Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in Post-Ethnic America

March 1, 2011
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Shaul Magid

“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, 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,”, June 11, 2007.

6 James Traub, “The New Israel Lobby,” The New York Times Magazine, September 9, 2009.

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Shaul Magid, a Sh’ma Advisory Committee member, is professor of Religious Studies and the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies in Modern Judaism at Indiana University, Bloomington. His teaching focuses on Kabbalah, Hasidism, and American Judaism. He is the author of Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica and Radzin Hasidism and From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbala, which won the 2008 American Academy of Religion award for best book in religion in the textual studies category. His book Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in Post-Ethnic America is due out next year from Indiana University Press.


  1. Dear Friends at Sh’ma:

    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I would like to protest Professor Magid referring to adult children and other descendants of intermarriage as “Frankenjews.”

    We are not monsters assembled from pieces of corpses. But this term is merely one in a long list of derogatory terms that we routinely receive in Jewish settings.

    If Professor Magid would return to the original Jewcy articles on which his essay is based, he would discovered that my group protested this term at the time, and Jewcy withdrew the use of it and apologized.

    Children of intermarriage are already called many derogatory names. I respectfully implore Sh’ma’s readers and Professor Magid not to use any abusive terms about half-Jewish people.

    Second, Professor Magid is in error when he implies that the growing numbers of intermarried couples has led to the acceptance of half-Jewish people within the Jewish community and a new Jewish identity paradigm. That’s not true.

    Many Jewish communities in the Diaspora and Israel grudgingly accept half-Jewish people raised as Jews — as permanent second-class citizens, as witness the appalling discussions of whether patrilineal Jewish Rep. Gabriel Giffords was “Jewish enough” to be prayed for after being shot —

    and many American Jewish communities do not welcome half-Jewish people raised outside of Judaism, even if they sincerely desire to affiliate as Jews.

    In the Diaspora, our phone calls and emails about conversion or Jewish study are often ignored or rebuffed. Since two-thirds of all half-Jewish people are raised outside of the Jewish community, that means that the vast majority of us are shut out of Judaism.

    In Israel, half-Jewish people are singled out for a massive load of discriminatory laws and policies directed at them.

    Anyone wishing to see the actual situation of half-Jewish people should visit my group’s messsage board which has hundreds of complaints from half-Jewish people from all over the world about the unkind treatment they experience from the Jewish community:

    Professor Magid’s idea that because young interfaith couples are accepted in some sectors of American Judaism means that half-Jewish people are widely accepted in American Jewish communities is simply wrong. The prejudice that used to be heaped upon our intermarried parents has now been transferred to us.

    Nothing would please me more than if Professor Magid’s view of a new multicultural Jewish identity were widely accepted in the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities. But it is not.

    Half-Jewish people face a great deal of oppression within Jewish communities, and we need the help of other Jews in fighting it. But the poor treatment of half-Jewish people in the Diaspora and Israel must be acknowledged before it can be fought effectively.

    Robin Margolis

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  2. Dear Professor Magid and Friends at Sh’ma:

    One more thing — the essay has a quote from Jewcy calling half-Jewish people “mongrels.” Please don’t call us “mongrels,” even as a joke.

    We informed Jewcy at the time that the quote was posted that calling us “mongrels” is hurtful, even as a joke.

    Few Jews with two Jewish parents would care to be compared to mixed-breed dogs.

    Robin Margolis

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  3. Dear Robin,

    Thank you for your letter. I want to clarify that I did not use the term “Frankenjew” as a description of half-Jews but quoted Joey Kurtzman’s use of that term in a letter he wrote to Jack Wertheimer that was published by Jewcy (Joey Kurtzman, “The End of the Jewish People,”, June 11, 2007. This was also cited in Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism, p. 383). I agree that the term is derogatory and I acknowledge the discrimination half-Jews face in our society. But I would say that the mere existence of your website and the increasing numbers of “half-Jews” who are speaking as half-Jews and rightfully demanding a voice in the Jewish community is itself a sign of massive changes in the Jewish community’s attitude toward the children of intermarriage. My point was not that American Jewry has been transformed but that changes are happening as intermarriage produces new generations who desire to explore the Jewish side of their complex identity. Like you, I hope the stigma of being “half-Jewish” disappears and causes the Jewish community to review its attitude toward this phenomena. I meant no disrespect. Quite the opposite, I am very much on your side.


    Shaul Magid

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    Shaul Magid
  4. Dear Professor Magid:

    Thank you for clarifying! I am always happy to welcome another friend for half-Jewish people.

    The trouble with the quote from Jewcy is that I knew at the time I’d be seeing it again, despite getting Jewcy to stop using those terms.

    I’m sure you meant no harm.

    I spend at least an hour or two hours a week having to write Jewish media in the Diaspora and Israel, saying, “Please don’t call half-Jewish people — non-halachic Jews, non-Jews, goyim” and much worse.

    So you can imagine my reaction to seeing that Jewcy quote return from the archived pages of the internet where I’d hoped it was safely buried.

    Now with regard to your suggestion that “the mere existence of your website and the increasing numbers of “half-Jews” who are speaking as half-Jews and rightfully demanding a voice in the Jewish community is itself a sign of massive changes in the Jewish community’s attitude toward the children of intermarriage.”

    Professor Magid, I wish with all my heart that what you were saying was true.

    Actually, the existence of my group and a few other half-Jewish groups is a response to the Jewish community’s continuing refusal to welcome us and treat us courteously. We’ve had to organize to fight for our rights.

    All of our groups are run by volunteers and receive almost no funding from the Jewish community.

    I would respectfully suggest that you may be confusing the welcome — small though it is — that is extended to interfaith couples and believing that it is also extended to half-Jewish people.

    But while interfaith couples have discussion groups, outreach organizations, brochures, books, DVDs and films, much of it funded by the Jewish community, there are virtually no resources for half-Jewish people.

    Jewish outreach groups have told me that the children of intermarriage who are raised as “Jews” must be real Jews, and need no help with their identity concerns.

    Those of us raised outside of Judaism and trying to enter it are, in the view of many Jewish outreach organizations, “not Jewish,” and must go to conversion class, which also doesn’t deal with our identity issues.

    In either case, no help is needed, in their view. By the same logic, Jews who married other Jews would be “real Jews,” and Jews who intermarried would be ignored, which is exactly what the Jewish community did with interfaith couples until the 1980s.

    This leads to some very peculiar situations in which the minute a young half-Jewish person departs from their intermarried parents’ shul, they find themselves having to search in the Jewish community for groups that might welcome them. Their welcome is not guaranteed.

    Robin Margolis

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  5. Interesting article.

    While I agree with some of the basic ideas expressed, I do not think that simply rejecting halacha will ‘keep us’ together as a people.
    If you take away Torah, what’s left, bagels? Woody Allen? Culture changes, Torah is the constant.
    No, if your mother isn’t Jewish, you may be jew-ish, and that’s fine, but your not Jewish, sorry. It doesn’t take much to make the jump, you don’t have to wear a kippah and move into a eruv, but you do have to confirm your choice to officially join the club.
    We have the rules to live a lively and fulfilling life, a modern life, already. If you strip away the things that make us Jewish, there is nothing left but a cultural connection. This will NOT sustain us. This will NOT strengthen us.
    It doesn’t take much, having some kashrut standards, keeping some part of shabbat sacred, keeping the holidays, THESE are the things that will guide us through the next century togerther as a people. Not cute articles about the Beastie Boys or Matisyahu.

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