The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity

December 1, 2011
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Stuart Z. Charmé

Around the time my daughter turned 16 years old, she cut off most of her thick, long hair for an edgier and hipper look. She began to perform slam poetry, and she announced that she no longer saw herself as Jewish. Being Jewish, she said, just didn’t figure very much in her sense of identity, and she found greater authenticity in performing poetry or doing community service than in reciting Jewish prayers to a deity that neither she nor I believe in.

I was not all that shocked by my daughter’s announcement. Having interviewed dozens of teenagers about their Jewish identities as part of a research project, I knew that teens — much like adults — respond to the fact of being Jewish with feelings ranging from intense pride to utter indifference. I also knew, from following these teens years later, when they were in college, that the meaning of being Jewish had already changed for many of them and would most likely continue to do so throughout their lives. Indeed, as socio-psychologist Bethamie Horowitz and others have pointed out, Jewishness is not a static condition but rather a journey with various twists, turns, and detours along the way. In a similar way, I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past. Living in or just visiting the land of Israel, enjoying Klezmer music, assuming the lifestyle of an observant Jew, or checking one’s DNA for a “Jewish” marker may provide a sense of unbroken tradition and peoplehood. This idea of authenticity, however, has often been critiqued and deconstructed as an essentialist myth that merely serves to legitimate favored forms of identity while delegitimating others.

Much has also been written (see the March 2011 issue of Sh’ma for several essays on Jewish identity) about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.” And even the notion of “the Jewish people” is less a fixed body with natural boundaries than a continually reimagined community with contested rules and conditions for recognition and membership. It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways.

For both of these reasons, the issue of Jewish authenticity remains compelling and inescapable. In some ways, authenticity resembles other ultimate human goals like “salvation,” “enlightenment,” or “utopia.” All of these concepts are most useful as ever-receding targets that beckon people to construct identity and community, but also to resist complacent acceptance of the status quo, mechanical repetition of the past, or unquestioned conformity to the consensus of one community at a particular moment in time. There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

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Stuart Z. Charmé is professor of religion at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in Camden. He is completing a book tentatively titled Real Jews: On Authenticity and Jewish Identity.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this!
    I appreciate and agree with the notion that our identities are evolving. And that said, we can have a practice or belief that may not be our full identity, but is not inauthentic. One realm where I would like to read more about personal identity is of the professional Jews– who enter with passion and spirit and often get burnt out, jaded, lost “faith.”

    On other notes, in your story, it sounds like you would have been more surprised had your daughter come home and announced she was becoming a ba’alat tshuvah!

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