On Becoming a ‘Real’ Jew: An Ethnography of Adolescents’ Identity Formation in a Jewish Community in Germany


Source: Culture & Psychology 


In the course of an ethnographic investigation in the youth group of a Jewish community that included participant observation, group discussions and problem-centred interviews, I gained insights into the contextualised construction of Jewish identities. Analysing identity formation as a holistic form of learning, I identify two trajectories of socially embedded identity formation: appropriating aspects of Judaism taught in the youth group and becoming a part of the Jewish collective. Within the latter trajectory, I differentiate three sub-processes: forming and evaluating social representations of the Jewish people, ascribing ‘Jewishness’ to oneself, and experiencing communality.

The field

The research took place in the youth group of a liberally oriented Jewish community in Germany. From a sociodemographic perspective, the field consisted predominantly of Russian-speaking persons who belonged to a group of Jewish immigrants from former Soviet countries. Sixteen adolescents and children, including 11 girls and 5 boys formed part of the youth group taking place once a week for two hours. Three adults were responsible for it, Irina, Lukas and Olga. Lukas’ main task concerned religious education due to his vast knowledge of Judaism, whilst Irina organised and coordinated the lessons. The religious education mainly focused on the festivals currently happening (e.g. Pesach, Lag BaOmer, Shavuot) and, more specifically, on their associated rituals, narratives and symbols. The adolescent research partners were either attending or had been attending the educational youth group. As a rule, they had been sent by their parents, but two of them, aged 19 and 20, reported that they had decided themselves to ‘return’ to the community after childhood. Regarding their motivation to visit the community, they mainly articulated an interest in Judaism and an urge to acquire knowledge about their ‘roots’ as well as a desire to unite with other ‘Russian’-Jewish adolescents.

Discussion and conclusions

Appropriating aspects of Judaism

In the discussions, the adolescents dwelt to some degree on the declarative and non-declarative knowledge they had acquired in the youth group and community. In contrast to the wishes of the group ‘leaders’, the adolescents predominantly supported a ‘secularised’ image of Jewish religion rejecting the idea of a God. Constructing a ‘patchwork’ version of Jewish identity, different and eventually at first sight conflicting positions from the discursive realm of Judaism were appropriated. For example, the research partners held up traditions as relevant for themselves whilst describing the biblical narratives as ‘legends’. The compatibility of aspects of Judaism with the adolescents’ self-concepts can be denoted as key criterion for internalising them. For instance, the belief in God was rejected by some participants as they felt it conflicted with their socialisation in a ‘secularised’ society and, thus, with their identity facet as ‘postmodern’ adolescents.

In short, the adolescents predominantly appropriated, negotiated and eventually reinforced the Jewish traditions and rituals, biblical narratives and values and norms encountered in the youth group and synagogue, amongst other contexts.

In contrast, ‘secular’ learning opportunities – including historical or political reasoning – were less frequently encountered during fieldwork. Nonetheless, in the discussions the significance of a ‘secularised’ cultural or national interpretation of Jewishness and, thus, of a politicised collective identity (Simon & Klandermans, 2001) was also highlighted. This indicates the mobilisation of social and especially ethno-cultural and national identities in the context of conflict as well as the influence of a so-called ‘secularised’ society claimed by the adolescents.

Becoming a part of the Jewish collective

I first highlighted the formation and evaluation of social representations in the community: Some adolescents generalised observations they had made in the community – concerning cohesion, for example – and the community may thus serve as a mirror of the abstract collective. Supporting a Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) perspective, the participants moreover represented Judaism favourably in interreligious comparisons.

Secondly, I analysed how they ascribed Jewishness to themselves, including the adaptation of certain widespread social representations for themselves. Here I can conclude from the data that most of the research participants attributed self-related meaning to the category ‘Jewish’.

Clearly, the participants not only elaborated the aspect of cohesion cognitively, but also experienced communality and connectedness in the field. This primarily emotional aspect reflects existing research concerning young Jewish minority group members (e.g. Sinclair & Milner, 2005). In the present study, different features of communality were outlined, such as shared identification with the Jewish collective and both explicit and implicit, ‘tacit’ knowledge of Judaism resulting in mutual understanding. A sense of communality was furthermore established through the collective practice of religious traditions and rituals and through the perception of a shared ‘Russian’-Jewish background and, hence, of a twofold minority experience.

The present study fills a research void in the German-speaking context concerning ethnographic studies on the production of subjective understandings of ‘Jewishness’ in Jewish communities. Extending the scope of current identity research, I proposed a multi-method framework for the exploration of socially embedded identity formation as a bundle of dynamic learning processes.


Simon, B., & Klandermans, B. (2001). Politicized collective identity: A social psychological analysis. American Psychologist, 56(4), 319–331

Sinclair, J., & Milner, D. (2005). On being Jewish: A qualitative study of identity among British Jews in emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Research, 20(1), 91–117

Tajfel, H. (Ed.). (1978). Differentiation between social groups. Academic Press

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds), The psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7–24). Nelson-Hall.

Updated: Jun. 15, 2020