The Shelf Life Of Jewish Peoplehood

The word “peoplehood” is a relatively new and highly contested term in the lexicon of Jewish life, having something to do with identity, ethnicity, belonging and membership. The supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged it as a word as long ago as 1983, but, as any spell-check reveals, it is not considered a word quite yet by Microsoft. Will it ever be a real word for the Jewish community? Having co-authored a book on the subject, I’m still not sure.

There are many dangers in using new terminology; words like “peoplehood” can easily slip into usage as a diluted, loose umbrella unifier for Jewish affiliation signifying little of substance. Is being Jewish merely a fact of birth or an act of will, a statement of mission or a lens through which we view the universe? “Peoplehood” doesn’t necessarily get at these complexities. The niggling tension of Judaism as a nationality, ethnicity and faith continues to stump many who have tried in vain to capture what it means to be Jewish.

Leon Wieseltier once wrote that being Jewish is not like other identities, and “perhaps there is a relief in allowing it to be different.

“I think to be Jewish is not to be an American or a Westerner or a New Yorker,” he wrote. “To be a Jew is to be a Jew. It is its own thing. Its own category; its own autonomous way of moving through the world. It’s ancient and thick and vast, and it’s one specific thing that is not like anything else.”

Wieseltier’s articulation is both comforting and obfuscating. It implies in a privileged, almost condescending way that we are beyond explication. We can almost hear an adolescent whine: “But no one understands me.”

It is hard to explain ourselves when we intentionally avoid the language of naming. After all, there are many identities that are ancient, thick and vast — like being a male or a parent or an African-American. Judaism is not unique from that perspective. From an educational standpoint, we can, indeed we must, do better.

To add to the provocation, we turn to two recent descriptions of Jewish identity that puzzle even as they attract our attention. The recently deceased Tony Judt shared his conception of being Jewish in The New York Review of Books (May 11, 2010):

“I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I don’t make a point of socializing with Jews in particular — and for the most part I haven’t married them. I am not a ‘lapsed’ Jew, having never conformed to requirements in the first place. I don’t ‘love Israel’… and I don’t care if the sentiment is reciprocated. But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise.”

While this is not an expression of Jewish pride, Judt’s “confession” is, nevertheless, an unambiguous statement of Jewish identity. He abhors those whose identities are shaped “obsessively” in relation to the Holocaust but concludes the essay with a reference to his namesake, who was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 and “gassed to death there as a Jew.” For his condemnation of the weakness of a Holocaust-based identity, Judt seems not to have shaken it off himself.

Contrast this with Yirmiyahu, a fictional character in A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel, “Friendly Fire,” who wants to relieve himself of his Jewish identity by moving to the heart of Africa. Only late in the novel does Yirmiyahu explain his mysterious behavior and why he will not be returning to Israel, a place of personal suffering:

“Here there are no ancient graves and no floor tiles from a destroyed synagogue; no museum with a fragment of a burnt Torah; no testimonies about pogroms and the Holocaust. There’s no exile here, no Diaspora. There was no Golden Age here, no community that contributed to global culture. They don’t fuss about assimilation or extinction, self-hatred or pride, uniqueness or chosenness. … There’s no struggle between tradition and revolution. No rebellion against the forefathers and no new interpretations. No one feels compelled to decide is he a Jew or an Israeli or maybe a Canaanite. … The people around me are free and clear of that whole exhausting and confusing tangle.”

Yehoshua reminds us that the peoplehood equation is tiring. We are born into a legacy of demands and tensions that we can accept or reject, but our own escape does not mean that others are willing to let go of us. The biblical Jonah, no matter how far his ship sailed from his calling, was followed by a great fish and swallowed whole. We, too, fight against the leviathan of identity — a relationship of attraction and repulsion — that wears us down even as it energizes us.

Defining peoplehood forces us away from personal self-definition to a more global, collective statement of affiliation. “Peoplehood” may be a faddish word in the current language of institutional Judaism; “continuity,” “renaissance” and “solidarity” all enjoyed their philological heyday in taglines and fundraising campaigns. But while it is visiting our contemporary dictionary of Jewish life, peoplehood deserves more attention and a real definition. All of these identity equations fail to answer the ultimate question that will determine if the concept of peoplehood — if not the word — has staying power: Why be Jewish?

When we can answer that question in a compelling way, the words will matter less and the emotional connection will matter more.

Dr. Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Confronting Scandal” (Jewish Lights). She can be reached at www.leadingwithmeaning.com.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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