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Add that generally postmodern condition to the specifically Jewish erosion of the past century’s centrally defining characteristics of identity — the Holocaust, Israel, anti-Semitism — and it’s a wonder anyone still expects to have his or her Jewishness defined by mainstream institutions and their leaders.
Is mixtape-as-identity exciting — or terrifying? On the positive side, I find uniformity, mass culture, mainstreams and commercialized culture infantilizing and dull. Thriving cultures, Jewish or non-Jewish, have always combined influences, innovated and had multiple voices within them.
Where would Jewish culture be without borrowings such as rationalist philosophy, gefilte fish, or earth-based harvest festivals? And where would we be today if Jewish culture were artificially ossified like an old museum exhbit as it is in Jewish fundamentalist communities.
Today’s iSpirituality has created an environment of remarkable innovation and creativity in American Jewish life, especially as online communities and social technologies have spread the wealth outside of a few urban centers. There are Jewish communities organized around every conceivable social and political issue, every depth of spiritual engagement or shallow eddy of kitsch.
True, these are boutique Judaisms, populated only by a relatively small number of Jewish cultural creatives. But then again, far more people eat at McDonald’s than at locally sourced farm-to-table restaurants.
Still, one shouldn’t get breathless about the infinite permutations of an iSpiritual world. Constructing shifting identities based on multiple interests and allegiances is fun, but it doesn’t breed the kind of engagement that usually translates into philanthropic support or a commitment to continuity.
It’s harder to pass on to one’s kids. So, to the extent that the Jewish future still depends on bedrock institutions like the synagogue and the summer camp, establishment types are right to worry about these new iterations of Jewish identity.