Home April 2014 Labeling Copout

Labeling Copout

Surveys have always been a major indicator of what is trending on a categorical and sociological level. They reflect on a historical place in time, as well as a cultural norm that has been presented to a larger body. Millennials are the first to really use the term “just Jewish” as a way to describe their Judaism. This vague, inarticulate term is usually accepted, but I implore the community to examine what it means. Internally, I struggle. Does this provide value and a sense of growth to our community, or is it a copout for having to explain and define one’s Judaism? I see merit in both arguments.
For many American Jews, “just Jewish” is a description of the following: My mother is Jewish, so by halachah (Jewish law), I am Jewish; I came from a Jewish home; I’m Jewish, but I don’t even know what that means to me, let alone you; If I wanted to tell you more about what I thought, I’d do it in the comments section of your survey (please notice it’s blank because that takes too much time to do).
The polarizing effects of using denominations to describe Judaism separates the NextGen demographic in ways I don’t think we associate with anymore. Although many of our families raised us in synagogues, many of us do not have a membership as individual adults. Subsequently, if you asked Jews in the 21- to 40-year-old age demographic about the different sects of Judaism, few could provide deep, meaningful factors that help differentiate one movement from another. Are we answering “just Jewish” out of ignorance or ease? Yes, there are clear differences from one side of the spectrum to the other, but the movements have been formed for very radically different reasons of which many in our demographic are unaware. Some rabbis have gone as far as to claim this label is to differentiate the secular Jews from those religiously affiliated, but I argue that is not the case.
As grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, there is an understanding that we are the last generation to hear victims’ stories in person. The reality is that the definition of a Jew in Nazi Germany united many Jews. These Jews had deeply assimilated into the German culture with their religious counterparts. This blend of people, once stripped of all they had, was “just Jewish.” Does this have anything to do with homogenizing Jewish terms, labeling us as a bound people, together despite any differences? There is power in labels, and the idea of a unifying front can be a tool of solidarity, not just ambiguity and weakness.
Is “just Jewish” a way to finally unite the Jewish people, despite religious affiliation as well as connection with Israel? Millennials, are we making a political statement? I think this argument is unlikely, but Ben Shapiro, a local talk show host on 870 [AM] in the morning, brought up an amazing point when he spoke at UCLA at a hearing regarding the school’s vote for divestment. He said (as I paraphrase), that the outlash from the world community was inherently anti-Semitic, not anti-Israel. Does saying one is “just Jewish” allow the average American Jew to avoid the conversation about Israel and one’s political alignment, whether for or against policies set by Israel”? It is easy to point a clear finger at someone who attacks us for our religion, but being faced with a politically charged conversation seems much more difficult. Even within the Jewish community, “just Jewish” does not indicate how strong of a connection, if any, a Jew has with Israel. You can be a member of AIPAC or JStreet or even be estranged from Israel. The term clearly defuses any political connection and even arguably divests in our political passion.
Finally, will this new trend attract people or remove them further from the community and push assimilation into an all-time historical high for American Jews or bring them closer together, under one umbrella? For many, “just Jewish” is a term used freely in dialogue to describe their cultural and religious practices. However, this paradigm shift has become common vernacular; it is sure to have an effect on our community over time.

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