- In Our Image: The Staging of Jewish-American Identity
Out of the great wave of eastern European immigration that submerged the Eastern Seaboard of the US between 1880 and 1920, three generations of Jewish Americans established what it meant to be Jewish. In New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Miami, and Los Angeles (the latter two, a little later)—the six metropolises where 95% of all Jewish Americans now live—descendants of eastern Europeans had cultivated their own version of Jewish identity. For a little less than a century, through the second generation and into the third, those Jews continued to have much in common: they ate the same food, spoke with similar inflections, voted in the same party. Religious practices may have dwindled, but ethnic markers made it possible for Jews to consider themselves a people well into the twentieth century. Strong ethnic affiliation partially unified and almost totally blanketed what would eventually be plain: the divergence of the two paths that Jewish Americans had followed, one that led to study and social activism and one that led to wealth and material acquisition.
You can find the world of transplanted Ashkenazic Jews in many books and films. In literature, think of Philip Roth’s Newark or Henry Roth’s Brooklyn. In film, you catch glimpses of it in Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) or Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983). In those fictional treatments of this community, Jewish-American identity typically has some salient features: bookishness, humor, frankness to the point of crassness or even brutishness, serious smarts, ambition, and the certainty that the next generation would do better than the one that preceded it. In the most romantic of these memories, there are crowded tables and loud arguments, aunts, cousins, and close neighbors moving [End Page 485] freely through each other’s houses, grandmothers lighting the candles on Shabbos, and plates full of kugel and corned beef.
But memory fades. It has to. We are 100 years past the Great Wave, at least three generations from our immigrant ancestors. The “next generation” has done better than the last; Jewish Americans made up 30% of the nation’s “100 Richest People” in 2010 (Nolan) and currently comprise 30% of the faculty at elite academic institutions (Pellissier). Yet even as I reproduce these statistics, my postmodern training reminds me that ethnic designations are slippery. If one does not practice the religion of Judaism (and over 50% of all those claiming Jewish identity do not [Chametzky et al. 11]), what does it mean to say you are Jewish? If you have lost all ethnic behaviors and don’t practice the religion, why do you think you are Jewish? The answer to this question grows increasingly cloudy. In fact, as I was reading the texts under review, I wondered by what means their authors had determined that their subjects were Jewish.
In a study completed in 2011, the Cohen Center for Modern Judaism at Brandeis University tried to figure out how many Americans are Jewish. To identify Jews, sociologists used several factors: whether one had attended synagogue in the past five years, and how many times; whether one had engaged in any life ritual that engaged the Jewish traditions or clergy; whether one had a bar or bat mitzvah; whether a parent was Jewish; whether one spoke Hebrew; whether one attended a Jewish camp or youth group (Tighe et al. 29). Answering any of the questions affirmatively put you among those counted as Jews. However, even if respondents said “no” to all of them, if they “identify as Jewish,” or “consider themselves Jewish” (6) for some unspecified reason, they also could also be counted. In case you are curious, the n umber of people claiming Jewish identity is six million, or roughly 2% of the US population (2). In 1950, it was 3%.
Why is it...