This is Rebecca. She’s Jewish.” This was often how Rebecca’s high-school friend introduced her to new people in their small New York town where few Jews lived. In these brief encounters with others, Rebecca’s Jewishness made her different. It made her uncomfortable. Self-conscious. Teens usually want to blend in, not stand out. Now, in her twenties, Rebecca remembers those moments of difference when she recounts her life story. It was in those moments that Rebecca felt most keenly aware of her Jewish identity.
Rebecca’s story was one of 57 life narratives I collected as part of a research project in Stanford’s Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies. We wanted to understand how Jewishness fit into people’s overall life stories without asking them explicitly about their involvement in Jewish organizations, how many Jewish friends they had, or how often they lit Shabbat candles. When we started the project, I was a new doctoral student in the Education & Jewish Studies concentration at Stanford University. I realized fairly quickly that the concept of identity was far more complicated than I understood. After all, cultivating, strengthening, or enhancing “Jewish identity” was the goal of countless Jewish organizations and it had become part of my own lexicon. As I thought about other aspects of my life and realized that I might say I have a “White” identity or a “female” identity or a “Jewish” identity, but that the relationship between those social categories and myself was not at all stable.
Three years and multiple sociology classes later, I finally understand why it’s problematic to talk about strengthening Jewish identity. Jewishness, like ‘race’ and ethnicity are not stable and static qualities that inhere in individuals. Instead, ‘race’ and ethnicity are something constructed, negotiated, and reaffirmed through ongoing social interactions. I stopped thinking of ‘racial’/ethnic group membership as based on a relatively fixed ‘presumed identity’ and began seeing it as a dynamic and complex social phenomenon that ‘can change according to variations in the situations and audiences encountered’ (Nagel, 1994: 154).
I realize that this explanation sounds very academic, so let me illustrate with another story from the aforementioned research project. The key point I want to highlight is how the salience of our Jewishness changes based on our social situations and the audiences we encounter. Meet Dalia, who grew up in a highly Jewish area of New York and attended Jewish day school. She never felt particularly Jewish because many people around her were more observant or more engaged in Jewish organizations. In her twenties, Dalia moved to Texas and became a minority. Her curly dark hair was no longer the norm, but rather a feature that distinguished her from other people. But this difference was not an objective fact— her difference only became apparent when she came into contact with other people. And it was not just her appearance. Dalia’s Texan friends referred to her as the “rabbi,” a stark contrast to how Dalia perceived herself in New York where many people were more knowledgeable than her. Dalia felt obliged to educate others about Judaism and began hosting Shabbat dinners. By moving to Texas, Dalia’s sense of Jewishness moved into the foreground of her life, not the background. Her level of observance or belief may not have changed between living in New York and Texas, but her sense of Jewishness certainly became more salient. Being Jewish was not a stable and static quality that Dalia possessed, but was something she became more aware of because of her social situation.
If Jewish identity is socially dependent, what are implications for the Jewish education field? For social scientists and evaluators, one question is how to measure Jewish identity given its social nature. Surveys need to take into account the social and contextual factors that affect how Jews see themselves, and should ideally measure how one’s sense of Jewishness fluctuates over time. Meanwhile, practitioners may need to re-imagine how they affect and interact with program participants. Perhaps cultivating or strengthening levels of Jewish engagement (which relates to behaviors and participation in activities) may be more productive. Funders, who drive and support much of the work going on in the Jewish education field, would also have to adapt their mindsets and strategies to reflect the social—not fixed and inherent— nature of identity. And we should all remember that Jews are not vessels to be filled up with Judaism. Rather, they are dynamic beings who are shaped by the people they encounter, the places they live, and the myriad social situations they find themselves in everyday.
Nagel, J. (1994) ‘Constructing Ethnicity’, Social Problems 41(1): 152–76.