At Brandeis University in late March, Jewish scholars gathered to explore the outsized influence of the concept of Jewish identity. A core goal of Jewish institutions for two generations, Jewish identity appears to be a slippery idea that is devilishly hard to measure.
Or, as Ari Y. Kelman, conference organizer and Stanford professor, put it: “No one has the foggiest idea what Jewish identity even means.”
Kelman, who is the inaugural Jim Joseph chair in education and Jewish studies at Stanford’s Graduate School in Education, studies “how people learn to be Jewish.” Since he left U.C. Davis for Stanford in 2012, he has focused on building “conceptual bridges,” linking the worlds of education research, Jewish studies and communal policy. The conference, titled “Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education,” which he co-chaired with Brandeis professor Jon Levisohn, is part of that ongoing objective.
Unassuming and low-key, Kelman, 42, grew up in Los Angeles and Berkeley in a family of professional Jewish educators, and attended Jewish day schools and summer camps. He was struck, even as a teenager, by how “all the educational questions seemed to be connected with the value of a strong Jewish identity.” And although he focused his scholarly work on the intersection of popular culture and American religious life, Jewish identity was “a leitmotif in my work, in part because you couldn’t write about Jews in the modern or post-modern world without engaging with it.”
Asked about his role running Stanford’s new doctoral concentration in education and Jewish studies, only the second American research university to offer such a program, Kelman answered simply: “My job is to ask really hard questions about the field.” And the question that most needs to be asked now? “Why is identity the desired outcome of Jewish education?”
“Identity is a major obsession of the Jewish world, and has been since at least World War II,” Kelman said. But what identity is, and why it should be the goal of Jewish education, has not been adequately studied by Jewish scholars.
Other academics at the conference offered more colorful critiques. “Jewish identity is the crack cocaine of Jewish education,” said Jonathan Krasner, who teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and is chair of the Network for Research in Jewish Education.
Co-chair Jon Levisohn argued that Jewish identity “is, too frequently, a meaningless substitute for a focused, disciplined articulation of the goals of Jewish education. We talk about Jewish identity when we don’t know what else to talk about.”
The word “identity” itself gained traction in both scholarly and popular literature around 1960, about 10 years after psychologist Erik Erikson published his book “Childhood and Society.” American Jews flocked to the concept as part of their attempt to create a new communal narrative, even as Judaism increasingly became a personal choice.
Although the Jewish community began addressing identity as a coherent, self-evident concept 50 years ago, there was never a true reckoning with the assumptions behind it. “At the conference someone said that if you asked an American Jew from a previous generation how they knew they were Jewish, they might answer ‘I’m from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx,’” Kelman said. “As if that were all you needed to know about their Jewishness.”
While this answer might have made intuitive sense to someone who lived in a traditional Jewish neighborhood, was formally affiliated with communal institutions and who expected to marry another Jew, most American Jews today are asking more fundamental questions about their Jewishness.
Kelman and Levisohn’s decision to provoke a national scholarly conversation about Jewish identity is partly an attempt to get researchers to ask deep questions about what, in fact, they are studying when they explore Jewish life today.
Comparing research in Jewish education with that of the larger field, Kelman was struck by the strangeness of some unquestioned assumptions. For instance, he asked “In what other world is marital choice” — a key indicator of Jewish identity — “a valuable educational outcome?”
Moreover, without a more rigorous scholarly debate about Jewish identity, it will be hard to offer the intellectual support for Jewish educators and community institutions struggling to find ways of tracking the efficacy of their programs.
Kelman explained that the goal of the conference was not the replacement of the word “identity” with something else. Rather, scholars and educators should “come up with alternatives that better reflect the ways that Jews live. To put their Jewish lives in conversation with other aspects of themselves.”
Dan Schifrin is a writer living in Berkeley.