But Is It Good For The Jews?

Things ain’t what they used to be.


Matisyahu. Not your average Hassidic Jew.

Jewish life and expression, and even the makeup of the Jewish population, is changing. Throughout its long course in history, Judaism has always adapted to the times and surrounding culture, but for the most part those evolutions were anchored by an almost unaltered core of tradition built on a combination of custom and law. What is different this time is that it appears that the Jewish world is splitting into two camps: The ultra-Orthodox –  who are entrenched in the halakhic way of life and are becoming even more reactionary as time goes on, and the other led by the younger generations from among the rest of us who are seeking to build for themselves a Jewish identity that suits their globalized, boundary-less outlook.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question (a reference that those youngsters may not even be familiar with) is what the Judaism of this group, some of whose members are approaching this effort toward self-(re)definition without the benefit of years of solid Jewish learning and practice behind them, will ultimately look like. This is unlike the situation of young secular Jews a century ago who most often started life as part of traditional Jewish families and communities. They deliberately adopted the secular mantle as a sign of their newfound enlightenment and a breaking away from their roots. For a more thorough discussion of all this, as well as questions regarding Jews who do not identify or affiliate at all, I recommend to you “A Tale of Two Jewries: The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ for American Jews,” a study by Steven M. Cohen that can be found at http://www.jewishlife.org/pdf/steven_cohen_paper.pdf.

kosher tattoo

Young Jews wear their Judaism everywhere, including on their neck in tattoo ink. Photo by Justin Dawson.

I, well educated Jewishly and having always been involved in Jewish activities, never wore my Jewishness on my sleeve outside the Jewish community, at least not literally. In a figurative sense, I was always open about my being Jewish when interacting with non-Jews, and I often served as a Jewish “ambassador,” explaining Judaism to anyone interested in knowing. But making my Jewishness too obvious to the world was not advised. Anti-Semitism was a very real thing to me – from a couple of personal episodes, but mainly through hearing of the experiences of the adults in my life (especially my Yiddish teachers who were Holocaust survivors) – and I picked up early on that it may not be a good idea to where a magen david necklace or a t-shirt with Hebrew writing in certain places or situations.

I could tell that the times they were a’changing when one of my sons (who goes to a public school where, unlike in some cities, Jewish students are definitely a minority), without a moment’s hesitation, put his name in Hebrew on his Facebook profile and went to school dressed as SuperJew during spirit week. Since he has friended me on Facebook (a prerequisite for his being allowed to use the social networking site), I have been monitoring what he and his friends write to one another. Whereas in the past, my son’s being called “Jewfro-boy” on account of his mane of wild, curly hair would have been taken by some to be offensive, it seems to be offered by my son’s friends and received by him as a term of endearment.


These days it's good for the Jews if the Jews are helping others and not only the Jewish community.

Young Jews today, like my son, want to express their Jewishness – but not only among other Jews. And they feel very comfortable doing this. They aren’t as interested in attending Jewish parties and other social or cultural events aimed solely at Jews as they are in going to ones that not only welcome, but also target, everyone. And in terms of how they go about engaging with society, they want to definitely make a Jewish imprint, but not exclusively – or even primarily – in the Jewish community. As Ari Wallach, a social entrepreneur in New York put it in an excellent piece on CNN.com yesterday that serves as a good overview of these new trends, “They want to re-engage in the world as Jews, but not solely for Jewish causes.” Read the piece by Jessica Ravitz, which includes an interactive multimedia component, at http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/10/28/new.and.emergent.jews/index.html

In today’s world, everything is all out there in the open. Things that were once better left unsaid in mixed company (and by that I mean Jews and non-Jews, not men and women) – or better yet, left unsaid all together – are now worked into the scripts of the highest rated and most lauded televisions shows on broadcast television, and then replayed over and over as they are viewed by millions on Hulu and YouTube. Sensibilities change, and that can be good…for the Jews. The best thing about this past Thursday night’s episode of NBC’s 30 Rock is that I and my fellow Californian Jews got to laugh at ourselves on not just one, but two accounts during the opening scene. That and the rest of the episode appear for your viewing pleasure in a separate post following this one.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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