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How Jews Became Not Just White Folks

In the past several months three different organizations have held gatherings highlighting the growing racial-ethnic diversity of the American Jewish population. They have been advocating a “big tent” approach, pushing the organized community to adapt to perceived demographic changes.

The statistical portrait of American Jews, however, shows that those who are “Jews by religion” overwhelmingly categorize themselves as “white” and “non-Hispanic.” While it is true that the trends are changing as a result of intermarriage, adoption and conversion, nonetheless the proportion of non-whites and Hispanics among the adult population that is “Jews by religion” remains under 10%.

So it is all the more interesting to consider this newfound attention to diversity and the dynamics that have pushed it into the spotlight. Why is racial-ethnic diversity all of a sudden on the communal agenda?

American Jewish history is hardly un-diverse, filled as it is with successive flows of immigrants landing on these shores, from the earliest Sephardim to German Jews to Eastern Europeans. By the early 20th century, Jews were not only varied in their ethnic and national backgrounds, they were also divided into sub-tribes by their clashing ideological commitments: secularist, religious, Bundist, socialist, anarchist, Zionist, anti-Zionist and so on.

Along with this variety came the dynamics of a social pecking order. For instance, as immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they were expected to conform and adapt to the sensibility and style of the more established and better-off German Jews, who themselves were hypersensitive about the reactions of the American Protestant elite of that time. They feared that their hard-won position would be disrupted by their wretched Eastern European cousins. In this climate, the concern was about conforming and being respectable, rather than celebrating diversity.

All this took place in an American societal milieu in which being Jewish was a significant social handicap, leading Mordecai Kaplan to note (astonishingly to our ears) in 1937 that the “average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.” To avoid being viewed as outré, they sought to conform to norms and values of the American mainstream, resulting in a rise in nose jobs, name changes and other adaptations to get away from being, or at least looking, “too Jewish.”

By the 1960s, Jews had become part of “white” American landscape, and being Jewish ceased to be, sociologically speaking, a burden. It no longer stood in the way of getting accepted to school, finding a job or living in a particular neighborhood. At that time, Jewish attention to the notion of diversity was focused outward, rather than inward, and it involved working to diversify the mainstream by advocating for equal rights and anti-discrimination.

By the end of the 20th century, being Jewish had lost its negative valence — indeed, it took on the possibility of cachet. Consequently, a new kind of inventiveness was unleashed.

One’s Jewishness could become a vehicle of personal expression and meaning-making, a development that coincided with the rise of identity exploration as the new national pastime. For older generations, this is a big change. For younger people, fluid, hybrid identities and wide-ranging journeys are commonplace. In this context, attention to diversity is a call to widen the normative expectations normally contained in the term “Jewish” so that it can begin to include a multitude of subcultures, choices and flavors.

From a different angle, diversity often appears on the horizon as a response to hegemony, and in this regard American Jews are certainly seen as part of the mainstream. “Jewish” is no longer synonymous with “outsider,” as illustrated by the comments of a 22-year-old I interviewed 10 years ago: “Have I ever felt marginal because I’m Jewish?! No!… I would say that being Jewish, if anything, puts me more into the sphere of influence than someone who is not Jewish.”

Today such attitudes are probably even more widespread. This social transformation reminds me of the ugly duckling becoming a graceful swan.

According to this view, the recent interest in exploring the racial and ethnic diversity of American Jewry might signal changes affecting the American mainstream more broadly. Sociologist Richard Alba noted recently that the story of whiteness “has been powerful because it has demonstrated simultaneously the centrality of race to the American experience and the astonishing mutability of race.” And so, too, with any social category, Jewishness included.

So “Jewish” — a category that became completely “white” in the American racial categorization — is beginning to broaden to include a wider range of racial and ethnic options, among other characteristics. The contours of American Jewishness are changing. Will the collective tent be big enough to include us all in our many colors and other combinations?

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