Jewish Identity Ain’t What it Used to Be

by Ari Y. Kelman

Jewish identity ain’t what it used to be.

Let me explain: This isn’t a lament about declining affiliation rates or weak ethnic ties. I’m not writing about actual Jews living actual Jewish lives. I’m talking about the concept of “Jewish identity,” which seems to have entered the Jewish communal vocabulary sometime after World War II, and, by the end of the 20th century, had become part of the internal logic of Jewish life and Jewish education in the United States and beyond. In some circles, “Jewish identity” had become something of a holy grail or ultimate pursuit. Camps, day schools, travel tours to Israel, early childhood interventions, and virtually every other imaginable delivery mechanism for Jewish education had been tasked with enhancing, fostering, growing, nurturing, strengthening, and otherwise doing good things for “Jewish identity.”

The relationship between identity and Jewish education has become axiomatic. Sociologist Sam Heilman opened an article about Jewish schoolingwith the following: “The ultimate goal of Jewish education today is the affirmation of Jewish identity.” (1) Even someone as critical of Jewish education as David Schoem takes the centrality of “Jewish identity” for granted. Shoem explained, “Jewish educators must begin with the assumption that an authentic Jewish identity for life in modern America is not understood either by the masses of Jewish people or by its educators and leaders.” (64)

By the time the Pew Research Center published its report on the state of American Jews in the fall of 2013, “Jewish identity” had been reified beyond recognition. “A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey,” its authors explained, “is to explore Jewish identity: what does being Jewish mean in America today?” (15). But, the best the Report could do was to explain, “Jewish identity is changing in America,” (7) a claim that leaves more substantive examinations of identity to its readers and, more importantly, to the Jewish people it statistically represents.

So, my colleague Jon Levisohn and I thought it would be a good time to get a group of smart people together to talk about the past, present, and future of “Jewish identity.” This turned into a two-day conference at the Mandel Centerat Brandeis University, which took place in March of this year. Most of us around the table roundly agreed that the concept had outlived its utility as a policy objective, as an analytical tool, or as a descriptive term. This was most cogently summed up by Eli Gottlieb who stated, plainly,

“When we talk about Jewish identity, we literally do not know what we are talking about.”

Such a claim does not bode well for the utility or meaning of the term in question. And, if Eli is right, then why does the term still have the purchase it does?

Moreover, if the Pew report is right, and that Jewish identity is “changing,” then “Jewish identity” ought to change too, to reflect the changes in the ways in which people are living Jewish lives.

Jewish identity ain’t what it used to be. But neither are the Jews that the term supposedly describes.

For those of you interested in continuing this conversation, Brandeis produced a podcast from the Conference that captures the spirit and content of the conversation. You can listen to it, download it, and share it here.

Ari Y. Kelman is The Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies and the director of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford, and co-chair of the conference on Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education.