The Importance of a Navigational Perspective in the Study of Contemporary American Jews: Response to the Sklare Lecture

Jun. 25, 2015

Source: Contemporary Jewry 


One fissure in the social scientific study of contemporary American Jews involves how scholars understand the relationship between the individual and the shared or social realm. In this essay I contrast a more normative, tradition-oriented approach to studying American Jews and their Jewishness exemplified by Sylvia Barack Fishman to the person-centered, meaning-oriented, navigational approach I employ. Our contrasting approaches reflect different views about what it means to “transmit Jewish culture to the next generation.”


The nature of the interface between individuals and the social context has changed in some profound ways. Most notably Jewish individuals are less tethered by the kinds of external constraints regarding Jewishness that functioned in the past, leaving them with more latitude. Furthermore, in these new circumstances, the social terrain itself has changed, resulting in an array of options and possibilities that is wider, and also less successfully characterized by nomenclature like “Jewish” and “American” that many employ. So what does it mean to speak about “Jewish cultural transmission” when the “Jewishness” that is to be conveyed has changed, not to speak of the processes and possibilities of social learning? Here I describe a navigational perspective that is able to encompass both the moves of individuals and the changing terrain and array of opportunities that have emerged.

Updated: Jul. 08, 2015