Jewish Identity in America: A History

On July 11, 1883, 200 guests strolled into the luxurious banquet hall of the Highland House, atop Mt. Adams in downtown Cincinnati, towering above the Ohio River. An elegant orchestra played as lavishly dressed Jewish dignitaries were seated at beautifully decorated tables arrayed with fine china, crystal and silverware. These dignitaries were celebrating the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College and the ten-year anniversary of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Representatives from both traditional and very progressive religious backgrounds came to pay their respects. They were all there to celebrate the tremendous accomplishment for American Jewry in the New World.[1] Judaism had made a place for itself in the American melting pot. Handsomely dressed waiters circulated around the tables serving the first course of a nine-course meal. Suddenly, gasps were heard over the gentle harmonies of the orchestra. Cries of outrage echoed throughout the ballroom. “Two rabbis rose from their seats and rushed from the room,” one historian writes. “Shrimp had been placed before them as the opening course of the elaborate menu.”[2] The courses that followed included softshell crabs, frog legs in cream sauce, little neck clams, and roast beef followed by ice cream.[3] In the months that followed, Orthodox Jewish newspapers on the East Coast lashed out at Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of Reform Judaism. Journalists and Jewish leaders accused him of defying Orthodox Judaism by planning the scandalous non-kosher menu. Shortly after this fiasco, Sabato Morias founded the Jewish Theological Seminary, which served to train rabbis for what would eventually become the middle-ground branch of Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes meanwhile founded the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which represented American Orthodox Judaism. Out of this Jewish scandal, which came to be known as the Trefa Banquet, emerged the three branches of three branches of American Judaism.[4]

Jewish by Religion

But let’s back up – how had American Judaism arrived at this momentous juncture? Many Jews in nineteenth-century America, including Reform Jews, believed that being Jewish was the same as Judaism. Judaism, in turn, was just one tile in the American religious mosaic. The “Pittsburgh Platform,”a set of principles laid out in the Reform Pittsburgh Conference of 1885, stated:

We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community. …Judaism [is] a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. [5]

In the same way, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism maintained that, to be Jewish, one must fulfill certain religious covenantal obligations. Conservative Judaism held these six core values (see here for our core values as an organization):

  1. Hebrew as an irreplaceable language for synagogue worship
  2. Devotion to the Klal Yisrael (religious community)
  3. The defining role of Torah in Jewish belief
  4. The study of Torah as a central part of religious life
  5. The authority of rabbinic tradition to interpret religious faith and practice; and
  6. Belief in God[6]

For Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish Americans, Judaism had become an established American religious institution. Jews were equal members of America’s mosaic of religious denominations who had earned a seat at the table.

Jewish by Race

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a darker drama was playing out. Inside the Cherche-Midi prison in Paris, French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was being tried for espionage. Allegedly he had been passing on secrets to German intelligence. The only evidence produced during the trial, however, was a forged note written in someone else’s handwriting and discovered in a trash can. Despite sworn testimony, evidence and protests in the press, Dreyfus was sentenced in 1895 to life in prison on Devil’s Island, finally being exonerated in 1906. During the trial, it became clear that Dreyfus’s real crime was being a Jew. Jews around the world watched the drama in horror. Dreyfus was a thoroughly assimilated Jew: non-religious, loyal to France, well loved, patriotic – in short, an honored officer. Yet he was demonized by the French press. The trial brought to the surface the latent anti-Semitism of the supposedly secular Third French Republic:

World Jewry was stunned that such an affair could occur in France, the cradle of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The fact that the public, including nobles and members of the clergy, saw Dreyfus – an assimilated Jew – as an outsider seemed to suggest that assimilation was no longer a defense against anti-Semitism.[7]

The Dreyfus Affair made it clear that, as far as Europe was concerned, Jewishness was a race, not a religion. Regardless of his citizenship, beliefs, practices or culture, an assimilated Jew was biologically a Jew and therefore an outsider. A Viennese Jewish journalist reporting on the Dreyfus Affair by the name of Theodore Herzl concluded that the Jews would never be truly emancipated until they had their own homeland. He would go on to lead the budding Zionist movement in Europe. In America, too, secular Jews from Eastern Europe came to see Jewish identity as racial, not religious. For them, the Orthodox world of the shtetl was history. America was no place for the superstition and religious ritual that had held Jews back from being equal members of European society. The rising tide of racial anti-Semitism united Jews in a common cause and filled them with determination.

Jewish by Civilization

 “Who is a Jew?” Mordecai Kaplan refused to allow the global community to answer this question with crude religious and racial designations. Kaplan was from Lithuania, home to some of Judaism’s preeminent religious scholars, yet he rejected Orthodox Judaism and rigid religious definitions of Jewish identity. According to Kaplan, Jewish belief would forever adapt, progress and change with the times. Moreover, he rejected racial definitions of Judaism with their theories of inherited traits. He watched as racially inspired anti-Semitism boiled over in Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Even in the United States, Congress had passed race-based immigration laws that prevented Jewish refugees from entering the country. In Kaplan’s eyes, it was humiliating to accept the racial definitions the world imposed on the Jews. So he taught that Jewishness was more than a religion, race, culture or nation. The Jews were a people, a nation – in other words, a civilization. Accordingly, the Jewish people needed their own state as a center of Jewish identity for world Jewry to look to. Kaplan argued that American Jews must strive: “1) to reaffirm Jewish peoplehood; 2) to revitalize Jewish religion; 3) to form a network of organic communities; 4) to strengthen the State of Israel… and 6) to cooperate with the community… in behalf of freedom, justice, and peace.”[8]

Jewish by Ethnicity

In 1948, Kaplan and Herzl’s vision of a modern Jewish state became a reality when Israel declared independence. Then, in 1967, as Israel was outnumbered by Arab armies at home and censured abroad, their army recaptured the ancestral capital of Jerusalem. (Jews celebrate the holiday “Yom Yerushalayim” to commemorate this event.) Jews worldwide felt a sense of pride. Finally, after the Holocaust and Arab invasions, there was an intact Jewish homeland – a place where Jews could determine their own destiny and defend themselves. Israel had a seat at the table of nations. Jews in the United States increasingly identified as Jews first and Americans second. Jewish baby boomers, who had rebelled against family tradition and rejected many elements of Jewish practice and belief, were nevertheless proud of the fact that they did not blend into society – that they looked, spoke and behaved differently from other Americans. Jewishness was now an ethnicity.

In the years that followed the emergence of black nationalism in the mid 1960s, young Jewish activists, many of whom had been active in the struggle for black civil rights, decided that the renewal of their own cultural traditions and the highlighting of their own ethnic distinctiveness was the only way to attain a sense of difference they desired.[9]

Jewish Identity in a Post-Ethnic Generation

For Jews born after the 1970s, ethnic, racial and religious definitions of Jewishness pose significant problems. Millennials do not share the same experiences as their parents. (See our recent survey on Jewish millennials here.) They have no memory of the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, the Six-Day War or the ethnic pride movements that swept the nation in the 1960s and 1970s. Millennials resist being defined by external ideologies; instead they construct their Jewish identity through social interactions, connections and personal choice. As one scholar puts it, “Identities are thus strategic social constructions created through interaction with social and material consequences.”[10] Jewish Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2000) have come of age in an era of unlimited choices – choices augmented by technology and globalization. The social connections they make transcend affiliations to institutions, neighborhoods and communities. Therefore, Millennials’ Jewish identity is far more complex – and more elusive – than that of previous generations. Cohen & Kelman comment:

Members of the oldest generation of American Jews… can remember the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel… But the same cannot be said for younger Jews especially todays younger adult Jews. The loci of Jewish identity have shifted from the public to the private… Many American Jews are claiming… their identities as proud equal Diaspora Jews.[11]

Shaul Magid explains that Jewish identity has become a postmodern mosaic:

Today hybridity has become a badge of honor and not a sinful stain. This shift in perspective aligns with a postmodern sentiment suggesting that boundaries, that is, gender, sexual orientation, even ethnicity, are constructed rather than essential categories.[12]

Those who took ethnic pride in Jewish looks a generation ago must now ask: what exactly does a Jew look like? The racial and ethnic distinctions that once set Jews apart have become blurrier in a “post-ethnic” society. In 2012, Newsweek Magazine published their list of America’s 50 most influential rabbis. Among the leaders was Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue – one of the most influential leaders in the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. Born in Korea to an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Buddhist Korean mother, Buchdahl defies traditional definitions of Jewishness. She is both the first woman to lead Central Synagogue of Manhattan and the first Asian American to be ordained as a rabbi in an American Jewish denomination. And there are more like her.[13] Intermarriage, Jewish conversion, globalization and the emergence of newly discovered Jewish communities in Latin America, China and Africa have changed the face of global Jewry. No longer can Jewishness be identified as a homogenous race, culture or religion. Jewishness has become post-ethnic. Magid explains:

A post ethnic perspective favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations… make[s] room for new communities, and promotes solidarities of wide scope that incorporate people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.[14]

The Future of Jewish Identity

In the last century, Jews have been described as a people, a nation, a civilization and an ethnicity. Today, in a global culture of unlimited choices and social connections, Jewishness has become a complex mosaic of post-ethnic identities. Is there any quality of Jewishness that resists the currents of time and transcends human categories? No matter how individuals and societies alter their definitions of Jewishness, the Scriptures have defined the Jewish people’s purpose in history. God told Moses,

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1–3)

God created a covenant people who have become multinational, multiethnic, multicultural and multifaceted. However, Scripture maintains the Jewish people have a divine purpose: to be a blessing to the world. Jews do so by testifying to a true God of history who has preserved them [and kept His promise to return to them the land]. Jews are a blessing as living testimonies to a living book – the Bible, which tells the story of God’s love and desire for all people to know Him. Finally, the Jewish people have blessed the world through one Jew – Yeshua, the Messiah. He came to save Jews and Gentiles alike. Through His atoning death and resurrection, all peoples can become right with the God of Israel.

End Notes

[1] Lance Sussman, “The Myth of the Trefa Banquet,” American Jewish Archives Journal, 2005, http://americanjewisharchives.org/publications/journal/PDF/2005_57_01_02_sussman.pdf.
[2] David Philipson, My Life as an American Jew: An Autobiography (New York, NY: J.G. Kidd & Son, Inc., 1941), 23.
[3] “The Trefa Dinner,” Cleveland Jewish History, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.clevelandjewishhistory.net/res/cyber-gems-trefa-dinner.htm.
[4] Sussman, “The Myth of the Trefa Banquet.”
[5] J Heller, Isaac M. Wise: His Life, Work and Thought (New York, NY: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1965), 464–65.
[6] Ismar Schorsch, “In Defense of the Common Good” (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 12, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-core-values-of-conservative-judaism.
[7] Joellyn Zollman, “The Dreyfus Affair,” My Jewish Learning (My Jewish Learning, 2017), https://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Modern_History/1700-1914/Modern_Anti-Semitism/Dreyfus_Affair.shtml.
[8] Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life, 2nd Ed. (New York, NY: Thomas Yoseleff Inc., 1934), x.
[9] Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, 2nd Ed (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 17, https://www.amazon.com/American-Post-Judaism-Identity-Postethnic-Religion-ebook/dp/B00BIP22RA/ref=mt_kindle#nav-subnav.
[10] Judith Howard, “Social Psychology of Identities,” Annual Review of Sociology 2000, no. 26 (2000): 367, http://www.uvm.edu/pdodds/files/papers/others/2000/howard2000a.pdf.
[11] Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” The Jewish Identity Project of Reboot (New York, NY: Rebooters.net, 2007), 2–3, United States, http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=326.
[12] Magid, American Post-Judaism, 22.
[13] Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 3.
[14] Magid, American Post-Judaism, 1.