Beyond a Humpty-Dumpty Narrative: In Search of New Rhymes and Reasons in the Research of Contemporary American Jewish Identity Formation


Source: International Journal of Jewish Education Research (IJJER), 2013 (5-6), 21-46


Oriented predominantly by a particular master narrative, knowledge produced by the social scientific study of Jewish identity formation tends to ask some questions but not others. Engaging in a study comprised of a select but key cross-section of the last half-century’s leading contributors to scholarship about American Jewish identity formation, the article exposes this narrative with the allegorical aid of the poem, “Humpty Dumpty.”


Applied to the field of Jewish identity formation research, the rhyme about this ill-fated character depicts an allegory of the Jewish people as having fallen down to America from some high place; namely, pre-America, pre-Holocaust, and sometimes also a pre-Enlightenment, pre-emancipation Europe. The story then concludes on a tragic note, with all the Jewish professionals and leaders failing to put the Jews together again in accordance with their allegedly whole state that had existed previously in Europe. Elucidating the “wall,” “fall,” and the failure to “repair,” the article demonstrates how social scientists of Jewish identity formation have, until quite recently, tended to default to one or another version of this same story of decline.


First exposing the assumptions embedded within the Humpty narrative, showing how it has served to limit new and different kinds of questions that can be asked in the field, the article then turns to address a recent paradigm shift that is taking place. Participating in a further expansion of the shift, the author concludes by proposing an additional new avenue of knowledge for the field: non-judgmental, non-prescriptive explorations of the roles of conflict and dissonance in American Jewish identity formation. This line of inquiry has typically been a blind spot of the field since it lacks – or at least seems to lack – direct and immediate relevance for safeguarding ethnic survival, but it bears rich potential for creating new kinds of knowledge.

Updated: Mar. 12, 2014