Sunday, February 22, 2015

Can I Pass Along a Jewish Identity to My Children?

The Forward has a new column on inter-faith relationships called 'Seesaw.' I find it interesting, especially because the questions asked reflect concerns held by far more than just those in inter-faith relationships. Like, this week, someone engaged to a non-Jewish man wrote in to ask how she could transmit secular Judaism to her children:
I’m a woman engaged to be married to a wonderful man. He’s a non-theistic, pagan-interested Unitarian Universalist, and I’m a non-theistic Jew. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity. I’m not interested in raising them in the Jewish faith (or any faith, for that matter), but I really want them to connect with the cultural aspect and hold onto that identity, just as I have. So, how does a secular Jew pass along secular Judaism to her children 

Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity.

I've written before about the work that the 'identity' concept has been doing for American Jews. Rather than articulating which aspects of Jewish life are important to them (prayer, history, texts, languages, history, folkways, music, cuisine etc) and then figuring out how to transmit whatever it is that is most vital to their Jewishness, generations of American Jews have been able to wave away the problem of specificity with a single magic word. Identity.


We came to believe, with perfect faith, that there was a thing called identity, a Jewish continuity with a somewhat mysterious Jewish content. Jewish feeling without Jewish doing. And, failing to teach our kids alef-beys, failing to instill a sense of connection to Israel, failing to give them even a rudimentary idea of Jewish history, American Jewish parents could tell themselves at least their kids had an identity. Maybe that identity was ultimately a shared hatred of Hebrew school and ambivalence around Christmas, but at least it was something. Right?


Belief in Identity as a real, transmissible thing allowed us to avoid the hard choices faced by American Jews when being American and being Jewish are so fundamentally at odds.
As I wrote last year, identity has served as a kind of ideology:


The integration of American Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, was the great project of the Jewish elite of the first half of the century. That integration came with many seemingly irresolvable contradictions and tensions. For example, the terms of integration of Eastern European Jews were set, in part, by the German Jewish elite, a group traditionally less than enamored of Eastern European Jews.   
But the most fundamental of these tensions was a reimagining of the Jewish way of life as an American style religion. Turning Jewishness into the Jewish religion was like stuffing 10 pounds of kishke into a five pound casing. It was lumpy as hell, but it worked, sort of. 
As it happened, the vast majority of American Jews didn’t want religion or religious commitments. No matter. Identity as ideology could reframe the multitude of contradictions now at the heart of American Jewish life, including the rejection of religion by American Jews. Identity made it possible for sociologist Herbert Gans to make an observation which, 50 years earlier, would have seemed downright bizarre. In a 1951 ethnographic study he wrote: “In Park Forest... adult Jews quite consciously rejected any involvement in the religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community, while trying to teach the children to be Jews.”
If the letter writer had come to me with this question, I would have asked her what specifically being Jewish means to her and then tried to help her figure out how to share that with her kids. Actually, I'd like to sit down with the greater Jewish institutional world, the ones always casting about for ways to 'meaningfully' 'engage' and 'revitalize', and ask them: what matters to you? What's the Jewish thing most important to you that you couldn't be Jewish without? All the foundations in the world can't fix the problem that so many leaders, and so many parents, have no meaningful connection to Jewish life and no sense of what they urgently need to pass on to the next generation of Jews.

4 comments:

  1. What's the Jewish thing most important to you that you couldn't be Jewish without?
    What's your answer Rokhl? Yiddish I suppose, but what else...?

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  2. Well, this is all theoretical, and so much depends on what kind of community you are in, but my priority, I think, would be for my kid(s) to have hebrew and Yiddish literacy as young as possible. With literacy so many different avenues of learning can be pursued.

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  3. I absolutely agree (ashamed analphabet is writing this...): First, give the kids the languages. Second, create for them an atmosphere of open-mindedness and stress the importance of intellectual pursuits. Having this, they would know what to do with the linguistic tools and pursue what suits them best.

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  4. Rokhl, I think that sadly Tanach Hebrew (and I used that term purposely) has been sorely neglected and not been taught as a living language by either Orthodox or non-Orthodox Jews. Instead we have been encouraged to learn modern Hebrew, which is many things but is certainly far less poetic than Tanach Hebrew.

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