My daughter is confused. She has asked me a number of times in the last few weeks what it means to be a Jew. She’s 5. So confusion about identity is not an unusual state for her — she’s also been wondering aloud lately about why she can’t fly.
But her questions about Jewishness are particularly direct and specific. Since I have an Israeli passport and my wife does not, does that mean I’m more Jewish? For that matter, do you have to speak Hebrew to be Jewish? Her maternal grandparents don’t light the Shabbat candles. Does that make them less Jewish? And then there was our drive through a Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn one day. “You don’t have a beard,” she said to me. “You really should grow one if you want to be Jewish.”
Could she already be exhibiting the signs of anxiety I’ve come to associate with the American Jew?
I ask this from a certain remove. I was born in Los Angeles, but my parents are Israeli and I grew up in a largely Israeli bubble, speaking Hebrew before English and spending my summers with my grandparents in Tel Aviv. This has put me, I’ve always felt, at an arm’s length from all the American Jews I’ve known in my life — including my wife, a native of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who has her own questions about what synagogue we should join or whether we’re doing enough Jewishly for our two girls.
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My identity as a Jew doesn’t lead to much questioning. Which is to say it’s the uncomplicated Jewish identity of a secular Israeli. It just is. In substance it’s a mix of the very lightly religious (candles on Hanukkah and perhaps an attempt at fasting on Yom Kippur) combined with emotional (if not always patriotic) attachment to Israel. But at its center is not substance but an ineffable sense of being comfortable in my skin because there is nothing else I can be. There is no other identity to assimilate to.
In other words, I don’t think I was asking, at 5, what it means to be a Jew.
But I’ve come to understand this anxiety well. It’s actually been my bread and butter over the past four years during my time as opinion editor of this newspaper. If I didn’t always recognize it as anxiety, I do now, writing in my last days at this job, before I head off to work on a new book and finish a doctoral program.
As I try to sum up for myself what I have gained after reading through and editing thousands of opinion pieces, it’s simply this: an intimate familiarity with the gut-churning, fraught, panicked and uncomfortable state of being an American Jew today.
I didn’t fully recognize it as pathology. But now I can see that what has pulsed quietly but insistently in my inbox, beneath all the pitches that propose to take on “issues” and “conflicts” that roil the “community,” is anxiety, the fundamental uncertainty and unease of not really knowing anymore what it means to be a Jew.
How else to explain the type of questioning that has appeared on my pages: Which denomination best responds to modernity and American life? Why are the Orthodox growing in numbers while the non-Orthodox shrink? Is the Orthodox world more faithfully Jewish or a retrograde form of expression? Does our identity have a political dimension or only a religious one? Can you be just culturally Jewish? Ethnically Jewish? Comically Jewish? Do we depend too much on the Holocaust for our communal identity? What about anti-Semitism? Is there still anti-Semitism? And what about Israel? Why does Jewish state power so discomfit us? Can we be Jewish without being Zionists? How do we balance our allegiance to the tribe with our allegiance to our country, our planet, the human race?
These are more than just intellectual arguments. They reveal insecurity, a fear that there are no clear answers when it comes to Jewish identity.
In other words, a strident op-ed that argues about the need to combat BDS on college campuses is really expressing nervousness about our expected role as Jews living in the Diaspora while there’s a Jewish state. Another op-ed that demands a more liberalized policy on intermarriage in the Conservative movement is really about the angst we feel that unless the gates are opened wider no one will come in anymore. Anxiety courses underneath it all. You could say that all the debating and arguing is a sign of health, of a robust community trying to define its contours, but it’s actually a symptom of the disease, a sign of an identity so weak that it is open to attack and self-doubt from all sides.
The standard reason given for this Diasporic angst — as true in turn of the century Vienna as in 2015 New York — is the absence of outside pressure pushing against Jews and helping to define them as a collective set apart. Minus that pressure — minus the open anti-Semitism, that is — Jews are free not to be Jews, thus provoking assimilation and its discontents. But I don’t think this is the whole story. The anxiety I’ve encountered again and again seems to be as much about the fear of losing Jewish identity, of assimilating, as it is about the struggle to construct Jewish identity.
A large number of the most impassioned and angriest columns I’ve edited have taken aim at the Orthodox and at Israel. And the issues have been substantive — the misogyny of the Orthodox world, Israel’s sometimes moral vacuousness — but encountering the same vitriol again and again I see something else, too: a resentment at the easy authenticity of these two forms of Jewish identity that don’t constantly stop and question themselves about why they are who they are.
The bitterness comes from this place of fragility, of insecurity. It’s not self-hatred or an attempt at ingratiating themselves with the wider society (as one former Israeli diplomat recently diagnosed it) that plagues American Jews. It’s a lack of self-confidence and, perhaps even scarier, a lack of material with which to build a more confident identity.
Am I being too harsh? Overly generalizing? Maybe. I could point to Pew surveys and collapsing denominations to offer something more analytical, but I’m being purposefully impressionistic here, offering my gut-level view of American Jews from my office on the 8th floor of 125 Maiden Lane at the very brief moment in history when my inbox was on the receiving end of much Jewish handwringing.
In that time, I hardly ever received proposals that offered me an inspiring view of what could be. Elaborations on non-Orthodox American Jewish identity, if they came up at all, emerged in contrast — to Israeliness, to Orthodoxy — but not as something that possessed any real solidity in and of itself or that could serve as a source of pride. Sure, we thrill together at certain moments, like President Obama hosting a Seder, or at certain memories — though none more recent than Abraham Joshua Heschel linking arms with Martin Luther King, Jr. But this is weak and crumbling scaffolding.
What does it mean, I’ve often asked myself, that Birthright Israel, the most well-funded and high profile communal effort to insure American Jewish continuity ever, is premised on the hope that Israeliness will somehow rub off on our young people?
Some may quibble here and point to aspects of American Jewish religion and culture today that don’t feel as flimsy as I’m characterizing them, that have vitality and are not saturated in insecurity. There’s the Renewal movement and various charismatic rabbis across the dominations like Avi Weiss, David Ingber and Sharon Brous, as well new institutions like Mechon Hadar and many independent minyanim, that all express exciting visions of strong yet flexible Jewish identities. There are still comedians like Jon Stewart who joke about their Jewishness in such a way that it’s clear they own their ethnic identity.
To take on just these two counterpoints: Individual efforts to revitalize Judaism, both from the pulpit and from the grassroots are certainly meaningful but they are the exception that seem to prove the rule of otherwise non-inspiring forms of liberal Judaism that decrease in adherents with every survey. And the jokes? They’re often bittersweet, self-deprecating laughter at a silly, little, dying culture. In the comedian Marc Maron’s recent act, he tells a story about when he was a young boy and asked his mother if there was a God.
“Just eat,” she told him. “And remember, you’re better than other people.”
Maron’s punchline? “That’s American Judaism.”
But what about the ways in which America seems to become more embracing of Jews, with Kabbalah for everyone, Midwesterners comfortable talking about “schlepping” and “shvitzing,” and the very non-Jewish Cameron Diaz getting married under a chuppah? When the symbols that define us become as shallow and meaningless as Native American dream catchers, up for grabs by anyone, this suggests to me a collective identity that is weak, not strong. That Tom Brady has a menorah in his house does not make most American Jews feel proud. It makes them anxious since it means that this last symbol of difference is nothing more than cool spiritual decor.
All this pessimism about American Jews might imply that I think Israeliness is some sort of paragon. But when I go to Israel I feel equally demoralized, though for the opposite reasons. There it’s the overconfidence, the assuredness that does not stop to question its own actions or motives, that makes no room — even demonizes — any kind of doubting self-reflection.
If the nervousness of the American Jew saddens me, the bravado of the Israeli scares me. Combine this Israeli sense of righteousness with an embrace of victimhood — Israel having become the “Jew” of the world as most Israelis see it — and you have a people that does not feel it has any moral responsibility other than the imperative to survive.
Two existential possibilities then for Jewish identity: one hobbled and downcast, the other self-inflated and lacking humility. It saddens me to no end that these are the options available to my daughters at this point in our collective history.
If I was editing this piece for the Forward, I’d now ask my writer to synthesize what he’d learned and provide some kind of lasting, redemptive point for the reader. Perhaps the writer could suggest that there was much American Jews could learn from Israelis and vice versa? There might even be something to this.
Well, I’m going to take a last liberty here and not provide any answers. I’m not sure there are any — how really can you manufacture authenticity? But there is my inbox, which will soon be empty, and there are my daughters, whose anxious self-questioning and fraught American Jewish identity is only beginning. After all this time steeped in the collective consciousness of American Jews and staring now at my despairing prognosis, what can I tell them?
I have at least this to offer: Anxiety is self-awareness, perhaps a pathological self-awareness, but self-awareness nonetheless. And wrestling with identity has its own value. It’s better, in any case, than ignorance or turning away. If they can’t experience Jewishness as I have, as something fully embodied and unencumbered, then let them be anxious. I know, at least, for the time being, they won’t be alone.
The Pathology Plaguing American Jews
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman