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Peoplehood: There’s No There There

“We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

In the old days, presumably, it was simple: All Jews belonged to klal yisrael, largely because they didn’t have any choice, and we all knew that we were in this thing together. Some were pious, some quite wicked; some were honest, others deceptive. But all of us knew that we were Jews, and that, thanks to external forces of discrimination and marginalization, we were responsible for one another.

All that changed with emancipation. Suddenly there were Jews who didn’t see themselves primarily as Jews, who even thought that Judaism itself might best be relegated to the dustbin of history. Others redefined “Judaism” and Jewishness, as a religion, a culture, a nation, even a race. Even today, there’s still no agreement on which is right, and so many people have asked how Judaism can survive if we don’t even know what it is.

Enter “peoplehood,” the latest effort by Jewish elites to find common ground among secular Israelis and Hasidim in Brooklyn, Jews-by-ethnicity from the former Soviet Union and “cultural Jews” in Europe. As a member of Kol Dor, a network of Jewish leaders interested in the idea, and as a writer on the subject (an earlier version of this column was presented at the G.A.), I know the rhetoric, as I’m sure many readers of the Forward do, and I recognize its appeal. But I’m not convinced that the notion has descriptive accuracy or, for that matter, normative value.

Peoplehood may be understood either positively or negatively. Positively, it describes something, but we’re really not sure what; it’s what unites all of us Jews around the globe, and has something to do with regarding one another as family, as a people, as am yisrael — not a nation, necessarily, but a people. I think, however, that peoplehood is better understood negatively — that is, by that which it is not: not a religion, nor a nationality, nor an ethnicity, nor a culture. Peoplehood is none of these things, because many Jews don’t identify with them and peoplehood is meant to be universal. Really, peoplehood might be best understood as devoid of any meaning at all. It says, “We don’t know what this Jewish thing is, but we’re here and we’re in it together.”

There is something appealing about this negative notion. It adds no normative content, and thus excludes no one. We can fill it with a wide range of meanings, and color it with whatever emotional connection we have to bubbe’s chicken soup or Philip Roth’s novels or our favorite hummus joint. Tea Packs and Woody Allen, Avinu Malkeinu and Milky Pudding: Peoplehood embraces it all and, by saying nothing, includes everything.

Indeed, any more positive definition of peoplehood necessarily leaves out someone or something. Are we all united behind Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people? Well, not all of us. Do we all regard the Torah as the foundation of the Jewish faith? Um, no. But “peoplehood” is inherent in the concept of Jewish identity itself. If you bother to link your own cultural, religious, national or ethnic self-conception with this thing called “Judaism,” even if that Judaism isn’t something some people agree is what Judaism is supposed to be, well, you’re part of the project.

So peoplehood unites, and captures the vague emotional attachments many of us have to Judaism and to our fellow Jews. But does it do anything? Is there anyone who gets out of bed in the morning, energized purely (or even primarily) by membership in the Jewish people? And does the value motivate anyone to raise Jewish children, affiliate with Jewish institutions or play any role in the ongoing drama of Jewish continuity?

Not in my experience. Peoplehood is so vacant, it’s vacuous. Yes, it’s nice to have a word to explain the inchoate bond between me and a Moroccan-born shoe salesman in Afula. It does resonate with my own sense of kinship with such a person, a kinship that endures notwithstanding our utter disagreement as to what the bond constitutes. But as someone who spends at least half his professional time as a Jewish cultural and religious entrepreneur, I can safely say that “peoplehood” has nothing to do with my motivations. Nor do I think peoplehood means anything to unaffiliated Jews, certainly not in a way that inspires them to affiliate. Do we really believe that an unaffiliated Jew, who seeks her community in secular-cultural contexts, who finds her spirituality in yoga, who understands her “people” in political or national terms or perhaps none at all — do we really think this person will hearken to the call of Jewish peoplehood, and change her life for the more-Jewish?

Indeed, if anyone really did affiliate Jewishly on the grounds of Jewish peoplehood, I would wonder about his motivation. Put starkly, is peoplehood really that different from ethnocentrism? Sure, all of us should have pride in our “family’s” accomplishments. It gives one a warm feeling in the heart. But, if it packs any punch at all, it inevitably slides into an unequal weighting of Jews and non-Jews. Peoplehood would be worrisome if it weren’t so banal.

There are multiple Jewish renaissances going on, right now, around the world. New minyanim and new cultural Judaisms, new spiritualities and new post-Zionist political consciousness. New multiculturalisms, blendings and boundary crossings — as well as new fundamentalisms. It’s an exciting time to be alive as a Jew, even if it’s also one of threatening transition, and possible partial extinction. But in all these particularities, the general is rarely in play. Is it important that all these new Jewishnesses fall under a vague rubric of “This is my people”? Does the new label really increase our pride, or kinship with our fellow Jews? Or is it merely a buzzword, having meaning only within the halls of large institutions, full of sound and funding but ultimately signifying nothing?

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