Speaking of Jewish Identity…

Published: 
May 25, 2016

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 

 

The language of “Jewish identity” has served us well for decades, but is now limiting us and conditioning us in ways that are detrimental to the objectives we claim. I want to propose that we thank “identity” profusely for its services, dismiss it, and then think together of better language to express the mission of the Jewish community. Academics and educators have already begun to question “Jewish identity” as a concept, and it is time for the funder community to do likewise.

So it’s time to go beyond identity and replace it with a new paradigm that embraces rather than avoids the complexities of Jewish American life. It’s time to grapple with the contradictions of being Jewish in 21st century America. That doesn’t mean we need to stop investing in “identity building” programs, but it means not stopping there, and investing at least the same amount of effort, resources, and passion in content-thick programs that build from general identity to particular meanings, particular practices, and deep literacy. It’s time to stop avoiding the hard questions and define what we do, as a community, so we can effectively pursue our communal work. (Goals that are actually measurable won’t hurt, either.)

American Jewry is safe and integrated enough to leave the crutches of the “identity ideology” behind. We can engage in far-reaching collective programs to spark rich cultural engagement among today’s American Jews. If we free ourselves from our vacuous concern with “Jewish identity,” we can enter a fascinating conversation about the ways in which Jewish ideas, values, languages, history, rituals, emotions, and behaviors inform particularly Jewish lenses and tools to interpret reality and flourish as human beings. Changing the conversation from identity to content and meaning won’t be easy, because, among other reasons, we don’t have the right vocabulary. We can break the Pavlovian conditioning that keeps us barking excitedly at the bell of “identity,” for no real reward. For that, we need to change our reality by finding the right new words. What those new words are, I really don’t know. But, as Jack Kerouac wrote, “Soon I’ll find the right words, they’ll be very simple.”

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy

Updated: Jun. 01, 2016
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