Put a cape around my shoulders and give me a superhero nickname: I’ll be Anti-Assimilation Lady. Fine, maybe my moment wasn’t so heroic, but it felt odd to be the traditional voice of my generation in the middle of a class on Jewish identity.
“I’m Jewish no matter where I am,” shrugged a sorority girl. Her friends and some classmates nodded in agreement. This was her answer to the question of whether it was easier to be a Jew in New York City than it is in Bloomington, Indiana. I listened to myriad responses all resembling this one and I felt my words bubbling up; I had to say something.
“I fully understand the feeling of being Jewish no matter where you are in the world,” I began, as diplomatically as I could. “But it’s worth keeping in mind that to keep kosher in this environment is impossible unless you do so as a vegan because there is no kosher meat within a 50-mile radius of this campus. And certainly no kosher meat is served on campus. Plus, if you wish to keep Shabbat in a traditional sense, there is no eruv here, and if you live in the dorms you’re out of luck because you have to use electricity to enter your building and even your own room.” I looked around the class as my cheeks flushed red; I was dealing with blank stares and slightly gawking mouths.
We had taken a five-question survey as part of this Jewish identity class in which the students were a mix of Jewish and not. Though I have no way of knowing for sure, I estimate that the split was roughly 50-50. The prompts were the one discussed above and the following: anti-Semitism is the greatest threat to Judaism today; assimilation is the greatest threat to Judaism today; Holocaust memory is a central part of Jewish identity; supporting Israel is a central part of Jewish identity. We were able to answer strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree, and strongly disagree to each question.
The results have stuck with me since November when the survey was taken by our lecture of approximately 100 students and discussed in smaller discussion sections. I was one of two people out of 100 that “strongly agreed” that assimilation is the greatest threat to Judaism today. I was in the minority of students who felt that anti-Semitism was not the greatest threat to Judaism today. I was in the minority again, of students who felt that Holocaust memory and support for Israel were at least somewhat central parts of Jewish identity. I was baffled.
It started with the question of anti-Semitism. My peers felt strongly that the hatred of others was the truest threat to being Jewish today. I, on the other hand, recalled the persecutions and exiles of the Jews at the hands of Germany, Spain, Portugal, Egypt, Great Britain, various Arab and North African countries, come to think of it, actually, most of Europe, etc. etc. etc. Not to mention anti-Jewish activities perpetrated by the KKK, neo-Nazis, and anti-Zionist activities which come across much the same way across the US and the rest of the world. Looking at this less than promising list, it seemed obvious to me that a little bit of hatred wasn’t going to be an existential threat to the Jews. I mean hey, we’re still here, aren’t we?
However, look at the data. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center study, 22 percent of American Jews “now describe themselves as having no religion” and religious disaffiliation is as common among Jewish millennials as it is among other American millennials. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if we’re in charge of our own Jewish identities, doesn’t that put us in charge of whether or not Judaism lives on? If other nations have not been able to destroy us over the course of a few thousand years, what stops Jews from destroying ourselves? This was the argument I made in class. It was not a popular argument.
Before the instructor shifted gears, I was met with comments regarding how intermarriage does not change whether the Jewish partner is Jewish or not, how children can be raised fully Jewish while still celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday, and how clearly, other nations hate us more than we hate ourselves which obviously means that we are not a threat unto ourselves. Okay.
The conversation changed, and I found myself listening to arguments about how Jews should never feel they have to support Israel unequivocally. Israel is its own nation and should be treated as such. I just sat there, listening, too tired of debating to enter the now politically charged arena.
The conversation changed again, and I found myself listening to stories of how one can be Jewish, but feel no connection to the Holocaust or how one can be Jewish and feel sadness or anger when thinking about the Holocaust, but further grappling with the Holocaust could be purely intellectual. If Jews, especially American Jews (or Jewish Americans) regard themselves as social justice warriors, and the Holocaust is the greatest atrocity humans have committed against other humans in recent history, shouldn’t American Jews be the ones yelling the loudest about Holocaust memory?
Clearly, this isn’t the case as research came out this year stating that 22% of millennials in the US are unsure if they have even heard of the Holocaust before. To add insult to injury, 66% of millennials “could not identify in the survey what Auschwitz was.” I ask you please, are we doing our job? Regardless of whether you believe that Jews are to be a light unto the nations, do you agree that we should be enlightening the nations?
So, there it is. My university-aged peers engaged in a conversation regarding Jewish identity and this is what it looked like.
My alma mater (how strange it is that I can now call it that) played host to several venues at which students could explore their Jewish identities. Whether the exploration occurred in classes such as this one offered by our top-tier Jewish studies program; at any of our three homes away from home for Jewish students (one of which truly felt like home to me); in connection with any of our pro-Israel organizations; or in a community such as a fraternity or sorority, Indiana provided me the four years I truly needed to be the confident spokesperson I have become for the Jewish people.