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Enigmas of Modern Jewish Identity

Over the weekend, dozens of colleagues, friends, and former students congregated to celebrate and reflect on the work of Stephen J. Whitfield, Max Richter Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University.  We invite our readers to join in these 70th birthday festivities by reading one of his many (and usually much longer) publications dealing with questions of Jewish identity in modern times.  The essay is republished by permission of Jewish Social Studies, where it first appeared.—The Editors.

What is left of identity when both language and religion are gone?"  This is the question posed at the outset of a monograph on six twentieth-century Italian writers whom the author, the late H. Stuart Hughes, designates as Jewish.1  The difficulty of answering his own question is not reduced because of his choice of writers: Italo Svevo and Alberto Moravia were baptized Catholics whose novels barely contain any Jewish characters.  Also a Roman Catholic was the mother of Natalia Ginzburg, who herself grew up without any religious instruction.  Both Carlo Levi and Primo Levi suffered under Italian fascism for their political activities, rather than for the faith that they did not practice; nor did either have a strong sense of peoplehood.  Of Hughes's writers, only Giorgio Bassani—the author of Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini, translated in 1965 as The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, adapted into a famous film by Vittorio De Sica—wrote fiction in which Jewish life was presented not merely as a parenthesis, and he showed a keen interest in cultivating his ethnic heritage. 

The Jewish patrimony of these half-dozen authors is therefore an elusive one.  A distinctive Jewish language had already disappeared in Italy a couple of centuries earlier, and so fully had most of its Jews propelled themselves from the severities of law and ritual that, as Hughes noted, Reform Judaism exercised no attraction because it seemed so unnecessary.  Although Carlo Levi and Primo Levi brandished priestly appellations, the surnames of many Italian Jews—a synonym like "coreligionists" does not seem apt—have often been drawn from the towns their families inhabited.  How might the historian of modern Jewry penetrate what Freud, in a seemingly offhand remark to the B'nai B'rith in Vienna in 1926, called "innere Identität"?  In the course of a lifetime of the conflicting demands that modernity seems to entail, how might Jewishness affect the struggle to sustain identity, and how might it in turn mark the contours of Diaspora history? 

Within the constraints of this article, I cannot do more than suggest how deep the mysteries of categorization and understanding are.  Any historian wishing to explore identity is probably most indebted to one thinker whose own life suggests what can be so enigmatic about modern Jewish identity: Erik Erikson. His father was a Dane (almost certainly a gentile) whose name and identity remain unknown.  But a Jewish stockbroker named Valdemar Salomonsen married Erik's mother, Karla Abrahamsen, a middle-class Jew from Copenhagen, and gave Erik his first surname before disappearing (to somewhere in this hemisphere). Then Theodor Homburger, a German-Jewish pediatrician who married Karla Salomonsen on her son's third birthday, gave Erik his second surname.  (Later there was a surrogate father whose daughter, Anna Freud, also psychoanalyzed Erik Homburger.)  Born out of wedlock in Frankfurt in 1902, the blond, blue-eyed child had been told by his dark-haired mother that the dark-haired Dr. Homburger was his biological father; clearly something did not make sense.  Out of such family uncertainties, the invention of such conceptions as "identity crisis" and "identity diffusion" looks in retrospect inevitable.  Erik wanted to be Danish and Germanic and American too, and thus he testified to the alluring power of the West's majority culture.  In 1939, when U.S. citizenship was granted, a third—and final—surname was bestowed.  As though asserting himself to be a truly self-made man, Homburger became Erik's son.2 

In the index to Lawrence J. Friedman's recent outstanding biography of Erikson are an impressive 27 citations to his Jewishness, one of which covers four pages.  And yet no one seemed less interested (or more ambivalent about it) than the subject himself.  He liked living at the edge of boundaries that he ignored or surmounted as he chose.  He shared the American proclivity to want to combine options, to have it all, or maybe to split the difference.  Erikson wanted to be gentile and Jew, psychoanalyst and artist and historian and prophet, explorer of both the inner world of children freely at play and the outer world of men who fantasized that they could make history itself their play-thing--and then, like Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi, proceeded to do so.  Out of such ambiguities, his biographical and psychoanalytical work on identity could be forged.  It is not irrelevant that Luther and, to some extent, Gandhi were religious leaders; by taking them seriously (in a way that "a godless Jew" like Freud could not have done), Erikson helped to vouchsafe the future of what his surrogate father dismissed as an illusion. 

Erikson himself, in his critique of "pseudospeciation," offered a vague endorsement of the religious ideal of human solidarity and mutuality, and he broke with Freudian orthodoxy in his openness to the varieties of religious experience.  But how he related to the variety known as Judaism, or even how he understood it, remains a mystifying subject.  Although Erikson practiced no faith—and rarely joined his wife at services at Memorial Church in Cambridge—a crucifix was hung on the wall of his office at Harvard. When one of his graduate students asked Erikson if he considered his orientation to be Jewish or Christian, Erikson replied: "If you are antisemitic, I'm a Jew."3  That is a way of saying that—at least for him, though presumably not for practicing Jews—no positive content can be attached to Jewish identity, that there is nothing within Judaism worthy of being affirmed.  Such a definition is hardly adequate and is certainly no longer fashionable.  But Erikson's answer was hardly freakish—and the historian is obliged to say so.  The Rev.  Reinhold Niebuhr considered Justice Felix Frankfurter the most intelligent person he had ever met.  But when asked what a Jew is, Frankfurter replied: "a person whom non-Jews regard as a Jew."  In 1946 one of those non-Jews even wrote an entire book, entitled in English Anti-Semite and Jew, without having bothered to read a single volume about Jewish history and civilization.  (Jean-Paul Sartre thus sent lexicographers scurrying to add an example to their definition of "chutzpah.") 

But can the historian still find assurance in the classical definition—which consists either of someone whose mother is Jewish, even if Judaism is not practiced, so long as he or she has not converted to another faith, or of someone who chooses to be one, by undergoing (as the journalist Hayim Greenberg put it) "the process of Jewish religious naturalization"?4  To be a Jew is tribal or it is formal, or both, which is partly why a definition gets tricky.  Anyone who practices Judaism is a Jew, but far from every Jew practices Judaism. To be a Jew can be a social identity as well as a religious affiliation, but even here there is uncertainty at the edges.  The parents of the archbishop of Paris, for example, were Polish Jews who had him baptized, in the shadow of the Holocaust.  Yet Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger apparently still considers himself to be a Jew, for whom—in his eminence's words—"the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim."5 

In recent decades, however, a fresh challenge has emerged to the internal definition as someone born of a Jewish mother or as someone who has converted to Judaism. Identity is now widely understood as something that is not fixed but is historically contingent.  It is not something that is merely inherited; it is also culturally transmitted. After emancipation as well as in the United States, Jews could no longer feel guided by some inner necessity or by a divine destiny.  No longer did outside hostility give them little choice. The momentum of assimilation has also meant that many Jews would no longer feel fully at home only with one another, assured of their collective destiny.  In the 20th century in particular, the history of the Jews can be recounted in terms of the erosion of a stable identity, so that eventually all of them would be described as Jews by choice, and to choose not to be Jews at all would also become an option unscarred by shame or accusations of cowardice or betrayal. 

Modernity—or perhaps with "post" as its prefix—has meant that "cultural identity" entails "becoming" more than "being," according to Stuart Hall, the British exponent of cultural studies.  Rather than some preexisting state prior to the stimulus of historical change, identities can "undergo constant transformation.  Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous 'play' of history, culture and power."  Identity should be considered whatever name "we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past."6  If communities are not primordial but imagined, if tradition is not ancient but invented, then identity is, according to this fashionable view, not something with which one is born.  Identity is constructed.  It is mutable, subject to collective transmission and also to individual will and agency. 

But Jewish history also represents a gesture of resistance to this interpretation, and it can serve as a warning that the case for contingency and plasticity can be pushed too far. Jewish identity cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the play of capricious historical forces that make cultures into options.  Even if identity is socially constructed rather than "given," who would transmit or inherit it other than a Jew?  The Jewish religion can be adopted, its laws followed, its rituals practiced, its beliefs sincerely held.  But how does an individual select a culture?  Ordinarily only those born and raised within Jewish families, woven into the fabric of the Jewish people, could have the experiences that facilitate the use of patterns of meaning according to the heritage of that particular culture.  It should not be eccentric to suggest that the Jewish legacy becomes one's own most readily when one's ancestors were part of it.  That Judaism accepts converts means only that membership in a distinctive people is not transmitted exclusively in the genes. 

If Jewish culture depended on choices made available to every generation, something as intricately systematic as a culture could not be perpetuated.  Neither the Jewish people nor its culture can be categorized as a voluntary association, comparable to, say, bowling leagues.  From birth forward, freedom of choice is never possible, even for those who refuse to bowl alone and join groups and organizations; the life that one lives is inevitably circumscribed.  Jewish identity is not only evidence of autonomy, of self-creation, but also continuous, a sign of durability through which the historian can discern the resilience of a tiny minority in sustaining itself in the Diaspora.  And neither Judaism nor Jewish culture could be rendered continuous if the tribal and ancestral links between the generations were severed—or defined as arbitrary. 

The recent scholarly emphasis on social construction obscures the determinacy that governs cultural persistence.  Judaism itself has been decisive in ensuring that persistence but is not synonymous with what has been done to preserve the collective identity of the Jewish people.  Practices that may not be rituals and values that may not be invested with theological meaning, plus Judaism, add up to a culture.  There cannot be a cohesive Jewish culture without Jews.  But oddly enough the obverse is not true: there can be Jews without Jewish culture.  That is why a final exemplar of these conundrums is an American whose identity has been more elusive than anything the Federal Witness Protection Program has yet devised.  Bob Dylan has flummoxed the essentialism that was long entwined in Jewish identity.  Showing up at the Western Wall in 1971, celebrating his son Jesse's bar mitzvah in Jerusalem 12 years later, vaguely affiliating for a while with the Lubavitcher Hasidim, Dylan has professed religious beliefs: "I've always thought there's a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there's a world to come."  In 1983 his Infidels album offered something unexpected: "Neighborhood Bully" constitutes a capsule history of the Jewish people itself. Spitting out the song rapidly, in a tone of ironic bitterness, he blended a millennial history of unjust persecution with an unnuanced defense of a beleaguered Israel.  It could have been a Likud campaign song.  Yet Dylan denied that "Neighborhood Bully" "is a political song" and insisted he was not in that line of work: "I'm not a political songwriter."7 

Whether Dylan is a Jewish songwriter is a question that is probably unresolvable, despite the inclusion of "Blowin' in the Wind" in the songbook of the Reform movement's National Federation of Temple Youth.  He also studied at a Christian Bible school in California and, by the late 1970s, seems to have accepted some version of Christianity. Songs on the 1979 album Slow Train Coming could easily be added to Protestant hymnals, though Dylan assured an interviewer five years later of having been born only once. Calling the Old and New Testament equally valid, however, does amount to a renunciation of Judaism.  His case is special.  Formally satisfying rabbinic rules of inclusion, Dylan has operated only barely (if at all) within Jewish culture.  While remaining a Jew in the halakhic sense, he has been ecumenical—sometimes expressing in lyrics and interviews attitudes that cannot be considered Jewish, sometimes offering tantalizing affirmations of that very identity.  He has shattered the difference between the Jew and the Other as though the historic boundary between them had never existed, and thus leaves dangling, fragile and unstable, what the historian of Jewish identity might well despair of resolving. 

1. H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924-1974 (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 2. 

2. Lawrence J. Friedman, Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson (New York, 1999), 29- 35, 94. 

3. Quoted in ibid., 315. 

4. Hayim Greenberg, The Inner Eye: Selected Essays (New York, 1953), 39. 

5. Quoted in Charles E. Silberman, A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today (New York, 1985), 71. 

6. Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora," in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Jonathan Rutherford, ed. (London, 1990), 225. 

7. Quoted in Kurt Loder, "Bob Dylan," in The Rolling Stone Interviews: The 1980s, Sid Holt, ed. (New York, 1989), 95, 96.

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Yitzhak Yeranen on April 9, 2013 at 7:46 am (Reply)
Steve Whitfield deserves the accolades. He has been an astute and prolific observer of the Jewish scene in the United States since the early 1970's. As an approachable and personable scholar, he has made a significant contribution to the education of many undergraduates and graduate students at Brandeis, that major hub of Jewish learning and of the training of future Jewish leaders. _Ad me'ah ve-`esrim!_
Michael Nutkiewicz on April 10, 2013 at 11:43 am (Reply)
There's little original to say about this subject that hasn't been said by scholars like Arnold Eisen, David Biale, and others. Some Jews are drawn "back" by sentiment, which may motivate them to learn about Jewish history and tradition, and pick practices drawn from some point along the religious spectrum (secular to orthodox). Others will be completely indifferent, and not see any compelling reason to explore their Judaism. And still others will perceive orthodox Judaism as the richest and most authentic expression. They will become part of the baal teshuvah phenomenon, and uninterested in the other choices along the spectrum. I draw these choices roughly but are there really any other ways to describe identity in today's world?

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