The Dumbing Down Of Communal Identity

By Bethamie Horowitz

Published August 27, 2004, issue of August 27, 2004.
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The call for “Jewish continuity,” sounded by American Jewish communal leaders more than a decade ago as an antidote to rising intermarriage rates and other signs of weakening identity has spawned a veritable industry aimed at making American Jews more Jewish. There has been an ever-more impressive array of endeavors to promote day schools, send kids to Israel, transform synagogues and bolster adult Jewish learning, to name just a few.

No one has ever doubted the formidable organizational prowess of American Jewry. But it would be too bad if the lesson we take from this decade of effort is reduced to the simple formula of the more Jewish exposure and experience, the merrier. From here it’s far too easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mode about the future of Jewish life.

Doing more — that is, seeking to deepen and enrich the Jewish experience of American Jews — threatens to devolve into a message to do only Jewish, as if this were truly a communal goal of American Jews. This would be a great danger for an American Jewish community that dearly needs to find an animating vision for the 21st century.

It’s amazing how myopic things have gotten. The trends that get routinely tracked about American Jewish life — about volunteering and charitable giving, choices about schooling, the long list of religious behaviors and cultural practices — tell only part of the story. They are used to signal a person’s Jewish commitments, but if used exclusively they end up being insular.

Is it really a communal goal to have “all Jewish friends,” as news reports about the correlates of strong Jewish identity typically imply? While this may be one feature of living in an environment where Jewishness is taken seriously, the religion of your friends says nothing about the values and beliefs you hold dear. A person can just as easily go shopping or chill out in front of the television with one’s Jewish buddies as with non-Jewish pals.

The overly simplified approach to counting the Jewish blessings threatens to dumb down the profound challenges of being Jewish in America. What we need most is a picture of how people connect the multiple aspects of themselves — being a Jew, being an American, being a human being. Our ideal should be to create a community that is particular without being parochial.

In their quest to strengthen the identity of American Jewry, communal leaders would do well to study what visual artists call negative space. In painting or drawing, the space around the object is just as important as the object itself. A good artist strives for a balance between the positive space, the object, and the negative space around it, the background. The art is in the interplay between the two, rather than in over-attending to one aspect over the other.

There are two orientations about Jewish identity today in America: The rejectionist, zero-sum view that either you reject America in order to remain exclusively Jewish or else you disappear into America through assimilation, and the view that these two aspects of identity can be truly integrated together. The zero-sum view of identity, which forces American Jews to choose between religious life and partaking more broadly of the world, is exemplified today by charedim on one end of the spectrum and the completely assimilated on the other.

The integrated view of identity, by contrast, is shared by a wider spectrum of American Jews who are engaged as both Jews and Americans — and who might even see the two aspects as enhancing each other. At the very least, they see them as compatible.

Such is the case with a jaunty, baseball-loving rabbi I know who explains his penchant for tuning into televised games on Shabbat, while otherwise shunning the tube on the seventh day, with the following logic: “There are nine months of the year for God and three for baseball!”

The question before us is, what does the rabbi’s adjustment of his Shabbat observance during the baseball season reveal about the challenges of being Jewish in America?

No doubt some communal arbiters will express outrage at the tradeoff, finding scandalous the idea that a rabbi allows baseball to trump his normally television-free Shabbat observance. They will deem him to be inconsistent and will impugn his motives, arguing that he is being religious merely when it’s convenient.

But they would, unfortunately, be offering too myopic a reading of the rabbi’s story, one that assumes being a good Jew is a bit like maintaining an all-Jewish-all-of-the-time way of life.

Consider what this story shows about the person as a whole. There are two essential parts of his being: his Jewish religious self and his passionate identity as a Red Sox fan — that ever-suffering baseball team being more aligned to the Jewish soul than any other. His Red Sox allegiance goes far in explaining his acute need to tune in live and in color.

He doesn’t forgo Shabbat in the summer months; rather, he splices these into a single whole, and avoids a life broadcast on two different channels. Perhaps he even says a regular blessing for his team and his tribe.

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.






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