Mapping the Multidimensional Jew

February 1, 2013
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Beth Cousens

In 1967, in the essay “The Good Jew in Lakeville,” the sociologists of American Jewry Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenblum published a scale, a list of Jewish behaviors, that they used to discern what was or was not essential to “good” Jewishness. Kashrut, Israel, and synagogue membership each made the list, as did knowledge of Jewish “fundamentals,” history and culture, and items related to Jewish pride. Of the 22 items on the list, seven were not distinctively Jewish behaviors, and each of these seven was an action we might consider to be associated with social justice. The list, then, was overwhelmingly behavioral and dictated by traditional Jewish ideas or Jewish values or both. Demographers and sociologists continue to use similar scales to assess Jewishness, and even when sociologists

use other scales to measure “Jewishness,” they continue to emphasize specific and concrete behavioral and attitudinal Jewish markers — for example, adding the importance of Jewish friendships or of raising Jewish children.

These scales are useful when assessing specific, typical Jewish behaviors. But what if one does not observe kashrut and yet limits consumption, framing this behavior in Jewish language? What if one feels simultaneously a sense of home and exile when in Jewish spaces? How might these complicated — perhaps contradictory — behaviors be evaluated by such a scale? In the past year, in a focus-group setting, I shared an updated version of the Sklare/Greenblum scale with Jewish teenagers and college students. I explained that I was trying to understand what it meant to the students to be Jewish, and I asked the students to name the items on the list that pertained to their sense of Judaism. Members of both groups read the list with confusion, even distaste. They observed some of the behaviors and felt some of the feelings, but these behaviors and feelings did not comprise the entirety of their Jewishness. They argued that the list did not describe the rich varieties of their Jewish feelings and expressions, their self-understandings as 21st-century young Jews. These students demonstrate that, in an era of radical pluralism and personal expression, there are many, many ways to be a “good” Jew, and the salience of Jewishness may not be captured by typical Jewish language. How, then, do we study the multiple understandings of Judaism?

This question is complicated further by the movement of Jews in and out of Jewish life. This has been captured best by Bethamie Horowitz in her study of New York Jewish life, Connections and Journeys: Shifting Identities Among American Jews. It seems clear that any singular assessment of a Jew’s Jewishness is just that: a singular assessment, applicable only to one point in time. If Jewish life is, indeed, a journey for many of us, with different ways of connecting at different points in our lives, any assessment is temporary and will not capture a full picture of one’s Jewishness.

Another complication: Horowitz also pointed out that we might feel one way and behave another, and so our actions and our feelings each are important to assess when studying Jewishness. Moreover, my own work in Jewish education has shown that for many Jews, unaffiliated or non-identified, their Jewish feelings must develop before their Jewish behaviors begin. The adage, na-aseh v’nishmah, doing before understanding, does not resonate for everyone. Any scale that we create to assess Jewishness should take this factor into account.

The high school and college students I interviewed were not disinterested in Judaism — far from it. Their self-understandings, though, are much better captured by nuance, questions, and conceptual frameworks than by specific behaviors. Their self-understandings can be found in David Moss’s list of the components of the “vast culture we call Judaism,” components including peoplehood, family, meaning, memory, covenant, and community. These are fundamental Jewish paradigms, concepts rooted in historic Jewish texts and events, ways of Jewish thinking and being for thousands of years. They motivate all kinds of Jewish behaviors, traditional and otherwise. Jews become Jewish from these concepts; Jews develop a foundation in these ideas. As they begin to grapple with them, their Jewishness grows. These are the concepts that belong on today’s “Jewishness assessment” scale. Borrowing from Moss’s framework, from the work of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and from my own research, a more contemporary scale should include items such as: Jewish self-confidence, Jewish literacy, belonging, Jewish memory, and expectancy — or hope for and interest in a Jewish future. These range across the core ideas of Jewish tradition and they serve as the basis for Jewish growth and a Jewish life.

The multidimensional Jew requires a multidimensional scale, with these concepts on one axis, feelings and behaviors on another axis, and various points in time on a third axis. In this way, we can document, understand, and assess the feelings and behaviors of the exploring Jew, the curious but hesitant Jew — she who is grappling with exile and not yet comfortable with homeland, he who is seeking community but confused about which community is his. We can root our assessment in celebration, not just continuity, studying what, at present, comprises connections and commitments to Jewish life. We can then document more accurately the ways in which Jews live Judaism.

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Beth Cousens is a private consultant to Jewish educational organizations, specializing in strategy development, research, and evaluation. She has extensive experience in measuring 21st-century American Jewishness.

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