Just Released: Jewish Family: Identity and Self-Formation at Home

In Jewish Family: Identity and Self-Formation at Home (Indiana University Press, 2018), Alex Pomson and Randal F. Schnoor offer a deep look at 16 families who share one common denominator: for one year all of their children attended the same pluralistic Jewish day school in downtown Toronto. After that year, the lives of the children and their parents went in many different directions.

Based on a study that ran for ten years, Jewish Family explores the radically different trajectories of the 16 families, while demonstrating the deep significance of family in the development of Jewish identity. The authors build theories, based on the families’ experiences, to explain why, over time, some individuals lead more intense Jewish lives and others become increasingly disengaged from other Jews and from Jewish culture. Home-based family rituals, as one example, play formative roles in family life, and children are especially integral in shaping how those rituals develop.

The book begins by introducing two families – the Lowes and the Kleinmans – who overcame great ambivalence about day school education to enroll their oldest daughters. The Lowes were concerned about trapping their child in a “Jewish ghetto.” The Kleinmans expressed guilt about abandoning the public system. During the first year at the school, both families were thrilled with what their daughters were learning and bringing home. Yet, soon after the start of the second year, citing different reasons, they each withdrew their child; one transferred to a local private school, and one to an alternative public school.

Two years later, these families were thinking about their children’s Jewish education and their own Jewish lives in profoundly different ways. Hardly anything had changed at the Lowe’s home (the kids still went to Jewish summer camp), and the parents were determined to ensure that remained true. At the Kleinmans, however, the parents were in the process of separating. They struggled to provide their child with any kind of Jewish education, particularly one that was consistent with their own secular-cultural orientation to Jewish life. Interviewed ten years after the start of the study, their Jewish lives could not have been more different. Carla Lowe, a proudly Jewish young woman regularly critiqued her parents for what she perceived as the hypocritical Jewish lifestyle they led; how they seemed so stuck in their ways. Sandy Kleinman barely remembered any of her Jewish education. Her father – a long time explorer of Buddhism – was partnered with a spiritually inclined Muslim woman.

With six of the 16 families involved in some form of interfaith relationship, Jewish Family offers a fresh perspective on intermarriage, and in particular on how interfaith relationships interact with other features of the family system.

“We see how a family really builds Jewish identity together as a unit,” says author Randal F. Schnoor, a sociologist who teaches Jewish Studies at the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. “One person’s Jewish experience is felt to some degree by other family members as well. That’s a very powerful concept.”

The book is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2K90oYw.