The Arrival Of Post-Ethnic Jews

The Arrival Of Post-Ethnic Jews

It’s Thursday night at Makor, the trendy new arts and performance space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the movie theater, Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer, Yanosh Kaminsky, is talking about his work on “Saving Private Ryan” after a showing of the film. One floor below, Orthodox sex and relationship guru Shmuley Boteach is holding forth to some 60 listeners in Makor’s lecture hall. And in the basement, Hippopotamus, a downtown band from the Knitting Factory, is blasting away in a punk rave as thick cigarette smoke wafts up in the dim light.
Sitting at a table in the barroom behind the music space, Eric Payson, a 33-year-old artist and writer, looks bemused when asked how his presence that night relates to his ethnic identity. Though educated in a Jewish day school on Long Island, Payson doesn’t belong to any Jewish organization now and doesn’t takes part in any organized Jewish communal activity.
“Jewish identity is no longer something you find at your local Hillel, JCC or UJA,” he bellows over the buzz of the crowd. “Jewish identity today is in Viacom, Goldman Sachs, in Hollywood and in the media industry where people are creating and achieving,” he says. “It’s about connecting to the new pillars of American capitalism and success.”
Still, sweeping his arm across the width of the room where hiply dressed singles chat as they quaff their drinks, Payson explains, “I come here because it’s a Jewish community center and not only a bar. People bring another face, another side of themselves here.”
Payson struggles to explain: “It’s hard to have a Jewish identity in Manhattan unless you work at it. Jewish life at the turn of the century is far different than it ever was before.”
The artist’s choice of words is telling. In generations past, the saying, “It’s hard to be a Jew” was a simple truism. Now, however, with vistas open to Jews as never before, it’s having a Jewish identity that’s hard for many outside Orthodoxy, whose myriad religious obligations naturally generates its own social identity.
Now at least four generations into the American Jewish experience, Payson’s generation and its consciousness reflect the emergence of a radically new sense of Jewish identity. Stripped of intense engagement with Israel, with few if any ties to Jewish organizations, and with little sense of obligation to a collective peoplehood, many young Jews today are fashioning a Jewish identity salad-bar-style: highly personalized, self-assembled and ever-evolving.
A Jew at prayer; a Jew lighting Shabbat candles; a Jewish family gathered around a food-stacked seder table: the innate Jewishness of these religious images needs no elaboration. Indeed, some would say that they, and other rituals like them, form the true and constant core of Jewish life that transcends the shifting sands of time and place.
But religious rituals have never been the sum total of Jewish life. And in America, where just 26 percent of Jews tell pollsters they regard religion as “very important” in their lives, even these rituals have a powerful social component that sociologists have seen as part of a larger whole.
“Historically, the religious and ethnic dimensions of Jewish life have been intertwined,” explained Steven Cohen, a sociologist specializing in American Jewry at Hebrew University. “Rhetorically, Jews position themselves as an American religious group. But social scientists have long thought their religious activities provided acceptable cover for considerable ethnic activity.”
Cohen and other social scientists stress that when they talk about Jews’ ethnic behavior, they are not talking about whether they eat lox and bagels and speak with their hands. Instead, they are referring to their activities in and attitudes toward a Jewish social identity outside the religious sphere.
For many Jews, synagogue and home ritual life has long been surrounded and buttressed by a skein of social, political, cultural, educational and recreational institutions. Even as the rich immigrant culture of the waves of Jews who came here early in the century slowly dissipated with the end of World War II, most Jews still retained an extensive Jewish life beyond home and shul. Jews were still, by and large, attracted to live in neighborhoods where other Jews lived. They expressed their group identity in fraternal organizations; increasingly well-funded philanthropic agencies; attractive Jewish community centers offering a widening array of leisure pursuits; and pro-Israel activities spurred by the peril and pride Jews felt in the drama of a Jewish state. Domestic politics also drew in thousands motivated by what they saw as a distinctively Jewish calling for social justice. Jewish camps gave Jewish children often vivid memories of open spaces and fun-filled summers.
Today, just how different Jewish life is — or whether it is Jewish at all, outside the rituals of synagogue and family — is an enormously important question, bound to affect the majority of American Jews whose contact with those rituals are occasional, at best.
According to one recent survey, participation in a distinctively Jewish ethnic life — at least as traditionally understood — is down sharply among younger Jews, even as participation in Jewish religious practices and rituals is more or less holding steady today. The decline is, perhaps, inevitable as generations ever more distant from the experiences that gave birth to that ethnic life come to the fore.
Still, some contend that places such as the communally sponsored Makor and some privately owned spots such as the Knitting Factory are now sites for the rise of some form of neo-ethnic renaissance. It is, they contend, a new and different ethnic life for a far more disparate, highly intermarried Jewish community. But this assertion is hotly contested by others. And even more hotly debated is what, if anything, it would mean for the collective Jewish enterprise even if it were true.
According to Herbert Gans, a Columbia University sociologist who has monitored the evolution of Jewish ethnic behavior since the late 1940s, “It means nothing for the Jewish collective enterprise.”
These phenomena, he says, are typical of a third- and fourth-generation ethnicity that “emphasizes concern with identity, with the feeling of being Jewish, or Italian, etc.” over the actual group activities and group obligations of people immersed in an integral ethnic society. In his landmark 1979 study, Gans termed this, with some belittlement, “symbolic ethnicity.”
Given the degree to which most Jews are by now assimilated and dispersed throughout the broader mainstream culture, wrote Gans, most look for “easy and intermittent ways of expressing their identity, for ways that do not conflict with other ways of life.”
“They refrain from ethnic behavior that requires an arduous or time-consuming commitment, either to a culture that must be practiced constantly, or to organizations that demand active membership,” wrote Gans.
Instead, concerned mostly with “the feeling of being ethnic” rather than with cultural practices or group relationships, they “look for ways of expressing that identity which suits them best, thus opening up the possibility of voluntary, diverse or individualistic ethnicity,” Gans added. He termed this “an ethnicity of last resort, which could, nevertheless, persist for generations.”
Cohen, the Hebrew University sociologist, is the author of a nationwide study that suggests an additional twist. In his 1998 survey of a representative sample of 1,005 Jews 25 years and older, Cohen found that Jewish participation in home and synagogue religious rituals was more or less the same, regardless of age. Younger Jews were just as religiously committed, God-oriented and ritually observant as their elders on matters ranging from family seders (very high) to synagogue attendance (very low).
But participation in and attitudes toward what Cohen considered the traditional ethnic aspects of Jewish life split radically by age: Younger Jews were much less committed to the idea of Jewish peoplehood; less supportive of in-marriage; less attached to Israel; less likely to report having Jewish friends; less affiliated with Jewish institutions; and less likely to view social justice as an important Jewish value.
These group-oriented, even somewhat tribal attitudes and activities, are what “most clearly differentiate being Jewish in America from being Methodist or Episcopalian,” writes Cohen.
The impact of increased intermarriage is part of the reason, he says. But even when Cohen excluded intermarried Jews from his sample, the age split on ethnic attitudes and behavior persisted.
The nature of Judaism and Jewishness “certainly are undergoing rapid change,” Cohen writes. “As Judaism is drawn into the self, it is withdrawn from politics, philanthropy, organizations, peoplehood, Israel and Jewish-gentile relations.”
In an interview, he added, “I’m talking about the movement of Jewishness toward a more mainstream American Protestant, denominational-type definition.” Cohen hastens to add: “This is not a threat to Jewish survival. That’s the wrong question. I’m focusing on the continued creativity and distinctiveness of Jews as a people. I’m not satisfied with a Jew who’s synagogue affiliated, sends his kids to Hebrew school and maybe goes to Israel once in his life,” he said. “The problem is, how can they have a rich Jewish life, like you or me?”
Bethamie Horowitz, a senior scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, takes an entirely different approach to studying Jewish identity. Her research makes heavy use of in-depth interviews that allow Jews to identify what, if anything, about being Jewish is important to them individually, rather than just questionnaires with traditional, preset criteria.
Her findings, she says, show that today, many Jews can best be seen as engaged in Jewish “journeys.”
“We know identity changes over the course of a life,” she says, referring to her studies. “If they experience Jewishness in an evolving way over time, who is to say where it will end up? It’s legitimate to ask how this relates to the collective Jewish enterprise. But it’s foolish to make a statement based on the state of their Jewishness today.”
Back at Makor, Rabbi Natan Margalit, the center’s director of education, takes a practical approach. Aware of studies that show one of the most crucial factors influencing a Jew’s sense of Jewish identity is simply how much he spends time with other Jews and develops Jewish friends, he says, “The main thing is, you get all these Jews in one place, interacting. I don’t care what they’re doing. You get them by interacting and take your cues from what emerges.
“I don’t think we so-called educated Jews have all the answers and must somehow help these poor assimilated Jews,” he elaborates. Given their creativity, education and cultural sophistication, Rabbi Margalit said, “We ourselves need the stimulation of these ‘outsiders.’ We need them to see what we need to change in Jewish social life to be as powerful as the movies and other cultural influences in our lives.

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