Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

American Judaisms

We are living in an age of multiple “Judaisms”. These diverse expressions of Jewish identity are changing the current marketplace. Judaism continues to metastasis in response to outside triggers, involving multiple types of social and cultural stimuli. Key events have contributed to creating these alternative expressions. In an age of personal choice, it can also be seen as a very personal and individualized effort in defining one’s connections and ties to Jewish tradition and culture. As we have observed, various forms of “privatized Judaisms” have emerged, as lifestyle choices help to explain some of these definitional outcomes.

 How Do We See Ourselves as Jews?

Today, there are multiple expressions of Judaism that incorporate a broad spectrum of religious, cultural, ethnic, and political components of how individual Jews experience and interpret their Jewish journeys.  As we know most of us carry multiple identities.

Jews define themselves by employing a series of different terms that provide for them a degree of clarity and serve to identity distinctive characteristics that best explain their Jewish connections, beliefs and behaviors.

There are intersecting points that permit one form of Jewish identity to connect with other expressions. One can be more than one type of “Jew”, thus holding several overlapping and at times competing identities. One might be a “religious Jew” but also a “social activist Jew” and/or any number of other separate but distinctive features, among them perhaps a “foody Jew” (someone who is into various Jewish dietary and culinary interests). Similarly, geography or regional identity may add another dimension to one’s sense of self, such as Israeli, Persian or American.

Where denominations once gain definition and meaning to Jews, today there other possibly more accurate frameworks by which we identify and define distinctive Jewish behaviors.

With such a high propensity for comedy and humor in our society, there have been efforts to label and universalize specific Jewish characteristics, as a way to describe all Jews. In reality, such an effort to assign such defining behaviors has proven to be problematic and even damaging at times.

The rationale behind uncovering these differing forms takes place against a backdrop of affordability (availability of resources), accessibility, personal choices, belief systems, and diverse interests. Today, it is permissible to establish one’s own distinctive identity claims. What we have observed is that generational patterns create particularistic behavior characteristics, lifestyle choices.

What we have learned as well is that for every idea surrounding identity, there appears to be a counter-expression.

 Rethinking Judaism: Religious Engagement

  • Religiosity: Here one defines themselves, most certainly in the Diaspora, around denominational labels: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstuctionist, Renewal, etc. This pattern can be seen as more standard than other forms or labels.
  • Observance or Practice Levels: Religious ideology defines a specific set of Jewish beliefs and practices, such as Modern Orthodox, Classical Reform, Traditional, Conservadox, etc.
  • Self-Selected Religious Groups: In this category individuals portray very definable practices, dress, and behaviors based on the specific group with which they identify: possibly Lebovicha, Haradi, Yeshivisha. These tradition-based sects place particular expectations on their members with regard to appearance, performance, and belief.

Levels of religiosity represent one form of measurement; another is one’s relationship with the State of Israel; and a third involves the degree of connectivity that one enjoys whether through Jewish cultural and ethnic patterns of engagement. A fourth typology might be labeled “political Judaism” as described below.

Other Jewish Definitional Characteristics:

There is an American Jewish caste system, involving how each tribe relates to the other sectors. A Jewish quotient or barometer serves to identify one’s “Jewishness” in connection among these competing tribal units. The mapping patterns of where Jews fit into the differing clusters of Jewish expression are self-imposed as individuals label themselves and others, employing different characteristics or measures.

Insider Jews:  This cohort has adopted a set of behaviors and communal practices. Insider Jews can be either “denominational Jews” or “communal Jews” depending on their institutional affiliations and loyalties. Often, these inside players hold interlocking relationships with fellow Jews who share a common civic Jewish language, hold similar beliefs and share a network of affiliations and organizational connections and common friendships.

But there are many other types of Jewish identity models:

  • Definitional or Descriptive Typologies: Three examples here might be “Jews by Choice”, “Just Jewish” and “Gay Jews.” Here one is able to label oneself or where others apply such identity tags.
  • Racial/Ethnic Characteristics: Here Jewish identity is informed and shaped by racial or ethnic characteristics, “Jews of Color.”
  • Geo-Cultural-Nationality Patterns: Sephardic Jew, Ashkenazi Jew, Mizrachi Jew, Persian Jew, Russian Jew, and Israeli Jew. These Jews carry with them various descriptions, defining for example their geopolitical status, cultural/nationality identity, or possibly their religious or racial reference point.
  • Titled Jews: Here we find Jews who are identified by the roles that they play within the community. The religious and communal tasks performed are significant and diverse: Rabbi, Cantor/Hazzan, Educator, and Communal Professional.
  • On the Edge Jews: Operating on the margins, these Jews define their Jewishness around symbolic attachments (ethnic foods, cultural preferences) and activities (occasional participation in Passover seders or Hanukkah gatherings). Their Jewish practice is neither rooted or systematic. Their belief systems, while incorporating Jewish values, are often competing with other value propositions or identity themes. These folks literally move in and out of the religious/communal orbit.
  • Outsider Jews: The Pew Study and other reports reference this group as “just Jewish.” While communal expectations and religious labels are uncomfortable for this cohort to accept, other factors such as Jewish social values, a shared interest possibly in Jewish foods and culture may still hold some influence with them.
  • Antagonist Jews: For this sector, the various other Judaisms in play are rejected or marginalized. This sector view themselves as totally outside of the boundaries of Judaism, Israel and other markers that describe or define levels of Jewish loyalty, connection or affinity. As rejectionists, they seek to separate or move away from being so identified. Some have described this cohort as self-hating Jews. Some in this camp may fit the definition of “Jewish Nones”, namely they reject any formal or institutional connections with Judaism or the Jewish community.
  • Political Jews: Another set of defining tools include political characteristics or labels that define Jewishness for some folks. Among the titles reflected here: Lovers of Israel, Jewish Liberals, Jewish Conservatives, and Jewish Socialists/Progressives or Jewish Radicals.  “Identity-Politics Jews” represent one specific category here, as they define themselves as a single-issue constituency. In the case of the State of Israel, such identities may be played out in connection with political parties or various policy positions.

In this current environment, where some are trying to assign negative images onto Jews, there needs to be a renewed resiliency on the part of the Jewish people to affirm positive descriptions.

In this age of individualism, Jews have the capacity to assign to themselves their own identities.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.