- Measuring Jewishness in America:Some Feminist Concerns
As for inner reality, Jewish religiosity is a memory, perhaps also a hope, but it is not a presence.Martin Buber, On Judaism1
Worry about a loss of Jewish identity has a long history among communal and rabbinic leaders and thinkers. Concerns about the decline of an "authentic" Judaism and about Jewish survival, although rarely acknowledged, play an important part in scholarly investigations as well. Prior to a postmodern turn in intellectual inquiry, most discussions of Jewish identity assumed the existence of an "essential Jewish self." More recently, feminist and postmodern critiques have forced us to make explicit the political uses of linear and essentialist constructs,2 especially when doing identity research.3 These critiques have been leveled most particularly at quantitative, large-scale survey research. For instance, Sergio Della Pergola warns those who develop and analyze Jewish population projections:
The assumption of a gradual progression of a given process, such as assimilation, is tantamount to forecasting a linear evaluation of history and society. But the last decades of Jewish history illustrate a strikingly nonlinear experience: the destruction of European Jewry, Israel's independence, and the continuing large-scale geographic redistribution of Jews through mass international migration, all constitute major exceptions to the linearity hypothesis.4
Egon Mayer sums it up by asking:
Do Jews actually have something called a "Jewish identity"? Did they have something called "generational status"? Well, they do and they did to [End Page 84] the extent that social scientists were able to fit such theoretical constructs around the messy nuances of shared experience.5
Actively engaged researchers, myself included,6 have moved toward identifying some of those "messy nuances of shared experience" when we write about contemporary Jewish identity among men and women in the United States. If, as Hall suggests, "identities . . . are multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices, and positions,"7 then an intellectual framework for the study of identity must include a "living tradition" whose definition fits multiple identity narratives and histories.
As feminists, we are concerned about the distortions and partial information most disciplinary approaches provide about the lives women lead. In a chapter I wrote some years ago about feminist methodology and family theory, I argued:
Feminist-interpretive methodology, developed from theoretical assumptions about grounding theory in the actual lives women lead, insists that we not limit the world to male images of women nor that we assume that the parameters of women's experiences are set by male exploitation alone.8
In a sophisticated warning about substituting a priori categories for interpersonal relations, Chandra Mohanty suggests that if we "know" the lives women lead prior "to the historical and political analysis in question," then we have specified "the context after the fact. . . . Women are now placed in the context of the family, or in the workplace, or within religious networks, almost as if these systems existed outside the relations of women with other women, and women with men."9 Like Mayer and Mohanty, I am concerned that contemporary research substitutes a priori constructs of ethnic and religious identity for the "messy nuances" of women's and men's individual and shared identity experiences.
Large-scale studies, such as the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Studies, are particularly vulnerable to such criticisms. Because they are survey studies, comparisons from one decade to another depend upon linear models, which measure either decline or increase from an assumed "authentic" (and normatively male) Judaism, and upon close-ended responses to questions that tap primarily non-subjective components of Jewish identity. Such measures, [End Page 85] by definition, cannot explore the "messy nuances" of identity experience; narrative is a better tool to do so. And, although they are of great interest to me, it is not just the differences between and among men and women that concern me, but also the way in which a feminist critique informs our assumptions about authenticity and linearity in identity research.
In my own research, I have relied on narratives told to me by men and women from the ages of twenty to thirty (a population for which we have little data). As...