In 1928, Louis Wirth published “The Ghetto,” a book whose title pointed to the importance of tangible corporate boundaries in the lives of Jews in Chicago. By the century’s end, the markers of identity had shifted from the physical and geographic expressions of social distance between Jews and “America” to a more inward, individual calculus based on meaning, as evidenced by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s “The Jew Within.”
At one point in time, this shift would have been described as the outcome of assimilation: Once Jews moved away from the places of first settlement and spread out into America, the outward markers of their Jewishness fell away and their Jewishness became a matter of convenience and choice rather than a fact of life. Assimilation meant the shedding of traditional Jewishness in order to become fully American and thoroughly blending in with the mainstream. Assimilation contained within it a presumed motivation. The immigrants’ children were viewed as drawn to a world more magnetic than that of their parents, captivated by the bright lights and big city of the real America.
Assimilation rolled easily off the tongues of several generations of American analysts and policymakers because it was seen as both the necessary process for dealing with the masses of immigrants who arrived in America between the 1880s and 1924 and with their children, and a desirable end result of that process.
But today, the very concept of assimilation has become open to reconsideration. According to sociologist Richard Alba, the term “assimilation” has fallen out of favor in the current American sociological lexicon because it has been used to devalue immigrants’ minority cultures and to privilege Anglo-American culture. Assimilation, Alba wrote in his 2003 book, “Remaking the American Mainstream,” “allows no room for a positive role for the ethnic or racial group.” For completely different reasons, historian Jonathan Sarna chose to limit his use of the term assimilation in his award-winning book “American Judaism,” because it tends to be used “more often as a descriptor of what Jews feared would happen to them in America than as a depiction of what actually befell them.”
The point is that while Jews in the past worried about whether Jewishness could survive in America, today the debate has become more about the quality of Jewishness than about the quantity of Jews. Even with the most well-executed surveys the substantive problem would remain: It’s extraordinarily hard to decide how to assess the state of the Jewishness of American Jews, particularly as the range of people with Jewish connections, attachments, backgrounds and interests expands.
With the disappearance of social barriers between Jews and others, and the expanding means of expressing Jewishness, the conventional questions for taking stock of the Jews have become less effective, and even potentially misleading. It just no longer will do to count up the number of candles lit or the days of synagogue attendance, or dollars contributed to Jewish charity, as a means of describing who’s out there.
Consider the case of Sharon, for instance, a woman in her mid-40s who had been raised Orthodox and who described herself as keeping the practices of her upbringing by rote until quite recently. By the time I interviewed her a number of years ago, she had begun to re-evaluate her whole approach. She came to see herself as making choices deliberately, rather than simply doing what she always had done by rote. For instance, she had always kept kosher, until she found herself hospitalized after a car accident. Her friends came to visit, and many brought food — none of it kosher. She said at that point, she decided to stop keeping kosher because it prevented her from sharing with her friends. At the same time, she has joined a synagogue for the first time in her adult life, because of the pull of community and her own religious longings.
The conventional measure of Jewishness would view this collection of practices as being completely inconsistent: She is high on some things and low on others. But the criterion of personal meaning comes across loud and clear in her case. She sees herself as figuring out a Jewishness that works for her, that fits into her life. Meaningfulness has become a criterion for her, in contrast to continuing to do things mindlessly or only by default.
So is Sharon’s example good or bad for the Jews? Well, it depends. On the one hand, traditionalists would object to her picking and choosing what practices to take on or to shed. On the other, who would object to the seriousness and intensity she brings to her own reflections about what sort of Jews she wants to be?
Wouldn’t it be better to do things out of desire, rather than to struggle to keep up habits emptied of their larger purposes? Perhaps by reconnecting in ways that are authentically meaningful, we can discover new meanings in old traditions — an old Jewish story, after all.
Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.