “You mean that if I’m not kosher, then I’m deficient in my Jewish identity? What?! That’s what these measures are telling me!” And indeed the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) — revolutionary in many ways — gave the community new protocols for looking at identity. The most important findings of the 1990 NJPS were not those on intermarriage but were the responses to the question, “What do you mean when you say that you are Jewish?” Respondents were given four choices: Nationality, Religion, Ethnicity, and Culture. Some 70 percent of the interviewees responded, “I am Jewish by ‘Culture.’” So what’s identity? More difficult is “ethnicity” — and since “Religion or Ethnicity?” is all about ethnicity, it’s not a bad idea to get a handle on this most elusive concept. Unfortunately, we have to wait until the penultimate page of “Religion or Ethnicity?” — and in a footnote at that! — to get a definition of the word. The problem is that “ethnicity” is a term coined by American sociologists, and is most applicable to American society. “Ethnicity” in its basic sense refers to those cultural traits retained by immigrant groups from their original home culture. Language, dress, modes of behavior, food, perhaps history, religion — these are ethnic traits. Throughout the book there is some confusion about ethnicity. Did I just say “religion?” What’s that? There, I’m not gonna go. The definitional dilemmas are important, but they do not diminish from the comprehensive international perspective on Jewish identity that is creatively curated by Gitelman and cogently presented by his authors.  “Religion or Ethnicity?” is contoured historically; its four sections surgically divide the question geographically. The four splendid chapters in the first section, “Judaism and Jewishness in the Premodern Era,” set a historical and religious context for the essays in the rest of the book. Gabriele Boccacini’s essay on Judaism in early Israel is a solid survey of the rabbinic/Hellenistic fault lines in the Second-Temple era; and Miriam Bodian is quirkily incisive in her chapter on “Crypto-Jewish Criticism of Tradition and its Echoes in Jewish Communities.” Bodian cogently argues that early challenges to Rabbinic UNCAP? authority were progenitors of the modern religious and secular Jewish movements that re-defined Jewish identity. The last three sections of the book address the modern era, and beyond.  Essays on the challenges of secular Jewishness in the U.S. and Western Europe in the 20th century (David E. Fishman’s fascinating look at “Yiddish Schools in America and the Problem of Secular Jewish Identity” is a great example of how Gitelman curates an exhibition made of unusual tapestries); four incisive chapters on secular Jewishness in Israel (although I would have welcomed an analysis, missing in this book, of the fissures within the religious world in Israel); and three chapters on secular Jewishness in the diaspora — are all very different one from the other, and each one is a gem. Noteworthy are the important essays by the late Charles Liebman (with Yaacov Yadgar) on the religious-secular divide in Israel; by Shachar Pinsker, making sense of modern and contemporary Hebrew literature; and by sociology veteran Calvin Goldscheider, on America — I don’t always agree with Goldscheider, but he identifies key issues in American Jewish life. Zvi Gitelman’s conclusion? As we move along in the 21st century, and continue to question if we are Jewish by “religion” or “ethnicity,”  Gitelman answers with a forthright “Maybe.” Citing many data and even more analyses in this book and from other studies, Gitelman notes that while many Jews are attracted to that phenomenon called Judaism, “powerful forces pull even greater numbers away from it.” The healthy debate around the very issue of Jewish identity, avers Gitelman, will continue to ensure the survival of Jewishness of some kind or other. This book is a welcome and worthy contribution to that debate.

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