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  • Andres Spokoiny

Speaking of Jewish Identity…

According to cognitive scientist Lera Boroditzky, you and I don’t see the color “baby blue” in the same way. That’s not because we have different eyes, but because we have different tongues. Mother tongues, that is. You see, language shapes perception. Neuroscientists have confirmed this through brain scans. In my first language, Spanish (and in Hebrew, for that matter), “baby blue” is not referred to as a variety of “blue” but as a completely different color. The word that describes it – “celeste” in Spanish or “tchelet” in Hebrew – has no etymological relationship with those languages’ words for ”blue,” and therefore (assuming you are a native English speaker) the distance between ”baby blue” and regular “blue” looks bigger in my brain than in yours. We can be looking at the same sky but our words for it will make us see it differently.

What is true for individuals is true for the Jewish community. The way we talk about issues shapes the ways we perceive and approach them. And nothing has shaped contemporary American Jewry more than our unconditional adoption of the term “Jewish identity.” Most of our communal programming has a goal of “strengthening Jewish identity.” Moreover, the language of “Jewish identity” shapes how American Jews think about themselves, and how they live their Judaism.

The language of “Jewish identity” has served us well for decades, but is now limiting us and conditioning us in ways that are detrimental to the objectives we claim. I want to propose that we thank “identity” profusely for its services, dismiss it, and then think together of better language to express the mission of the Jewish community. Academics and educators have already begun to question “Jewish identity” as a concept, and it’s time for the funder community to do likewise.

The concept of ‘identity’ is so ingrained in our communal discourse that it feels timeless. But it’s relatively new. The term “identity” began as a mathematical or logical concept: it meant that one thing was equal (identical) to another. Identity in this sense allows you to use logic to learn what something is, and what it isn’t. If A=B and B≠C, then A≠C. It was Erik Eriksson, during the 1950s and 60s, who popularized the term “identity” in psychological and sociological terms. In personal terms, an “identity” is a sense of self which allows both for an independent existence and for integration with others in a group, and with society.

Post-war America fell in love with the concept. America loved “identity” because it offered a way for diverse groups to be part of the “melting pot” while retaining their senses of self as a group. For Jews striving to integrate into American society, but unwilling to stop being Jews, the idea of identity was a godsend. As Rokhl Kafrissen has written, in the postwar era, “identity as ideology could reframe the multitude of contradictions now at the heart of American Jewish life,” including the paradoxes of defining Judaism as a religion while abandoning religious practice and claiming Jewish culture while disclaiming Jewish languages. Thanks to “identity” we could fully integrate into all aspects of modern American life while retaining Jewishness – whatever that might be.

Only the content-free (or content-vague) nature of “identity” could achieve such a feat. As Eriksson wrote, identity was “vague, ambiguous,” and ultimately “unfathomable.” Talking about “identity” without defining it allowed the Jewish community to sidestep tensions and internal conflicts. Unlike mathematical and logical identity, which clarifies what something is and what it isn’t, Jewish identity had no boundaries, no actual demands on us, except perhaps for a nebulous sense of loyalty to a Jewish collective which, itself, was vaguely defined. Thus we shed many of our religious ways, our particular languages, and much of our cultural substance, and we traded that for an amorphous idea of peoplehood without friction, and the promise of its continuity.

It worked. The Jewish community integrated and didn’t disappear. But it worked too well. In the process we have emptied our Jewishness of content. As a community, we are mostly Jewishly illiterate, and we maintain few specifically Jewish practices. When we engage in social causes and call it “Tikkun Olam,” we often use that term to invoke Jewish values and concepts without ever quite exploring them. Jewish languages, a key element in any culture, have all but disappeared among American Jews. American Jewry is probably the Jewish community in which the fewest Jews can speak a Jewish language. Identity is also extremely hard to measure, and not surprisingly; you can’t measure what you haven’t defined.

If the ideology of identity started as a way of bridging two conflicting worlds, it has now become the ultimate strategy in conflict avoidance and decision dodging. Identity isn’t controversial, because it can be all-encompassing. As Jon Levisohn has said, “’Jewish identity’ is, too frequently, a meaningless substitute for a focused, disciplined articulation of the goals of Jewish education,” in both adults and children. “What do we want Jews to know and be able to do? Read texts in certain ways? Speak certain languages? Enjoy Jewish culture? Produce Jewish culture? In what ways do we want them to be engaged with their local Jewish and non-Jewish communities? Who do we want them to be, as interpreters of Jewish history and tradition?… What is our picture of engaged citizenship…? What are our aspirations for the inner, spiritual lives of Jews?” These are the kinds of questions that we avoid in educational policy making when we make our discussions exclusively about “Jewish identity.” Rokhl Kafrissen again: “Indeed, not inculcation of Jewish patterns of life, nor transmission of Jewish culture and history, but measurement and management of identity became the constitutive act of the modern Jewish communal apparatus.” We don’t invest in, for example, universal Jewish education, but we lavishly fund “identity making” projects.

Kafrissen is probably referring to Birthright, but Birthright was never intended to be the one and only Jewish experience that youngsters have. Its intention was to be a gateway, a spark that ignites a longer Jewish journey that is thick with meaning and commitment. As such, its historical success is a unique opportunity upon which we can build. But we, as a community, mistook Birthright for a goal in itself, and continue to be prisoners of the golden cage of “identity.” The identity ideology allows us to confuse means with ends and gates with destinations.

Orthodox and other religiously observant readers shouldn’t gloat, thinking their path avoids this problem. The “dumbing down” of American culture is replicated by all of us, irrespective of our denomination. In Orthodoxy, for example, a vision of Jewishness as nothing but halakha is pervasive. This conceit of a Jewishness that fits neatly inside the covers of the Mishnah Berurah leads to observance without meaning and practice without reflection. Religious observance doesn’t necessarily imply confronting the contradictions of our modern lives; sometimes it just means avoiding them in a different way. An empty concept of “identity” can’t be replaced by empty ritual. All of us have to dig a lot deeper into what “Jewish” means.

So it’s time to go beyond identity and replace it with a new paradigm that embraces rather than avoids the complexities of Jewish American life. It’s time to grapple with the contradictions of being Jewish in 21st century America. That doesn’t mean we need to stop investing in “identity building” programs, but it means not stopping there, and investing at least the same amount of effort, resources, and passion in content-thick programs that build from general identity to particular meanings, particular practices, and deep literacy. It’s time to stop avoiding the hard questions and define what we do, as a community, so we can effectively pursue our communal work. (Goals that are actually measurable won’t hurt, either.)

American Jewry is safe and integrated enough to leave the crutches of the “identity ideology” behind. We can engage in far-reaching collective programs to spark rich cultural engagement among today’s American Jews. If we free ourselves from our vacuous concern with “Jewish identity,” we can enter a fascinating conversation about the ways in which Jewish ideas, values, languages, history, rituals, emotions, and behaviors inform particularly Jewish lenses and tools to interpret reality and flourish as human beings. Changing the conversation from identity to content and meaning won’t be easy, because, among other reasons, we don’t have the right vocabulary. We can break the Pavlovian conditioning that keeps us barking excitedly at the bell of “identity,” for no real reward. For that, we need to change our reality by finding the right new words. What those new words are, I really don’t know. But, as Jack Kerouac wrote, “Soon I’ll find the right words, they’ll be very simple.”

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.


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