Does it Matter if Authenticity Is Authentic?

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December 1, 2011
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Noam Pianko

“Authentic? Get Real” read a recent New York Times headline (in the Fashion & Style section). The article highlighted the obsession with authenticity in our popular culture (one example cited Katie Couric claiming, “I think I love to be my authentic self.”) The piece concluded with a snarky critique of the authenticity trend as a highly calculated form of self-presentation more akin to stage management than thoughtful introspection. Whether or not authenticity is authentic, its cultural prominence plays a significant role in the vocabulary and practices of Jewish identity formation. How can we understand the impact of this turn toward authenticity as a mode of self-discovery?

The first thing to realize is that the search for authenticity is not a new phenomenon for American Jews. The Jewish embrace of authenticity reflects a much larger cultural preoccupation with the concept of a shared ancestry that links the individual to a stable origin. Charles Lindholm’s recent book, Culture and Authenticity, explores the emergence of “authenticity” as a touchstone of identity. The search for authentic roots emerged, he argues, in the 19th century. A new concept, authenticity addressed the individual and collective needs sparked by the disruptive economic, social, technological, and political changes that overturned a far more stable and clearly stratified society. With roles transformed, hierarchies rejected, and novel possibilities for social advancement offered, origins became increasingly in doubt and up for grabs. The resulting sense of disorder and status confusion sparked a popular interest in tracing an authentic lineage to bolster individual and collective identities.

American Jews, like other ethnic groups, created a narrative of authenticity rooted in geographic and genealogical origins. The popularity of “Fiddler on the Roof” illustrates the power of this trope. Tevye’s “tradition” emphasizes a geographic origin, ancestral roots, and clear outsider status fueled by antisemitism and persecution. Tradition for the sake of tradition fulfills the need for an authentic lineage. At the same time, a tradition stripped of its content, practice, or beliefs addresses other social needs of immigrant communities. For instance, by focusing primarily on ancestry and not content, Fiddler’s tradition avoids the internal fragmentation that would arise from any attempt to define Jewish identity itself. Plus, identification with the tradition is largely symbolic. Individuals are free to shed those aspects of the tradition that might retard the acculturation process. It thus allows Jews to be clearly different without crossing socio-cultural norms of behavior.

The legacy of authenticity linked to ancestors and a symbolic tradition can still be seen in communal conversations around “continuity” and “intermarriage” (and more recently in the emergence of DNA testing). This emphasis on descent as a road map for both narrating the past and moving toward the future reflects an enduring preoccupation with Jewish authenticity based on genealogical and geographic origins. Jewish identity in the future, this perspective implies, will share this mode of authenticity. The clarity of descent has displaced the ambiguity of Jewish belief and practice as the primary criterion for authentic Jewishness.

As someone whose early identity was shaped by a passionate if off-key performance of “If I Were a Rich Man,” I am sad to acknowledge that changing notions of authenticity may have finally caught up with “Fiddler on the Roof.” The popular concepts of authenticity discussed in TheNew York Times article eschew inherited criteria (ancestry, geographic roots) that preserve stable individual identities and collective borders. Today’s search for authenticity underscores the need for self-discovery and meaningful engagement with ideas, communities, or practices. What’s deemed authentic, to use Lindholm’s language, has shifted from establishing “origin” to exploring “content.”

What are the implications of today’s modes of authenticity? The shift from “origin” to “content” adds another layer to explaining ongoing shifts in Jewish identity. Individuals shaped by the authenticity of origin feel understandably anxious about the rootlessness and subjectivity brought about by the shift toward content. On the other hand, young adults shaped by an authenticity of content perceive the emphasis on descent as akin to racism. Thus, competing notions of authentic Jewishness contribute to a growing rift in communal values — from collective origin to individual journeys, from affirming historical unity to embracing contemporary diversity, and from a focus on stable boundaries to the recognition of highly porous borders.

A historical perspective on the changing relevance and meaning of authenticity indicates that neither attempt to affirm authenticity is truly authentic. Both origin seekers and content discoverers have adapted two opposing trends in the modern quest for authenticity. Realizing this may help to foster fruitful conversations among various demographic cohorts, each shaped by different cultural expectations of authenticity. Moreover, the shift from origin to content provides fruitful opportunities to engage Jews seeking a greater sense of self-understanding and meaning.

Popular culture has opened a tremendous portal for learning and discovery. The burden is on the Jewish community to take the quest for authenticity seriously without succumbing to culture’s superficial claims or to embracing simplified narratives of an idealized Jewish past.

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Noam Pianko, a Sh'ma Advisory Committee member, is an associate professor of Jewish studies and chair of the Samuel and Althea Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington. The author of Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn, Pianko blogs at www.noampianko.net.

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