- Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities edited by Harvey E. Goldberg, Steven M. Cohen, and Ezra Kopelowitz
This edited volume is the result of a seminar and conference on “dynamic Jewish belonging” at the Advanced Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2004.
Reflecting the increasingly common perspective of scholars who analyze the meaning of Jewishness for contemporary Jews, the project starts with a premise indicated by its title: the experience of “belonging” to the Jewish people is “dynamic.” Jewish identity is neither singular nor stable. Rather, its forms and expressions are fluid, malleable, and diverse. Belonging [End Page 149] is a continually negotiated process that produces a kaleidoscope of current and emergent Jewish identities. Dynamic Belonging engages this phenomenon through a selection of case studies and general discussions that are wide ranging, theoretically complex, and sophisticated. They provide an invaluable cross-section of the shifting orientations and trends in the social scientific analysis of different forms of Jewish culture, religious denominations, political ideologies in Israel and diaspora, generational change, marriage patterns, and so on.
The volume’s introductory essay on “Dynamic Jewish Identities” by editor Harvey Goldberg sets the stage for a comparative approach to the different ways of being Jewish that deliberately avoids normative judgments about whether certain forms are legitimate or authentic, on the one hand, or marginal or illegitimate, on the other. This section is a gold mine of the questions, dilemmas, and tensions involved in the dynamic boundaries of Jewishness that are detailed in the subsequent chapters.
The rest of the book consists of three parts. The first explores “the fluid nature of Jewish belonging”; the second part deals with “the construction of Jewish sub-cultures in Israel and the U.S.,” and the third offers portraits of “diverse ways of connecting to the Jewish people.” These divisions are to some degree arbitrary and there are a number of overlapping issues among the three parts. The individual chapters are well written and thoughtful, though there is some unevenness in their length, analytic frameworks, and the balance between case materials and the volume’s broader theoretical concerns.
Collectively, the individual studies present a compelling challenge to traditional models, which assume that there are natural Jewish boundaries that demarcate some core Jewish self, whether based on land, language, ancestry, or religion. On the contrary, this collection of studies fully embraces an understanding of Jewishness that continually frustrates all attempts at establishing clear guidelines for determining who belongs to the Jewish people. Many of the taken-for-granted boundaries between religious and secular Israelis, between Orthodox Jewish women and feminist Jewish women, and between Israeli and American Jews—examples that are deconstructed in the book—are far more porous and insubstantial than generally realized.
There are a number of recurring themes and issues that can be discerned throughout these chapters that reflect the gradual influence of ideas from postcolonial theory and cultural studies on the social scientific study of Jews and Jewishness. Most important is an insistent anti-essentialist [End Page 150] orientation that recognizes the instability created by a constant interaction of identities and cultures, a phenomenon known as hybridity in trendy academic discourse.
Related to the rejection of Jewish essentialism is a decentralization of the process of recognition and the authority on which it is based. The recognition of what and who is Jewish has become personalized and individualized, something to be constructed and invented, just like other parts of the self. For many of the people described in these studies, Jewish belonging is not dependent on religious authorities or institutions. The final authorities and sources of recognition are within.
Lurking throughout this book is the enigma of authenticity and its role in a world of fluid identities. Virtually all of the subjects in these studies are determined to discover, invent, or construct a form of Jewish belonging that is not only fluid but also authentic. One soon realizes that authenticity mirrors the structure of the self. It is neither solid nor singular, but rather a...