Jewish identity – lite
Set across a green cover, a piglet christens this fall’s issue of Heeb Magazine promoting its food issue. Heeb is a biannual publication subtitled “the New Jew Review.”
A highly-cited article in B’nai B’rith Magazine by Richard Greenberg and Deborah Nussbaum Cohen says New Jews are “fresh-faced iconoclasts,” who are “thirsting for Jewish meaning and community, even though their definition of those terms often differs radically from the commonplace. Even though they often are ambivalent about the nature of their Jewish identity.”
The identification of the New Jew has come at a critical time for the community. Fearing the breakdown of Jewish continuity, Jewish leaders are desperately looking for a way to reach out to elusive unaffiliated young Jews.
From the largest of federations to the smallest of family foundations everyone wants to hear what these Jews are saying. To make affiliation to the Jewish community more appealing, the past two years have seen nearly a dozen studies emerge on what makes this young Jewish population tick.
The most celebrated of the studies was conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen and historian Ari Y. Kelman, funded by the UJA-Federation of New York and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Entitled “Cultural Events & Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York,” it set out to test the claim that “Jewish cultural participation strengthens Jewish identities among young adults.”
To answer this million dollar question, Cohen and Kelman reviewed data from the National Jewish Population Survey and found that even the most unaffiliated of Jews consume cultural Jewish products such as books and movies. They then interviewed 30 young Jews attending cultural events run by community-funded New Jew organizations in 13 non-Jewish locations in New York, such as bars and clubs with no observable Jewish marker. The events investigated were for the most part Jewish in aesthetic but with little to no Jewish traditional content -parties with a Jewish rapper, or employing Jewish wedding rituals for a punk rock show.
CELEBRATING THIS study, the UJA held a symposium concluding, according to notes taken by blogger Steven I. Weiss, that more resources need to be poured into events. To ensure maximum effectiveness in attracting the unaffiliated, they advised events should be cultural in focus and held in neutral – non-Jewish – locations.
Unfortunately, the most remarkable aspect of the Cohen/Kelman study has been ignored: The findings show that the majority of the Jews found attending cultural events – parties thrown by Heeb or surrounding klezmer music – already have extensive Jewish backgrounds.
Graduates of Hebrew schools, day schools and Camp Ramah, these Jews do have a history of engagement with the Jewish community – even though their current status is formally “unaffiliated.”
This finding turns the tables on many assumptions: If young American Jews are not affiliating despite being more educated and engaged then ever, what causes Jews of my generation to leave the community behind?
CONSIDER THE spirit of our age, which is universalizing. The guiding zeitgeist emerging is one that stresses commonality and downplays deeper distinctions, reducing differences in culture to little more than consumer choices made by individuals instead of guiding elements of distinct peoples with distinct historical missions.
To use a computer model, today humans are thought to be running the same fundamental operating system, only choosing different programs according to preference – one program for Shabbat, another for Ramadan.
In other words, the assimilation of this new universalizing system has made collective institutions seem outdated to Jews who would like to do-it-themselves and shy away from the compromises that come from doing-it-together as a larger community.
What makes this assimilation so hard to see is that it looks and smells like particularism. Individuals wear their ethnic colors on their sleeve and spice their foods with traditional flavors. But one should not be mistaken. Just because someone looks Jewish and sounds Jewish does not mean that they will act Jewish.
Just because you drink Manishevitz and go to a klezmer concert does not make you any more Jewish than were you to drink tequila and listen to salsa.
In this sense, multiculturalist universalist Jews are as Jewish as the characters on Seinfeld – which is to say, not very. They are Jews on the street, but global citizens in their heart.
Heeb’s focus on Jewish esthetic is an expression of this multicultural universalism. Ambivalent about their attachment to a collective distinct from humanity as a whole, Heeb’s editors fight the cognitive dissonance of their audience with humor. According to Heeb’s editor and publisher, Joshua Neuman, Heeb’s mission is no more grandiose than having fun.
“If you’re Jewish,” he wrote me in an e-mail, “I think you might enjoy our magazine – that’s pretty much it.”
And fun it is. Taking Jewish stereotypes to extremes, requiring little more from its audience than knowledge of a few Yiddish phrases and an esthetic appreciation of Jewish food and humor, Heeb certainly is enjoyable. I buy it, and have each issue since it was first published.
The Jewish community has loved it too, lavishing tens of thousands of dollars a year in donations to Heeb through a fiscal sponsor, the NFJC, allowing the for-profit media group to benefit from a robust cash account.
I’M NOT sure that’s the best way to preserve a distinctive Jewish people with a distinct mission of justice and culture that transcends mere esthetic choices.
Either the multiculturalist ethos will lead my generation to assimilate into the global community, thereby loosing our potential power as a collective actor, or we will use multiculturalism as a tool to open new pathways to a Hebrew identity shaped by Jewish knowledge and history.
If we believe the Jewish people to be inherently valuable, we should recognize that it is not enough to be Jewish in symbols.
Laughing about Heebs is great once in a while, but only after a robust Hebrew identity has been encouraged by programs that demand more from us than a night on the town listening to klezmer music.
The writer is editor and publisher of PresenTense Magazine. www.presentensemagazine.org