No matter where I go, in my many and diverse communities, I find plenty of Jews exploring alternative spiritual paths, but quite often estranged from their own Jewishness. Sometimes I wonder why people’s spiritual quest necessarily leads them to other venues; why their search for community hardly ever drives them to seek Jewish community.
Much has been written about this trend. It is obvious than one of the main factors of this estrangement is that for many years the established Jewish community did not offer space for these people’s interests nor for the kind of spirituality they are seeking. And yet, now that any individual can easily find a niche for her or his spiritual practice within the Jewish world, why don’t they come en masse to join and embrace all these new possibilities?
The answers to this question are many, but today I want to focus on something that is not often considered: the fact that a number of secular Jews have “folklorized” their identity, reduced it to the merely anecdotical. For years sociology and sociolinguistics have described the process of assimilation and dilution of minority cultures. I happen to be born in one of them, the Catalan nation, a biographic accident that often helps me draw parallels with the Jewish community. Contemporary Mallorcans in their vast majority are anything but a proud nation, not only because Catalonia is colonized and divided by fictitious borders, but also because they lack what I would call national awareness. That does not mean they do not have a Mallorcan identity, but this identity is folklorized, reduced to some foods they like, phrases and proverbs in the Catalan language, and to an otherwise incomprehensible taste for Mallorcan swearing words, often used even by people who never learned –and has no intention to learn– the Catalan language. There are a good number of self-deprecating Mallorcan stand-up comedians that enjoy great popularity by using and abusing these stereotypes. At the same time, other Catalan cultural manifestations like literature and the arts –both traditional and contemporary– are frown upon and perceived as goofy, provincial and uncool. This new Mallorcan identity is quite comfortable, in the sense that it does not demand any commitment, neither is core to a person’s values or vision of the reality. It is not necessarily informed by a deep self-hate, but it is certainly lacking of any pride in the cultural identity itself. Furthermore, sociology proves that this only is a stage towards the final assimilation of the minority culture into the mainstream.
Can you see any parallels with today’s American Jewish culture? I am sure that we all know fellows for which being Jewish translates mainly on the way they eat and talk. They enjoy bagels and matzah ball soup; they even sprinkle their English with plenty of words borrowed from Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino –languages they do not know and have no intention of learning. What is worse, they perceive that being Jewish is something nice, sweet, but kind of goofy, funny, uncool. Their relationship with their Jewish identity is often humorous and self-deprecating.
The media feed American Jews with an abundance of equally self-deprecating icons, of characters that pride in the details and stereotypes of being Jewish, but don’t seem to take Jewish identity seriously. To an untrained eye, these cultural products may seem a normalization of the Jewish presence in mainstream America. However, rather than celebrating Jewish culture, they often reinforce its “uncoolness.” I am persuaded that this self-deprecation is not but a mild form of self-hate of equally devastating consequences. Unlike in the past, these TV scripts are not the work of anti-Semitic writers. They come from within our own ranks.
Two popular TV characters come to mind: Josh, the werewolf of Being Human, and Howard, one of the eccentric scientists of the Big Bang Theory. From the first episode it is clear that Josh Levinson is Jewish and wears a magen David. He is also characterized with Jewish stereotypes. He is nerdy, socially awkward, goofy, short and not as attractive or Aiden the vampire; he is insecure, obsessive and a little paranoid. Unlike Aiden, he is the epitome of everything uncool, a fact often stated by the other vampires, who treat Josh the werewolf, quite literally, as a doggie. Aiden’s vampirism is sexy and controlled, Josh’s lycanthropy is unruly and shameful. Josh’s Jewish identity is peripheral to the plot, but it is important enough to appear both in the British and the American version of the show. Other characters of the show have defined ethnic backgrounds, but these are never explored or hyper-characterized: Suren is a girl of Mongol origin who knows the “torture traditions” of her warrior ancestors, but no allusion is ever made to her Asian identity; Sally Malik has an Arab name, but she could equally be Hispanic, Greek or mixed: her ethnicity is irrelevant and does not define the character like Jewishness defines Josh’s.
In the case of the Big Bang Theory, Howard is unequivocally Jewish, and so is his loud, strident and unsophisticated mother. Short and goofy, Howard often makes fun of his Jewish identity, complains that the price of pork makes it harder and harder to be a bad Jew, dates a Catholic only to bother his mom, only goes to synagogue on Kippur –the only time of the year he is not available to play role games– and celebrates Hanukkah, a holiday depicted as funky and lacking the pizzazz of Christmas. Of the group of guys, he is the only one that still lives with his mother and has never finished his doctoral degree. Both Josh the werewolf and Howard the nerd are sweet, goofy, lovable characters who are somehow conflicted with a Jewish identity that is portrayed as profoundly uncool, marginal and folklorized, something not worth taking seriously, an accident, if not a nuisance.
Compare this to the unequivocal and unapologetic Italian-American identity of the family depicted in Everybody loves Raymond. Their names and the food they eat are clearly Italian, they hang out at Nemo’s pizzeria, they go on vacations to Italy. Rob, a third generation American, speaks a rudimentary Italian but is able to get by well enough to date an Italian girl that speaks no English. Here the roles are inverted: despite the dysfunctional vis comica of the Barone’s, they are the norm. What is more interesting: it is them against the world. Their relationship with the majority culture is proud and self-asserting. Anglo-Saxons are here represented by Debra’s parents and they are depicted as snob, richer, sophisticate but vain and hypocritical, people who smile all the time but hide their true emotions. In case you are unfamiliar with these characteristics, all these are stereotypes of Anglo-Saxons you may hear anytime from the mouth of many Hispanic, Greek or Italian Americans. Unlike the Jewish characters’ identity, the Barone’s Italian identity is anything but accessory and self-deprecating.
Five centuries of political persecution had not been able to erase Mallorca’s Catalan national identity. However, the folklorization of this identity is succeeding to do it. Identity is not something inherent and immutable, monolithic and life-long stable, something based in our feelings, some sort of a fixed quality that resides in the individual and never changes. Way too often we see our Jewishness as a birthright, something we can never loose no matter how far from the Jewish community we step aside. In fact, I believe that socialization is inherent of Jewish identity. It is about what Jews do and how they interact and connect. That is why tradition has emphasized minyan and kehilah. Socialization is also a good predictor of Jewish engagement: how many of our relatives and friends are Jewish definitely shapes our own Jewish identity. If one doesn’t live as a Jew, once ceases to be one. I am not suggesting that people forcefully need to practice Judaism no matter what they think. I am suggesting that people should build a more assertive, unapologetic, rich and fulfilling Jewish identity. The American Jewish community should try to find means of reclaiming a healthy, self-aware Jewish identity, both secular and religious. One can only hope that we will react on time, and not keep struggling with our Jewishness as if dancing with werewolfs.