What, after all, do we mean by the term “Jewish identity?”
For a while, during the height of the Jewish continuity craze of the early 1990s, it seemed as if we were producing a whole category of people whose Jewish identity consisted principally of urging others to “have” a Jewish identity — not only as a phenomenon, but also as an ideology and even a career.
Slowly, it dawned on people that more substance was required, that Judaism — or Jewishness, if you prefer — is not something one “has” but an aspect of something one “is.” It is not a matter of life-style; it is a matter of life-substance. Yet simply asking whether a person “feels” Jewish seemed wholly inadequate, too vague, too sloppy.
Alright then, Jewish literacy. But Jewish literacy, as precious as it is, doesn’t do it either. My principal substantive conversation about Jewish ideas the other night at a Boston gallery opening was with two professors of biblical studies — a married couple, both teaching at Christian universities, one specializing in what we call Bible and she calls Old Testament, the other in what he calls Bible and we call New Testament. Jewishly literate by any measure, sans Jewish identity.
(I was about to describe them as “non-Jews,” since they are not Jewish, but the expression “non-Jews” has always struck me as a tad peculiar. Here we are, less than a statistical error in world population, and we refer to the 99.9% of the others as not us. Do the aborigines describe the rest of the world as “non-aborigines?)
Those of my generation typically often mean by Jewish identity a kind of Yidishkayt, which can range anywhere from a pervasive “Is it good for the Jews?” to a way of sighing, from culinary disposition to antipathy toward Wagner and guns and, once upon a time, Mercedes Benz. We boasted of a coherent worldview but were hard-pressed to define it. Thus, our family’s boxing promoter friend was an anomaly, but only because of a vague sense that es past nisht, it just isn’t done, that Jews — real Jews — box not, neither play they polo.
For a time, enthusiastic support for Israel served as a central defining characteristic, but if that is so, what shall we say of Tom Delay, Pat Robertson and the other American Christian Evangelicals whose enthusiasms for the State of Israel, however convoluted, are often more intense than ours?
Religious belief, then? Try that on the significant number of American Jews who regard themselves as secular; better yet, try it in Israel, where the non-believers are less non-believers than they are disbelievers. Or, if you’re looking for a headache, consider what exactly, or even approximately, a Jew must believe to be regarded as one who believes Jewishly.
The social scientists used to ask, when “measuring” identity, about customs and ceremonies observed, the “candle-lighting” approach to definition, and the demographers would ask how many of your closest friends are Jewish, the “associational” approach. These may be useful tidbits, but they do not take us far enough. The evident truth of the matter is that the varieties of Jewish identity as they are actually experienced defy easy definition, and surely defy statistical — let alone religious — norms. There are actively self-hating Jews and passively self-hating Jews, there are actively self-loving and passively self-loving Jews, there are Jews who both love and hate Jews, and all these may or may not evince a significant Jewish identity.
Try this: A sense of connectedness to the Jewish people, then and now and then again. “Then” means historically. Do you see yourself as having been liberated from slavery? Do you take the history of Jews, whether you know it well or know it only randomly, as your own history? And “now,” of course, means now: Does what happens to Jews and what Jews cause to happen grab you, engage you, matter to you in ways that what happens in Tashkent or Duluth does not?
And finally, “then again,” meaning the “then” that is yet to come. For of all of the things that Jews are meant to remember, the single most important is tomorrow. We may be dim about our past and indolent about our present, but a Jew who is either ignorant of or indifferent to the promise of a better tomorrow has at best a constricted Jewish identity.
Whereby I, too, have converted a psycho-social category into a doctrine. But having stepped into those waters, I might as well go all the way: There is a growing number of congregations around the country in which the last line of the Kaddish prayer has been amended. Traditionally, we ask the God who makes peace in His high places to make peace for us and for all Israel — “aleinu v’al kol yisrael.” Now, you may well hear four additional words: “v’al kol yoshvei tevel,” and on all the earth’s inhabitants. (Notice we don’t say “and on the non-Jews, too.”)
That is what it means to remember tomorrow. That, and all that follows from it, which is quite a bit. That is Jewish identity, mystical rather than statistical. Amen.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).