By Lisa Schiffman. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. 166 pages.
“I hadn’t a clue about what it meant to be a Jew. I was lost, a Jew without a path.” And so begins 35-year-old Lisa Schiffman’s search for identity, for meaning and for answers. Generation J is one woman’s attempt to sort through the confusion of being part of a generation that is willing neither to make a full return to Judaism nor to completely abandon its Jewish identity. Schiffman’s “Generation J” is one whose parents either followed religious traditions by rote, or rejected them completely. She is a third-generation American Jew, uncomfortable and suspicious of any kind of organized religion, particularly her own.
In an autobiography that reads like a collection of anthropological field notes—not surprising since Schiffman is a social anthropologist by training—she presents a m?lange of stories offering the reader snapshots of Jewish life and thought.
Raised in a secular Jewish family in Levittown, New York, which she describes as “home to one of the largest crosses in the western hemisphere,” her book both chronicles her own exploration into the meaning of Judaism and also offers a picture into the spiritual quandary of contemporary secular Jews. Despite that fact that she believes we are a “dark and hairy people” who practice a “strange, argumentative, incomprehensible religion,” she is inexplicably drawn to a world she hasn’t experienced: blessings over the Torah, fasting on Yom Kippur, payos, long skirts. She wants something from Judaism to really sink her teeth into.
There is no doubt that it was for very personal reasons that Schiffman penned Generation J. She is a seeker and she wants to find spiritual answers. Questions form the backbone of her book. What does it mean to have a Jewish home? Is Judaism a religion, a culture, or a race? I know that I’m Jewish, but how do I know that? What does it mean to look “too” Jewish? Or not Jewish enough? Is it possible to be Jewish on one’s own and separate from the Jewish community?
Schiffman begins her odyssey with a very vulnerable and personal narrative about interfaith marriage. She is committed to having a Jew officiate at the marriage between her and her fianc?, Michael, a lapsed Unitarian. Several rabbis turn them down because they won’t agree to have a “Jewish home.” Finally, a cantor who moonlights as both an opera singer and an actor performs their marriage ceremony.
Her search continues as she interviews a Reform rabbi from New York who performs marriages for gay couples but refuses to marry a mixed faith couple. Told by the rabbi that her husband would have to embrace a Jewish life and the Jewish community—that he’d have to set a seder table, take their kids to Hebrew school, stand by her side while she lights Shabbat candles—she is incredulous. Though she is Jewish, Schiffman has never done those things. Her Jewishness is about being conflicted, about never being certain who you are and where you’re going and what that means.
And so Schiffman tries to find spirituality through “doing Judaism,” hoping that by experiencing the parts of the Jewish religion that make her the most uncomfortable, she’ll somehow make peace with herself and her roots. She finds that in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives, an identity crisis is rampant in the Jewish community. Here, being Jewish doesn’t mean practicing Judaism. It means attending the Aquarian minyan, going to therapy, participating in workshops on davening and meditation, eating only vegan kosher food from the Berkeley co-op, and wearing all-natural cotton clothes made by feminist separatists in Sonoma County. Schiffman’s Jewish quest leads her from immersion in a mikveh to a Jewish renewal congregation’s High Holy Day services to a Buddhist retreat.
In the final analysis, Schiffman’s question is more than, what does it mean to be Jewish? It really is, can I be Jewish apart from God? Like many in the post-assimilation generation, she looks everywhere for a solution to that lostness, with the exception of God, the only real source of answers.
In a recent interview, Schiffman was asked what postscript she would choose to add if she were given that opportunity. Her answer was that “you can create your own path through religion. And if there is another book, that would be the beginning, something like, ‘P.S., I’m still doing it, piecing the route together.'”
As more Jews leave organized Judaism to “piece the route together” themselves, Schiffman’s book is an important glimpse at the questions that motivate their journeys.