Presentations: Approaches to Jewish Education and Jewish Identity
“Theoretical frameworks in linguistic anthropology theorize religious-ethnic identity as a relational and sociocultural phenomenon that emerges in local contexts of interaction” (Bucholtz and Hall, 2010). My contribution is to explore how Jewish educators can look to theoretical frameworks in linguistic anthropology to get a more nuanced understanding of what it means to inhabit, embody or take on a Jewish identity. Attending to some recent linguistically-informed work on Jewish socialization (Fader, 2009; Kattan, 2010; Benor, 2012; Avineri, 2012), I want to explore how a great deal of complexity and variation is involved in what otherwise might be simply called Jewish identity, and to consider what this scholarship can contribute to our thinking about the ways in which Jewish education is conceived and practiced.
The Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” punctuated the need for a more nuanced understanding of how post-boomers’ articulate and enact their ideas about Jewishness. I am part of a research team, headed by Professor Ari Kelman at Stanford, that is conducting an in-depth qualitative study designed to do just that. Key to this effort is an inductive approach that locates narrative authority with the research subjects. Using a life-history based protocol, we are exploring the ways in which young adults articulate who they are, what is meaningful to them, and how they understand and engage with the world around them. In the process, we are learning how, and the extent to which, Jewishness plays a part in these individuals’ life stories. This approach promises to yield deep and informative data that could radically reshape our understanding of the dimensions and dynamics of contemporary Jewish life, and help policy makers and practitioners better understand the communities and individuals they serve. Additionally, we intend to share methodological insights that can inform future scholarship on the topic.
Jews use language in many ways to indicate to others that we are Jewish. We might tell a phone surveyor that we identify as Jews (by religion or not). We might tell someone who is wearing an overt Jewish symbol that we too are Jewish. These are examples of indicating Jewishness through the content of language. We also indicate our Jewishness through the form of language — through the use of a Hebrew or Yiddish word, an intonational pattern, or a distinctive pronunciation of "hummus." Through the form of our language, we indicate not only that we are Jews but also that we are certain types of Jews. At this conference, I will highlight the relationship between language and Jewish identities, and explore the implications for conceptualizing the desirable outcomes of Jewish education.
As an anthropological concept, “identity” has played a crucial sociological role for minority groups in the West to integrate into the larger society while retaining their distinctiveness with some legitimacy. For American immigrant groups — Jews included — this functional and fluid notion has always depended for its content on the wider American ideational strategies for managing the diversity of its population. Whether “races” or “nationals” were joining in an American “melting pot” in the early 20th century, or “religious traditions” were able to reach across the hyphen of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” post-WWII, or “cultures” could participate as equals before the law in a diverse and inclusive “multi-cultural society” over the last 30 years, the term “identity” has morphed to fit the reigning model of legitimate integration. Jewish education in America has, understandably, adapted to these evolving notions, generally focusing its curriculum and goals on, respectively, Jewishness as a race/nation (pre-WWII), Jewishness as a “religion” (1945-1980s), and Jewishness as a cultural expression (1980s-today). This evolution and consequent generational misalignment also contribute in some cases to tensions in day schools around mission, curriculum and pedagogy.
Having focused on “Jewish identity” for much of my doctoral work, I was subsequently surprised to encounter equally robust ideas about “identity” in the ongoing academic research on individual and social psychology. I therefore contend that long-sought alternatives to conventional Jewish “identity education” have long been available. Because Jews (and those identified as “Jews”) have frequently been the victims of misfortune and injustice in Western history, they have frequently been denied "recognition" — a fundamental need and motivation for personal learning and development. Drawing on Erik Erikson and others, I concur with Mark Bracher (2006) that positive identity formation is supported when human beings relinquish antisocial practices such as demonizing violent “Others” or externalizing disowned impulses. To maintain a secure identity in the face of perceived threats to it, students should be prompted to integrate (rather than exclude) those elements of the self that become harmful when enacted in different contexts. Inasmuch as educators likewise desire forms of recognition, their practices can nonetheless undermine their efforts at facilitating student development. By owning up to some measure of narcissism, anger or related affect, Jewish and other educators may yet achieve the prosocial recognition of what Erikson (1964) terms the “need to be needed.” By enacting the generativity implied by a “need to teach,” educators may better position themselves to support the identity development of learners, including themselves.
The lens of cultural studies and the related notion of discourse can help Jewish educators make sense of the complexity and syncretic nature (Asad, 1993) of Jewish living in modernity, by helping clarify the ways in which competing discourses become themselves new and changed in the student’s experience. A result of using the lens discourse and its syncretic operations in a Jewish/modern context undermines an overly prescriptive attempt to educate toward a particular form of Jewish living or desired outcomes. I will draw on qualitative research conducted through this lens in a Modern Orthodox girls’ high school to flesh out this problem, and then suggest some possible educational frames that will allow educators to think about how to educate when faced this the aforementioned unpredictability that arises from teaching in a world with competing cultural systems.
The ways Jews talk about identity are shaped by a small number of basic metaphors. Talk of identity “formation,” “crystallization,” or “development,” portrays identity as something that starts out inchoate and fluid and ends up solid and organized. Talk of “weak” or “strong” identity suggests that some kinds of identity are more durable or concentrated than others. Talk of “affiliation” or “identification” likens identity to group membership (like belonging to a gym) whereas talk of “involvement” or “engagement” likens identity to participation in an activity (like playing sport). We know we’re not supposed to mix our metaphors. And in everyday discourse, it rarely matters when we do, so long as we’re understood. In the case of Jewish identity, however, we currently mix our metaphors to such an extent that we literally don’t know what we’re talking about anymore. We devise interventions to strengthen fluid identities and we measure engagement by indicators of affiliation. It’s time we cleaned up our language.
The discourse on Jewish identity and education is sufficiently ingrained and ubiquitous in American Jewish culture that it has an almost timeless quality to it. In fact, the concept of “Jewish identity” was seldom invoked by Jewish educators prior to Erik Erikson’s popularization of the term in the 1950s and 1960s. The driving forces behind this paradigm shift were socio-economic and cultural. Sixty years later, postmodern social constructivism and new psychobiological research now challenge the concept of identity by calling into question the existence of a stable self. Yet outside of academic circles, the discourse of “identity” has endured. Is this merely the function of an older generation, still holding the reins or power within the community, stubbornly clinging onto an outdated discourse? Or, despite its limitations is there something about the language of identity that continues to speak to us? Against this background, Lisa Grant examines the extent to which Jewish identity continues to dominate the agenda of students in the master's programs of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College. Using samples of work of residential students in New York and Executive MA students across the country, Lisa explores how they use the term and how they purpose this discourse in the context of their vision and goals for Jewish education.
Over the years I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about how they see their lives and their connections to Jewishness—their self-understanding as Jews —and I’ve come up against the limits of Jewish identity as a concept. On the one hand, in the Jewish world Jewish identity is often a proxy for what a good Jews is expected to do/know/be, and because of this strong normative framing it’s important to distinguish Jewishness from the individual’s Jewish Self. The first involves the shared, socially and historically constructed, contested stuff that constitutes Jewishness (that varies depending on context). The second involves the individual’s self-understanding and being as a Jew. In addition, I’ve come to employ the concept of agency to speak about the self in action, in a variety of contexts. When we follow people over time, we get to see how the inherited and involuntary, habituated aspects of a person’s upbringing can become active elements in the decision-making and deployment of the self. Relying solely on the concept of identity—where in the Jewish world we typically have looked at knowledge, skills or practices to indicate the extent of person’s identity—does not have capture this dynamic change in people’s lives. Agency involves marshaling the self within a domain, the person’s ability to function effectively in the environment. Tracing changes in the person’s sense of agency gives us a better sense of how actively an identity (e.g. being Jewish, being an educator or a Jewish educator) comes to be inhabited.
The great project of the pre-WWII Jewish elite was the theoretical and practical integration of Jews into American life. Ironically, the great project of the post-war elite would be to reckon with the terrible success of that integration. The breathtaking alacrity with which American Jews took on Americanness, and with which America welcomed properly Americanized Jews, made it possible in 1951 for sociologist Herbert Gans to make an observation which, 50 years earlier, would have seemed downright bizarre: “In Park Forest… adult Jews quite consciously rejected any involvement in the religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community, while trying to teach the children to be Jews.” Park Forest parents, like the great majority of post-war American Jews, were now deeply invested in an almost impossible task: the transmission of a sense of Jewishness, identity, without agreeing to almost any of the terms of Jewish life, as it was historically understood. In the post-war era, identity became a way of reframing the deeply problematic compromises and contradictions which had enabled the success of the integration project. Rather than bemoan the content-free nature of identity, an examination of identity as a historically situated discourse, and the tensions obscured therein, might yield a surprising source of revitalization for contemporary American Jewish life.
The discourse on Jewish identity and education is sufficiently ingrained and ubiquitous in American Jewish culture that it has an almost timeless quality to it. In fact, the concept of “Jewish identity” was seldom invoked by Jewish educators prior to Erik Erikson’s popularization of the term in the 1950s and 1960s. The driving forces behind this paradigm shift were socio-economic and cultural. Sixty years later, postmodern social constructivism and new psychobiological research now challenge the concept of identity by calling into question the existence of a stable self. Yet outside of academic circles, the discourse of “identity” has endured. Is this merely the function of an older generation, still holding the reins or power within the community, stubbornly clinging onto an outdated discourse? Or, despite its limitations is there something about the language of identity that continues to speak to us? Drawing upon Jewish education periodical literature, Jonathan Krasner historicizes the blossoming of the Jewish identity discourse in the 1960s and 1970s, arguing that the emergence of the discourse around Jewish identity was related to the replacement of second generation concerns about successful integration into American society with anxiety about ethnic and religious survival.
Modern psychology has long grappled with the dialectic between the conscious and non-conscious elements of self. Freud discussed the ego’s role in mediating the struggles between the id and superego. Cognitive scientists described “implicit” memory while ecological-contextual theorists point to the power of often-implicit roles and expectations in shaping behavior. The neuro-psychological turn has brought an understanding of neural pathways for emotion that operate too quickly for conscious processing to occur. Though emerging from radically different theoretical camps, these ideas point to a certain theme: There are elements that are central to who one “is” that may elude conscious awareness. In addition to self-conscious awareness, we each demonstrate elements of “implicit identity.” Further, methodologies are being developed to assess such elements of self. One particularly relevant line of research explores the not-consciously-mediated influence of group membership on the attitudes, affect and beliefs of individuals.
“Jewish identity” is, too frequently, a meaningless substitute for a focused, disciplined articulation of the goals of Jewish education. We talk about “Jewish identity” when we don’t know what else to talk about. What do we want students to know and be able to do? Read texts in certain ways? Speak certain languages? Enjoy Jewish culture? Produce Jewish culture? In what ways do we want them to be engaged with their local Jewish and non-Jewish communities? Who do we want them to be, as interpreters of Jewish history and tradition? How do we envision the connection of Jews to other Jews, locally or globally? What is our picture of engaged citizenship, and in what polities? What are our aspirations for the inner, spiritual lives of Jews? What does it mean to live a life on behalf of others, or to pursue justice, or to create beauty in the world, or to serve the Divine? These are the kinds of questions that ought to guide Jewish educational policy-making, rather than vacuous claims about “Jewish identity.” After all, American Jews today are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identities. They're proud to be Jewish. They are not running away from their Jewish identities in any sense, and the rhetoric that suggests that they are is misguided. Our task, then, is to identify the cultural practices that we value most, and then to figure out what we ought to be doing to help students develop the capacities to pull off those cultural practices. Enough identity already.
I’ve just completed fieldwork in sites that promote themselves as teaching Jewish spirituality. These sites argue that the primary stage on which Jewish identity should be enacted is a privatized one: the home, the immediate family, and the physical and emotional body. I think this ideal of a domesticated Jewish self will gain more traction as spirituality increasingly takes up the mantle of 'good' religion in American life.
The language of Jewish identity—“You’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish” —is gendered and creates artificial hierarchies among Jews. The lack of consensus between Jewish movements about patrilineal descent reinforces a Jew-o-meter effect that labels people by bloodline and according to how observant they are or claim to be. Notwithstanding the disagreement in organized Judaism, intermarried Jewish men’s oral histories highlight the ways in which they, and their born-Christian wives, are agents of change regarding Jewish identity. Jewish men who intermarried broaden the concept of continuity by becoming “more Jewish” according to self-definition and authorizing the Jewishness of their children. Still, lagging acceptance of their children’s Jewish identities suggests that patrilineal descent does not carry the same cultural weight as matrilineal descent. Moreover, traditional gender behaviors continue to undermine intermarried men’s potential as full equal partners in educating Jewish children. I see the need for a new concept of Jewish identity that encourages a paradigm shift to increase the efficacy of Jewish education and level the Jewish parenting field.
Ethnicity remains a powerful identifier in many societies. But what does it mean to be Jewish? Jewishness is a pre-modern concept, a fusion of religion and ethnicity, categories now differentiated. Jews remain uncertain of whether they are such by ethnicity, religion, “culture” or just descent. The behaviors Jewishness implies are varied, non-consensual or unclear. Post-Soviet Russian and Ukrainian Jews see little connection between Judaism and Jewishness, whereas in most western societies religious forms remain the way Jewish ethnicity is expressed. Jewish identities vary by time and place, though it has some fixed defining characteristics.
The “assumption that Jewish identity is the goal of Jewish education” holds only where Jewish identities are weak—in America among the non-Orthodox majority. For Russian-speakers—few of whom are Orthodox—the “desired outcome of Jewish education” is not identity a much as cultural content and knowledge. Since Russian-speaking Jews comprise 17% of Israeli Jews, 10% of American Jews and 90% of German Jews, we should think about what might be the “desired outcome of Jewish education” among them.
How can cultural content be supplied? There are formidable obstacles to doing so. 1) the dumbing down of American culture, and the replacement of thinking by technological manipulation. 2) shorter attention spans; 3) respect for wealth, not culture: 5) linguistic decay: Hebrew used to be not a means of communication alone but an ideal; 6) “tikun olam” is the be-all and end-all of Judaism; 7) time pressures and the assumption of too many responsibilities and undertakings. “Al regel akhat” is not the ideal pedagogical mode.
Mel Leventhal wrote in a letter to Alice Walker, his soon-to-be wife: “I decided to buy [The Collected Poems of P.L. Dunbar ] for YOU, me and THE CHILDREN… Ain't no one goin to tell my children that they ain't got no heritage, except for Mammy….If there is anything they shall not be ashamed of it is their black and Indian and Jewish blood. (I must admit it: they sure will be of minority groups.)" Leventhal’s comment reveals a lacuna in the study of interfaith families in America: the multiracial interfaith family. For much of the 20th century, Christian and Jewish responses to interfaith families understood the Jewish spouse as the default minority culture. When, however, the Jewish parent is also the White parent, and the Christian parent is a person of color, the racial dynamics dramatically complicate, if not reverse, the narrative presented in much of the outreach to interfaith families. Indeed, relatives of color often worry about the “whitening” of the family through the embracing of Eastern European traditions. Additionally, these families often worry that their children will be at a cultural disadvantage without a grounding in their non-Jewish heritage, lacking full cultural competence in communities of color while simultaneously excluded from full acceptance into the Jewish community. Samira Mehta uses memoirs and ethnography to parse the overlapping self understandings of those children, asking how Jewish affinities co-exist with the claims of other cultural heritages (Black, Latin and Asian) and the realities of racism inside and outside of Jewish community.
Identification with the collective is an under-examined and under-theorized component of Jewish identity and identity education. To be comprehensive discourse about Jewish identity needs to account for connection to the collective not just as context for understanding identity but as central to self definition. Collective identity is not about the categories that others use to describe the individual but about the individuals understanding that their belonging to a collective is a defining element in their perception of self. The importance of understanding the collective aspects of Jewish identity has also been pushed to the forefront by shifts in contemporary society. The phenomena of unprecedented global population movement concomitant with almost universal access to transnational communications are reshaping the relationship between co-religionists and co-ethnics living in different parts of the world. There is a move away from classical homeland-centric models of collective identity towards a transnational model of “peoplehood.” Introduced by Mordechai Kaplan (1948), the term “Jewish peoplehood” describes a sense of belonging and connection among Jews that transcends national, political or religious belief differences.
As the Jewish community evolves past its concern with “Jewish identity,” we advocate for focusing on the ways that Jewish ideas, values, emotions and behaviors inform particularly Jewish lenses/tools to interpret reality, make decisions and flourish as human beings. We refer to these lenses/tools as Jewish Sensibilities — approaches to living and learning that permeate Jewish culture. Conveyed from generation to generation through narratives, behavioral patterns and other memes, they can also be thought of as emotional-cognitive competencies that provide inspiration and guidance to respond creatively and thoughtfully to life’s challenges and opportunities. Examples are Simcha (joy, contentment), Elu v’Elu (both these and those), and Shevirah (brokenness).
As someone who is asked to study and somehow evaluate or assess changes in peoples' Jewish identity and development to inform both improvement of practice and strategic philanthropic investment, we are asked to utilize an array of conceptual frames for developing specific measures. In other words, our work involves turning broad ideals and aspirations into usable instruments for measuring such change. I will share three frameworks that we currently utilize in our practice; each expresses preferences and comes with assumptions and biases. I hope to engage session participants in conversations about what we measure, how we measure, and towards what ends we measure. My brief presentation will draw on specific examples of practice tied to these broader frameworks.
The educational vision of Hillel positions Jewish texts, ideas, and values as jumping off points for conversations around identity and meaning. The goal is to demonstrate the relevance Judaism brings to existential questions of emerging adulthood and to professional and extracurricular interests such as biomedical ethics and global warming. Often the frame is narrow with a bias towards teaching sacred/rabbinic texts in a vacuum rather than in conversation with ideas and values prevalent in American society as a whole. If identity is the right frame (and I came to this conference open to questioning that assumption), then perhaps Jewish ideas should be taught in conversation with secular/Western/Eastern ideas emphasizing the similarities and differences under the assumption that educators will help students make informed choices about the frameworks of meaning that are most compelling to them. Increasingly, I wonder how secular and cultural Jewish ideas and texts can be brought into the conversation as we contend with multi-faceted (interfaith/eclectic) ethnic and cultural Jewish identities, especially when most Hillel educators are rabbis. In the identity-building business, continuity of the Jewish people cannot be the endgame. Is pursuing a life of purpose and meaning, guided by Jewish ideas sufficient or ultimately should we be educating for a different aim?
We have all come across notions such as “authentic Judaism,” or “real” or “authentic” Jew. Authenticity deserves our attention in the study of Jewish identity as a peculiar sociological phenomenon. We live in a climate of inauthenticity and both individual and collective Jewish identity narratives have become rich in all kinds of references to authenticity or lack of thereof. Individual narratives are necessarily constructed in interaction with other narratives and existing discursive and evaluative frameworks shape the ways in which we make sense of our identities. I believe that we can inform our research through the study of Jewish communities or Jewish identity frameworks which are in transition, which are not considered self-evident, which are “uncertain,” which remain in flux. Some three-quarters of North American Jews trace their roots to Poland. Incidentally, for several years now, Poland has served as a true hotbed of contemporary Jewish identity debate. The curious process of deassimilation and the unexpected revitalization of Jewish life in post-communist Poland brought about fundamental philosophical questions regarding Jewish identity construction. A good look at contemporary Jewish Poland can offer new perspectives on both the perceived “essence” of Jewishness, and its perceived periphery and boundaries. It can encourage new approaches to our favorite question of “Who is a Jew?” and question the seemingly most obvious truths about being Jewish, being “authentically” Jewish, or being a “real” Jew.
I see my Jewish identity as a religious one. I don’t mean ‘observant’ or ‘Orthodox’. I mean, in the words of Art Green, to be a person that strives to find the presence of God in my life and fashion a life that is commensurate with that striving. That’s what I mean by having a religious identity that Is Jewish. The Jewish part is then the language that expresses that meaning making, yet it also shapes the meaning making too. As an religious educator I then ask, how can I intentionally plan for growing or forming such a religious identity in others? What would be my role? What would be the process that describes such a phenomenon? How do I know what impact I am having? Finally I ask, what is the relationship between this identity and all my other identities (male, British, father, professor)?
Within the field of Jewish Studies, a long line of scholarship has examined how Jewish identities have shifted as a result of intermarriage (chiefly Jewish-Christian intermarriage), yet scholars know very little how Jewish identities have changed as a result of other forms of cross-religious contact and exchange. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that America’s increasingly pluralistic landscape has led a growing number of people to understand themselves to be connected to more than one religious tradition. Understanding how Jewish people develop and maintain multiple religious connections, and how that process shapes Jewish identities, is both particularly timely and important to Jewish educators who seek to balance openness and acceptance with integrity of the tradition. To that end, this presentation focuses on a case study of four well-known teachers at the intersections of Judaism and Buddhism in America as a way to explore how Jewish people experience multiple religious identities and connections. I will draw on material from a new teaching initiative that colleagues and I recently launched that uses case studies as teaching tools for theological and religious studies educators. I will discuss how case-study learning, as research in the field of education has consistently shown, is particularly effective in teaching about margins where identities are contested, in flux and creatively remade.