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"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Jewish: To be or not to be?

Posted by lchaimlover on July 10, 2007

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Are we Jewish always, or Jewish by choice?

That’s the Hamlet of questions being posed to young Jews in the Diaspora by Rachel Fish, a student activist who told a conference in Jerusalem that young Americans are Jewish by choice. She claims that kol Yisroel, Jewish solidarity, doesn’t hold sway over us anymore. She claims that birthright isn’t enough to make us Jewish. She claims we have to reclaim our Jewish nationalism. She says that things have always been this way. While I have to admit, technically being a Jew is a choice for me, it doesn’t seem like one. When I discovered my pintele Yid, it didn’t seem as if I were choosing, it seemed as if I had discovered my path. Yes, Robert Frost does lead us to believe that we choose our paths, whether they be well traveled or not, I feel like our paths choose us. Being Jewish, to me, seems to be a part of our identity, something you say even if you don’t mean to, because it defines you.

And if we choose not to be Jewish, where does the Jewish go? Can we hide it? Joyce Carol Oates was told she looked Jewish her whole life, then one day she learned. surprise, she actually was. Her gradnmother had hidden it from the family because of the Holocaust.

So it is a definition or an addendum?

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16 Responses to “Jewish: To be or not to be?”

  1. squeedle said

    “When I discovered my pintele Yid, it didn’t seem as if I were choosing, it seemed as if I had discovered my path.”

    When I decided I wanted to convert, I could have kicked myself for being too pigheaded (ha!) to seriously consider it sooner. Second, I felt like I had come home. (Some people would say this has implications about the nature of my soul.)

    This article and your comments make it clear to me the nature of the two routes to “citizenship” in the Jewish nation. You can be born a Jew, and you can be “naturalized.” There are a lot of American citizens who are against the basic principles on which the country is founded, and others who simply don’t care and don’t participate. Does this make them less American, or even not an American? Is it important to the health and future of the United States for people to be personally invested in America? Maybe not all of these have simple yes or no answer, but I think the analogy is almost completely applicable to the Jewish nation.

  2. Evahava said

    I love all discussions about Jewish identity. I personally live a secular life but i lit my first Shabbat candle a few months ago. I can say that i had no idea that lighting the Shabbat candle would feel this way. I was truly overwhelmed with inner peace and serenity.

    If you too are interested in bringing spirituality in your lifestyle, go to http://www.fridaylight.org. It’s a tremendously inspiring website about Shabbat candle lighting. I recommend it to all Jewish women.

  3. minsky said

    Is birthright enough to make us Jewish? Do we have to reclaim our Jewish nationalism? Is Rachel Fish right to question Jewish solidarity?

    I like Squeedle’s response, about naturalization and birth. Very apt analogy, and I share Evahava’s enthusiasm for the issue, but I feel the central question posed is one about our future. Fish is basically asking how being Jewish today will impact our being Jewish tomorrow. As she puts it “Young Jews do not have a collective identity. In the age of multi-culturalism… young Jewish adults do not wish to carry the burden of Jewish history.”

    Plenty of statistics exist. The numbers on how many Jews are Jews because of birth, conversion, choice, whether they are Jews ethnically or religiously or culturally, or just due to their last name, exist. They can be fished out somewhere in the digital netherworlds. They are US centric, i.e. I am not aware of any numbers for Israel or Mexico, but perhaps this makes them even more incisive and relevant. What they show, is that Jewish identity is largely inherited, and the single most common way of becoming a Jew if you don’t have Jewish lineage, is through conversion. This already warrants a pause. First of all, if Jewish identity is largely inherited, then the question of choice becomes secondary. Rather than choosing to be Jewish, it is about choosing not to. A feat, I personally believe, entirely rare and marginal, and a feat at that. Witness the countless Jewish christians, communists, muslims… we still think of them as Jewish… leaving them with self-denial.

    Second of all, if the most accessible route to Jewishness consists of Conversion, such a route differs from the route of born-Jewish. One is a case of lineage, the other of religion. To take the naturalization analogy. If you want to become a president or vice president, or speaker of either house or senate, naturalization won’t do. To stretch it even further, if you are an accomplished Jew back in 1920, and a US citizen, balloting for president is pretty much not your option. You may be a citizen, but you are second class, because your not WASP.

    As concerns the Jewish community, two-tier membership remains an unresolved issue.

  4. Friar Yid said

    I think there’s definitely some merit to the argument that “our paths choose us,” but this also complicates the question of whether Jewishness is born or bred, because not everyone born of the same parents or who has the same upbringing turns out the same.

    I was raised in an extremely secular home along with a younger brother. Through a series of personal experiences, Judaism became incredibly relevant to me. This has not happened with him and thus he alternately characterizes himself as an atheist or, occasionally, atheist Jew. Our situation is actually very interesting because it demonstrates that a person’s internal path, compass, personality, interests, what-have-you, may be (at least in some cases) more of a determining factor than who ones parents’ are or even how one is raised. The question of someone like Oates is quite instructive- how is someone like her, or a person who only identifies as a Jew by virtue of being descended from Jews (and not converting to something else) to be “counted?” Is identity as simple a matter as a designation on a passport, or do you actually have to actively embrace and engage with it? For some reason, saying that anyone with Jewish ancestry (but who may not give a fig about that ancestry or its trickle-down consequences on their self-perception or perception about Jewishness) doesn’t quite sit well with me.

    As to Fish’s point, I think as people living in a modern age and a post-Enlightenment society, the question of identity and affiliation has to be seen, at least partially, in terms of choice. Because there are little external factors dictating people’s lifestyles, the decision to be (or stay, or practice) Jewish is, to a large degree, a personal one, and perhaps one that not only needs to be evaluated and decided by each generation, but multiple times over individual people’s lives. Minsky’s argument about the issue rather being choosing to not be Jewish supposes a pre-existent Jewish identity that people are raised within that they then struggle with or reject. That certainly happens, but I think at this point, generations after immigration and assimilation, there are probably just as many, if not more, cases, at least in America, where what you are dealing with are young Jews being raised as nominal “Jews” with no real conception of what that means, either via religion or nationalism. In such a scenario, it takes an active decision to even begin exploring what “being Jewish” means- and, absent that choice or some other major influence (such as being sent to a Jewish school), the likely outcome will be someone who has little interest in, knowledge of, or association with, Jewishness.

    Fish’s comment about needing to “reclaim Jewish nationalism” is complex and rather challenging, for a number of reasons. Is Jewish nationalism the same as having a religious Jewish identity? Can one exist without the other? Is there a way to encourage Diaspora Jews with no interest in making aliyah to still feel some sort of involvement or connection with Zionism (perhaps part of the problem is that today’s Zionism is too “Zion”-centric)? Part of the dilemma here seems to be that there is a need for more avenues for people to become engaged with Jewish identity, “nationalism” or otherwise.

    The end of the Ynet piece was quite depressing and illustrative of the gap between some older members of the Jewish establishment and young folks, activists and otherwise, on the ground. Foxman is essentially saying the answer to young Jews being turned off about being Jewish is to send them to day schools and give them a trip to Israel- neither of which, in my mind, actually answers the larger questions and challenges raised by Fish about how to make people WANT to be/stay Jewish.

  5. Friar Yid said

    Sorry, one of my sentences was missing a verb. Should read,

    For some reason, saying that anyone with Jewish ancestry (but who may not give a fig about that ancestry or its trickle-down consequences on their self-perception or perception about Jewishness) should be automatically included as an undifferentiated Jew doesn’t quite sit well with me.

  6. Oyster said

    Evahava, did you see our post on Hannah Engle, z”l?

  7. Oyster said

    Ah, I knew that her name sounded familiar! I worked with Rachel on the David Project (aka “Columbia Unbecoming”), and is a mutual friend of Ariel Beery, cyber-Zionist without peer.

  8. squeedle said

    I know and have known people who self-identify as Jewish, but if they didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know. If one’s lifestyle, values, and beliefs are not different from the nominally Christian majority (including celebrating Christmas), what identity is there to reclaim?

    Let me make this more generalized – when we decide that one’s identity/lifestyle is completely up to the individual without asking people to consider the ramifications, then we can forget about calling for a renewal of any communal identity at all. Under a value system where “I” always trumps “we,” this is inappropriate. On the other hand, when “we” always trumps “I”, we end up heavily indoctrinating our children and trying to fit everyone into the same mold, at the expense of many individuals. We see the price of the former in American society. We see the price of the latter in Communism and fundamentalist religion. Obviously, there needs to be a balance. But if you as a parent don’t clearly value Jewish identity, if you don’t raise your children to value Jewishness, and if you don’t provide reinforcement for these values outside the home as well (Jewish education, Jewish friends, other Jewish adult role models), the likelihood that these values stick with your kids diminishes with the lack of each of these factors. That some 90% of Amish stay within the Amish community when they grow up is extremely relevant here, and is worth investigating.

    However I think there is plenty of reason to have hope. Lapsed Jews are a perennial problem. However, a sense of Jewish identity throughout the ages prevailed, despite apathy and active efforts to quash it. At the same time, everywhere there are Jews, they look much like their neighbors. It’s clear there always has been and likely always will be intermarriage. Despite the general preference in the Torah, Jews obviously frequently marry those who were not born Jews. There is recent scientific research suggesting that not only is this a good thing in terms of genetic diversity, but maybe we can’t even help it.

    It is fascinating to me that Jewishness is matrilineal, because human beings are female exogamous, that is, the woman typically leaves her family or tribe and joins that of her spouse. Judaism asserts that it’s the woman who preserves tradition in the home, which is the center of Jewish religious life. It makes complete sense (to me) that given this, the children of women marrying outside the Tribe are considered Jewish, whereas those of non-Jewish women marrying into the Tribe who don’t convert aren’t, and in the Bible we see they cause a lot of grief. The ones who do convert – such as Ruth – are praised both specifically and generally – reinforcing the desired behavior of preserving Jewish tradition.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t worry about it at all – on the contrary – but I definitely think there’s no need to panic. All things of value require maintenance.

    The other question I wanted to pose: in countries where Jews have been excluded from larger society, even those who were “secular” Jews essentially still lived the lifestyle of religious Jews – I suppose that it’s just easier. Atheists have probably always been around. Can we actively encourage irreligious Jews to investigate the merit of at least some aspects of an observant Jewish life? One of the reasons I’ve accepted the level of observance that I have is I see inherent value in those habits, not just because my G0d has commanded me. I personally have zero problem with people coming to shul and participating in services and other communal activities alongside me; in fact, I would welcome it if I had the chance. Do you think that this is a reasonable strategy?

  9. squeedle said

    Here’s a reference for 90% retention rate in the Amish community

  10. Friar Yid said

    That some 90% of Amish stay within the Amish community when they grow up is extremely relevant here, and is worth investigating.

    Except I don’t think that for most American Jews, the Amish are the target community we want to emulate. The Amish, like the ultra-Orthodox communities, manage to have fairly good retention rates, but succeed at this particular goal at the expense of many others, including educational and vocational opportunities, to say nothing of awareness of other people, cultures, and ideas existent in the world. The Amish, like the Hasidim, are enviable because of their ability to keep people within the community (some of which is through various forms of coercion, but on the whole, is because they sincerely believe in the lifestyle and want to perpetuate it), but on the other hand, use methods that a lot of people (Jews and otherwise) don’t feel comfortable using, or at least not to the extent these communities do. Frankly, the Amish option is a lot easier (particularly since once you get the ball rolling, the system becomes self-perpetuating).

    It’s like Alan Dershowitz said in “The Vanishing American Jew”: The only real way to guarantee that your children and grandchildren will be Jewish is to become ultra-Orthodox and raise them in a Jewish enclave. People who reject this as an option, and choose to raise their children with the options and opportunities that come with living in, and interacting with, America, also choose to take their chances with the odds that the more exposure to non-Jews and non-Jewish culture, the greater the (potential) risk of assimilation, particularly if the child does not have a strong Jewish education and/or identity.

    As Dershowitz notes, not only do many Jews not want to choose this option (for a number of reasons, including, for instance, the problem of fulfilling the commandment to make a positive impact on the world by isolating oneself from it), it also, in some ways, demonstrates a lack of faith in Judaism itself.

    It is no challenge to remain Jewish when there are no other options. The real challenge, and one form which we must not shrink, is to perpetuate a kind of Jewish life that will be chosen by our children and grandchildren from among the wide array of options they will be offered in the rich and diverse American lives they deserve to enjoy. We must create a Judaism that is not afraid of the competition…

  11. Friar Yid said

    The other question I wanted to pose: in countries where Jews have been excluded from larger society, even those who were “secular” Jews essentially still lived the lifestyle of religious Jews – I suppose that it’s just easier. Atheists have probably always been around. Can we actively encourage irreligious Jews to investigate the merit of at least some aspects of an observant Jewish life? One of the reasons I’ve accepted the level of observance that I have is I see inherent value in those habits, not just because my G0d has commanded me. I personally have zero problem with people coming to shul and participating in services and other communal activities alongside me; in fact, I would welcome it if I had the chance. Do you think that this is a reasonable strategy?

    It’s certainly reasonable. I think there’s a lot to be said for trying to make Jews– regardless of personal theology or belief– interested in Jewish practices, rituals, philosophy, culture, whatever. I particularly think the home rituals are quite nice and have the power to be very meaningful. By the same token, however, I’m a little trouble with the inherent privileging of Jewish observance versus other forms of activity/identity. I don’t think that “atheists living the religious lifestyle” is a good thing unless they’re actually getting something out of it, and would guess that the fact that this used to be the case had more to do with major social stigma for “heretics” and a lack of other options, which I obviously don’t see as a particularly useful or desirable model for today’s Jews.

    If non-religious Jews want to try going to shul or lighting candles, that’s great, but in my mind, a better goal would be in trying to appeal to all sorts of Jews on all sorts of levels, not just urge them towards specifically religious things. That, I think, is one of the reasons why organizations like Chabad can be so polarizing to other Jews- there is a sense that the “outreach” and exchange only goes one way and that non-religious (or less religious) Jews have nothing to offer or contribute. For some people, that might be ok. But for others, it can be interpreted as hostility or arrogance.

  12. minsky said

    The question of being jewish while outwardly appearing mainstream, non-jewish, or indistinct from a non-jewish majority, strikes me as loaded, and un-necessary. For if you are jewish in any sense, what does your distinction matter? Its provided in the very fact that you are in some, even if miniscule way, jewish. Mel Gibson can’t say he is Jewish, Simon Levay, can, even if the latter worships satan. I don’t see where Dershovitz, lifestyles, observance, religion, drawl, or other distinctions come in to play. Am I just dense?

  13. […] Jewish: To be or not to be? […]

  14. Oyster said

    Minsky:

    I would counter with the three things for which the Jews were redeemed from Egypt:

    * Hebrew names
    * Hebrew language
    * distinct Hebrew dress

    Even in our darkest hour, we retained traits that clearly marked us as different than our host nation. A minimum from which we squeaked by into the good graces of G-d. So perhaps there is something to being outwardly Jewish, and not merely inwardly Jewish.

  15. squeedle said

    @Minsky: I actually wasn’t talking only about outward appearance, if you reread the first sentence of my comment. I could (stretching it) identify as a Native American because I have a couple of Native American ancestors. I could identify as Scottish, English, German or Welsh, too but it doesn’t really make sense to me to do so – I have no recognizable practices, beliefs, dress, or anything that distinguishes me as such from the numerous other Americans of European descent. I guess what I am saying is *I* don’t understand how there is a real identity X if one is neither doing or believing or appearing as anything that is recognizably X-like, i.e. distinctive from people who are not Xs, particularly if one is talking about reclaiming the X identity and how to preserve it. If there are no distinctions there is nothing to preserve.

  16. חבל שרק פה אין פייג’ נורמאלי

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