My Generation: New Identity

The east village mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.

We are in a golden age of hipster Jewish culture. VH1 airs “Matzo and Metal: A Very Classic Passover,” in which Jewish heavy metal rock stars go afikomental, and “So Jewtastic,” in which the influence of Jews on pop culture is celebrated. Gary Shteyngart and Elisa Albert get book critics hyperventilating with witty, funny, multiculti tales of Jews in the pomo world. Every night we watch Jon Stewart spin the news, calling himself “Jewy” and inserting chet sounds into English words. “Daily Show” correspondent Rob Corddry did an entire sketch about getting into a mikveh with two nude hotties in sheitls. Golem and Balkan Beat Box play hybrid-Jewy music for groovesters of all religious stripes. The place-marker for jewcy.com’s impending relaunch (with an advisory board that includes editors from Esquire and The New Yorker) shows a photo illustration of a Hasid with his brain exploding, and a looped video clip of a nonwhite kid wearing a gold chain, a do-rag and a baseball cap, posturing over and over for the camera. And look, I have written this entire paragraph without mentioning Heeb magazine.

Now comes a report from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture announcing what we’d all suspected: Many Jews in their 20s and 30s identify as “culturally Jewish” even though they don’t belong to a synagogue or engage in much Jewish ritual practice. They read Jewish novels, listen to Jewish music, attend Jewish comedy shows — even as they’re suspicious of Jewish communal organizations. They use words like “cultish,” “stifling,” “constricting” and “claustrophobic” to talk about their experiences in synagogue, USY and summer camp, but flock to bars, clubs and alternative performance spaces that showcase what study authors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman call “cultural hybridity” — a blend of Jewish and other influences and idioms.

This isn’t a surprise to anyone who studies generational identity. Jana Branch, vice president and executive editor of Iconoculture, the consumer trend research company that also employs Mr. Mamele, told me, “Millennials [usually defined as the cohort born between 1982 and 2000] are about pan-culturalism — not wanting to be boxed in by a particular identity while being proud to embrace what they want to embrace. I think the draw of Jewish culture is that it’s ‘opt-in,’ while synagogue membership is, by nature, exclusionary.” So Gen-Yers are happy to go dancing to Jewish music, but they want their non-Jewish friends to feel comfortable in the club, as well. To them, a synagogue is too “owned” a space to be truly multiculturally embracing.

Furthermore, Branch says, when you commit to attending services, lighting Sabbath candles, volunteering in a Jewish organization, you’re committing to a community, neighborhood, way of being. And for many 20- and 30-somethings, commitment is tough. Older Millennials and Gen-Xers (generally seen as those born between 1964 and 1981) have postponed decisions that preceding generations made much earlier, such as moving out of their parents’ houses, getting married, buying homes, having kids. “Extended adolescence lends itself to continued culture-hopping, not commitment,” Branch said. “Commitment, by its very nature, has to exclude some things. You can’t choose without not choosing something else.”

There’s a reason that “This is not your father’s [fill in the blank]” took off as a headline writer’s go-to cliché, gaining life far beyond the Oldsmobile ad campaign. To members of this generation, anything that seems parental reeks of old-man smell. They want to reinvent. Just as boomer bosses find Gen-X workers notoriously hard to manage, Jewish communal organizations inevitably have a hard time connecting with Gen-Xers, because Gen-Xers resist being connected with.

The NFJC study used a variety of methods. It analyzed data from the National Jewish Population Survey, a telephone study conducted in 2000-2001 by United Jewish Communities in which 4,523 Jewish households were interviewed. The survey included a few questions about Jewish cultural activities: Did you listen to a CD, watch or rent a movie, or read a book because of its Jewish content? The upshot: Jewish culture represents a greater proportion of Jewish activities for those less Jewishly involved. (Which seems kinda “duh” — obviously if you’re less involved in organized Judaism, any Jewish culture you are involved in will be a greater proportion of your Jewish activities!) Jews in the Northeast report the highest levels of Jewish engagement, while those in the West report the lowest. (Again with the duh.) And the authors say, “Younger adults seem to approximate the levels of religious engagement of their elders, but they score lower on measures of communal engagement.” Just as this generation appreciates mash-ups (musical cocktails consisting of vocals from one song blended with music from another), it enjoys throwing traditions and rituals into a virtual blender. You got your red string bracelet here, your Sanskrit chant there and your hanukkiyah on the Ikea sideboard.

Another part of the NFJC study involved interviews with 30 young people at 13 cultural events in New York City. How did they feel about Judaism, Jewish institutions, Jewish ritual and Jewish culture? Their ambivalence is interesting (read the entire study on the NFJC’s Web site, at jewishculture.org), but the sample is teeny and New York Jews are particularly able to get their Jewy on without much effort. They can attend way cooler and more frequent “culturally hybrid” shows than young Jews in the hinterlands. And feeling Jewish is in the water here; we can afford not to work at it, surrounded as we are by a hefty concentration of other Jews as well as other Others. (In New York, even the non-Jews are Jewish. And if Lenny Bruce didn’t say that, he should have.) And as it turned out, the whippersnappers at the cultural events in the study had strong Jewish educations, a familiarity and comfort level with traditional Judaism.

Many of them mentioned being turned off by what they see as Jewish organizations’ unquestioning rightwing support for Israel and what they see as our community’s parochial, Mr. Magoo-eyed insularity. They resent singles events and the pressure to stay in the in-group. But, the authors quickly explain, their “[a]mbivalence is not an equivocation about being Jewish; irony becomes a kind of fulcrum that opens the door to participation.” The respondents are ambivalent about how to be Jewish, they add, not whether to be Jewish. Granted, no Jew in any city or of any age should feel threatened by young Jews questioning and/or joking about their heritage and faith. We come from a long line of questioners, and we’re awfully good at affectionate self-mockery. But does that really “open the door to participation”? Participation in what? Jewish communal life? In-group marriage? More traditional ritual practice?

The fundamental question: Can cultural engagement be an end in and of itself? Or do we need a certain grounding in texts (we’re the People of the Book, for chrissakes!) to continue to get the references on “The Daily Show,” to figure out what Jewish values are and to pass a certain knowledge base on to the next generation? I’ve seen the studies saying that intermarriage doesn’t necessarily presage the demise of the tribe… and I’ve seen the studies that say it does. And I have no idea who’s right.

But I viscerally understand the dilemma. I’ve dated more non-Jews than Jews, despite having gone to Jewish day school and having been raised in a kosher and clueful home. It is pure happenstance or serendipity (and yeah, maybe bashert) that I married a Jew. I share the respondents’ ambivalence about Israel, and I don’t put as positive a spin on the word “ambivalence” as the study authors do. I’m sick of the Holocaust as shorthand for “We suffered more than you, so we should get the piece of cake with the rosette on it.” I love pop culture (and Jon Stewart) beyond all measure. I feel that if the Conservative movement doesn’t start accepting gays and lesbians as full participants in Jewish life, they can kiss my dimpled tuchis. And I loathe feeling marketed to, hate any transparent attempt to co-opt my language and secular interests to sell me the Jewy.

Yup, I’m textbook. And in this way, as well: Wanting to model behavior for my kids has motivated me to join a synagogue and create home-based rituals. Half of the unmarried people in the NJPS fasted on Yom Kippur, as opposed to three quarters of the parents of school-age youngsters. So let’s check back with those study respondents in five or 10 years, after they breed. We Gen-Xers and Millennials love to think we’re wildly different from everyone who’s come before, but we repeat well-worn patterns. A random survey by a professor of religion at University of California, Santa Barbara found that among people born between 1956 and 1964, a staggering two-thirds left the faiths in which they were raised by the time they reached young adulthood. About half of them eventually did choose a spiritual path, most of them returning to their original denominations. I’m curious where my generation’s path will lead. But I’m sure “cultural hybridity” won’t save the tribe, just as I’m sure that reports of our impending death have been greatly exaggerated.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.



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