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What Exactly is Jewish Identity?


For years, I’ve used the term “Jewish identity”, and never gave it too much thought. As a Jewish educator, the talk among my colleagues was often about how to instill our teenagers with a strong sense of their Jewish identity. This was so that they would feel a part of the Jewish community and continue that connection throughout college and beyond.


Recently, I started to think about this descriptor more deeply. It seems like an “add-on”—as if identity can be carved up into little pieces and assigned categories. Isn’t your identity just who you are?


As in, “I don’t have a Jewish identity, I am Jewish”. Period.


This might sound a bit silly or trivial, but our language speaks volumes about our situation in life and sometimes even the choices we make.


I remember hearing a question asked by one Jewish person to another with the intention of clarifying a position on an issue: “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?”


The person answered, “I am not falling into that trap. I’m Jewish. I'm an American. That's it, anything more is unnecessary”.


What exactly is a Jewish identity? Is it a sense of obligation to tradition? Is it a commitment to continue to study our texts and glean meaning from them? Is it a commitment to keep certain mitzvot or to undertake more? Is it a desire to socialize only with other Jews?


What is your own Jewish identity? What are your some of your core values in terms of the choices you make regarding your heritage? When do you 'feel' Jewish--are you moved to own your identity by being spurred on by negative prompts, like Anti-Semitic comments or acts? Or do you experience a sense of belonging while participating in culturally "Jewish" activities? What prompts your Jewish identification?


Historically, Jews did not have to make any of these distinctions. Being Jewish needed no further descriptor. Our ancestors “did” Jewish because they were Jewish. Being Jewish meant that you participated in Jewish activities that felt natural to you and your community [prayer, acts of loving kindness, monetary donations, visiting the sick (pre-covid), etc.].


Now, in some communities, we seek to “do” Jewish in order to “feel” Jewish.


Dennis Prager, national speaker and author, often says that there are only two kinds of Jews, "those who identify as Jews and those who do not (or do so only when forced to do so by outsiders)." He calls the latter "non-Jewish Jews", those who might be Jewish by birth (by either parent) and might have a Jewish name, but does not identify at all with the Jewish community (Ella Harris, for example). Among those who identify as Jewish, he further classifies this group into religious and secular.


Where do you fall on this continuum? Do the parameters of this definition suit you? What are you doing that is “Jewish”? What prompts your connection to your heritage, to your people? Are you satisfied with things as they are? If not, are there little changes could you make that would strengthen you as a Jew?