“What will become of the Jewish people?” In 2006, the Israeli poet A.B. Yehoshua asked this question at a gathering convened by the American Jewish Committee. What follows is my response.
Horace Kallen’s oft-cited 1915 observation that “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives [sic], their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers,”1 still remains operative in many assessments of contemporary American Judaism. Yet recently, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer noted that, “…despite the modish talk about multiculturalism and the requirement to honor ‘diversity,’ ethnicity is in fact a weak and weakening form of identification here, at least among white people of European descent.”2 Cohen and Wertheimer describe the dire need to reconstitute an essential kind of Jewish identity: “Our own answer is unabashedly ‘essentialist.’”3 While I largely agree with the contents of their description, I disagree with their solution and also with their essentialized sense of Jewishness, Judaism, and the Jewish people. Alternatively put, all three may “disappear” according to a previous paradigm, but may re-emerge looking quite different than they looked in the past.
For much of Jewish history, Jewishness and being a “Jew” were inextricably tied to “Judaism,” or religion, broadly defined as membership in a people. The two most influential movements in Jewish modernity, Reform Judaism and Zionism, questioned this equation. Nineteenth-century Reform Judaism attempted to divorce the notion of peoplehood from religion, and certain strains of Zionism reversed the emphasis but maintained the essential structure of the equation. Jews are first and foremost a people cum nation, where religion served as the dominant but nonessential diasporic articulation of national consciousness that could, and for some forms of Zionism should, be replaced by a secular form of nationalism realized in a nation-state. Even given the severance of the equation linking Judaism to Jewishness in the national Jewish consciousness, ethnicity remained a central anchor of Jewish identity. Cohen and Wertheimer’s analysis seems to be working inside a multicultural paradigm that is an extension of the modern rubrics exemplified by Reform Judaism and Zionism, thus calling for an essentialist solution to the loss of ethnicity as a defining factor in America identity. I am suggesting that this paradigm is already obsolete, replaced by what American historian David Hollinger calls post-ethnicity.
Before defining post-ethnicity, we need to distinguish it from pluralism, of which multiculturalism is one form. In general, pluralism respects inherited boundaries, acknowledges different ethno-racial identities, and seeks to preserve those identities through tolerance and recognition of the subaltern as a productive member of society whose voice we need. Post-ethnicity appreciates ethnicity as a piece of one’s identity; hence, the “post” in post-ethnic seeks to restructure the notion of ethnicity as a consequence of consent rather than descent. Post-ethnicity, then, is not only about voluntary identities; it is also about invented identities. On this, Hollinger notes, “A post-ethnic social order would encourage individuals to devote as much — or as little — of their energies as they wished to their community of descent, and would discourage public and private agencies from implicitly telling every citizen that the most important thing about them was their descent community. Hence to be post-ethnic is not to be anti-ethnic, or even color-blind, but to reject the idea that descent is destiny.”4
Horace Kallen’s “cultural pluralism” and his notion that “men cannot change their grandfathers” assumed a stable anchor of ethnicity that no longer exists for most Americans. As high as Jewish intermarriage rates are today in America (hovering a little over 50 percent) they are lower than that of other ethnic groups, such as Irish, Poles, and Italians, and on par with Asians. About 33 percent of Latinos intermarry and African-American exogamy hovers slightly above 10 percent, more than double what it was in the 1970s. The ethnic stability of the “grandfather” no longer applies when more than half of the Jews in America may already have both Jewish and non-Jewish grandparents and many choose to identify with the historical narratives and traditions of both. As important, it is not only that Jews are intermarrying, but that their attitudes toward intermarriage have changed considerably in the past 30 years. In a 2000 national survey of Jewish opinion in America, half of the Jews surveyed said that “it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriage,” and more than half disagreed with the statement that “it would pain me if my child married a gentile.” And, yet, at the same time, Judaism in America is arguably experiencing a cultural and creative renaissance. This might suggest that “Judaism” (religious and secular) is alive in a world where Jewishness is no longer exclusively ethnic. What does this mean?
In an essay on Jewcy.com, Joey Kurtzman noted, “at Jewcy we‘ve half-jokingly referred to ourselves as part of the first generation of Jewish-American mongrels, or Frankenjews. The majority of Jewcy’s staff is the product of intermarriage. To a one, we regard the traditional Jewish revulsion toward exogamy as an anachronistic holdover from premodern life. Needless to say, we are of dubious halakhic Jewishness. This will be truer of our children than it is of us.”5 In an article about J-Street in The New York Times, James Traub wrote, “The average age of the dozen or so staff members is about 30. [J-Street founder] Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks for, and to, this post-Holocaust generation. ‘They’re all intermarried,’ he says. ‘They’re all doing Buddhist seders.’ They are, he adds, baffled by the notion of ‘Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.’”6
Religious syncretism and hybridity, the mongrel or half-Jew, all pejorative notions in the past, are now taken for granted, even celebrated, as part of “Jewish” creativity. Religious and cultural experimentation are less on the margins of Jewish society; they are understood now as a reflection of the new constitution of Jewishness that is emerging in a post-ethnic world.
Jews in Israel have always argued, and rightly so, that living as a majority culture enables them to rethink notions of identity and self-fashioning. In America, the diminishing of antisemitism and the “mongrelization” of Jewish identity (Jews share this with many ethnic minorities) has created another opportunity for Jews to rethink their identity as “Jews” both fully acculturated and interconnected with the ethnic fabric of the society in which they live. Surprisingly, these mongrel or Frankenjews have not abandoned Judaism or Jewishness. Quite the opposite: Many actively want to reconstruct Judaism as a reflection and expression of their multiple identities. Judaism will change and Jewishness will change. The Jew will survive — perhaps not the ethnic Jew of Horace Kallen’s “grandfather,” but a new Jew, a figure who not only participates in the larger society, but is integrally, and even biologically, a part of it. Like Israelis, these new Jews will foster a new sense of self. It will just be a different Jewish self.
1 Horace Kallen, “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot: A Study of American Nationality,” The Nation, February 25, 1915.
2 Steven M. Cohen, Jack Wertheimer, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People?” Commentary Magazine 121.6, 2006: 35).
3 Ibid. p. 39.
4 “Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” in American Jewish History, March 1, 2009, p. 22.
5 Joey Kurtzman, “The End of the Jewish People,” Jewcy.com, June 11, 2007.
6 James Traub, “The New Israel Lobby,” The New York Times Magazine, September 9, 2009.email print