Why we don’t want ‘strong Jewish identities’

by Clive Lawton

Imagine, if you will, Jewish educational hopes in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, the Jewish world – unconsciously, no one talked about it – was still reeling from the Shoah. Israel was uncontroversial but hardly easily accessible and a bit of an esoteric interest to many Jews. We kind of knew we couldn’t go on as we had but no-one much had any idea as to what to do instead. So for another decade or two we continued doing what we knew didn’t work in the absence of any better ideas.

But hey, this was the threshold of a major social and cultural upheaval in the western world. Soon, the mood would be letting it all hang out, and, in the famous phrase, ‘tuning in, turning on and dropping out’. What to say to Jewish youngsters now? The old certainties of the pre-war years had gone. Surely it was pointless – even wrong – for anyone to try to tell anyone else what to do or how to live. Didn’t that sound like the totalitarianism we’d all fought a war to defeat. Anyway, was anyone sure any longer what constituted ‘the good life’? (Of course, there were some Jews, not least teachers and rabbis, who did remain sure, but that only made them seem ever more out of touch and doomed to failure.)

To add to the problems of the age, Jewish adults were becoming increasingly ignorant and, worse than that, apparently more than satisfied with their ignorance. If parents didn’t see the point of conventional Jewish education, how on earth was anyone going to get young people to listen for long enough to have any useful effect?

So if we can’t tell children to keep Shabbat or kashrut or something else arcane, what else can we make the goal of our Jewish education? It was at this point that we, the Jewish establishment and Jewish educators, made a decision which still haunts and bedevils us. It became so axiomatic that most people don’t question it even now, though the thorough uselessness of that decision stares us in the face daily.

No longer able to use the language of commandedness, no longer able to assert the incontrovertability of Jewish distinctiveness as more and more Jews found it easy to assimilate and even disappear altogether, no longer able to speak of the purpose or the destiny of the Jewish people, since firstly, hardly anyone was sure what that might be and secondly, it might even sound like a strangely twisted mirror image of what Hitler said about us – we turned to the language of the emerging and increasingly popular social sciences, in particular psychology, to help us.

The purpose of Jewish education, we said, is to develop in Jews a ‘strong Jewish identity’. No longer the shrinking, self-denying Jew; from henceforth, all and any Jews should stand up and be counted when required. In some ways, this was a diaspora version of what we imagined Israeli Jews to be – out and proud, and it’s no coincidence that Israeli agencies and Zionist youth movements enthusiastically espoused this solution to our problem of not actually having a goal for our programmes if not Aliya. (Of course, more recent events have shown that Israeli Jews are more like the rest of us, truculent and occasionally aggressive because they haven’t forgotten that the world is an unpredictable and sometimes hostile place. Out and proud maybe, but more often than not, also whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up!)

And to be fair to those who worked on this project during the succeeding decades, they’ve not been unsuccessful. There are plenty of out and proud Jews all over the place. Being Jewish is certainly not something to be ashamed of and indeed, quite obscurely Jewish Jews – take Stephen Fry for example, (or lots of other Jewish celebrities in whatever country you happen to live in) are more than happy to assert their Jewishness proudly when they feel the need to.

So if we’ve been so broadly successful, why does it so often feel like failure? With all these proud Jews striding the landscape, how come the Jewish world still worries about its own sustainability?

It was actually a failure of English language and vocabulary. Not only was the goal wrong and even self-defeating, we actually meant or hoped for something else but said it wrongly, so that we forgot to notice that we weren’t actually achieving what it was we really wanted.

It was not strong Jewish identity we wanted, but strong Jewish identification.

When you think about it, it’s obvious. Firstly ‘identity’ is a shifting thing and anyway people have multiple identities which they take on and put off as circumstance requires. Nothing much firm or helpful can be built on people’s sense of their own identity, not least because, if it starts to feel too uncomfortable for them, they’ll simply amend their sense of identity.

Secondly, ‘identity’ is entirely personal. Though it might have appealed to the non-directive mood of the times, ensuring that young Jews grow up confidently asserting that they’re as good as the next Jew and no-one can tell them otherwise, such ignorant and uninformed insistence on the right to define and determine achieves the exact antithesis of what a good Jewish education should – a discerning understanding of what constitutes good Jewish behaviour and what does not. But since we’ve put the locus of authority of what constitutes a ‘good’ Jew in the hearts and (poorly educated) minds of each individual Jew, we’ve ended up with the ‘no-one can tell me how to be a good Jew’ thing, which is not only philosophically an utter nonsense but also sociologically extremely unhelpful too!

What we always wanted, in fact, was strong Jewish identification. We wanted young Jews to grow up feeling associated with and responsible to/for their community and fellow Jews. We neither need nor want armies of Jews banging their chests and asserting that ‘I might eat treif on Yom Kippur and hate Israel, but that doesn’t stop me being a proud Jew.’ We ought to be able to say that it’s fairly stupid for a parent to think that giving their child a free choice about Christmas and Hanuka is a responsible stance, (rather than the unhelpful transmission of incoherence) because it’s all fine so long as they are proud of their Jewish identity.

But equally, it is not good enough simply to note the absurd cul-de-sac we’ve gone down and bewail it. We should do something to reverse the trend too, and wringing our hands is not enough. We should face up to the fact that hoping that a ‘strong Jewish identity’ will turn young Jews into useful Jews has failed. We need a much more conscious and fit-for-purpose curriculum to address this.

We note and regret how many young Jews turn their backs on the community and its institutions. Recent figures show that young Jews, in the West at least, are far less likely to give to Jewish causes than their parents and grandparents. But have our curricula changed in the light of this hugely consequential trend? Of course they haven’t. I doubt there are many schools on the planet that actually teach their children why they should join a shul. I don’t suppose there are many Jewish Studies programmes that explore the budget and priorities of their local Jewish Welfare organisation and discuss what’s to be done about growing deficits. I don’t suppose many Jewish children have put before them the range of jobs and professions available to them working for the Jewish community – worldwide – when they are considering careers.

Back in 1981, at the second ever Limmud Conference in the UK, I presented a session called ‘Towards a new curriculum area – Jewish Civics’. You will have noticed that nothing happened as a result of that session. Well, I’m trying again now… Over to you…

Clive Lawton is a co-founder of Limmud, CEO of the Commonwealth Jewish Council and works worldwide as an educational consultant


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I know you a little and respect you a lot Clive … but this article seems a tad arrogant. It is phrased 1st person plural and yet it feels like you are telling the world what is wrong (everything) and that it needs to change and how it needs to change.

    You make sweeping and insulting statements like Jewish adults are ‘ignorant’ and ‘satisfied with their ignorance’; even worse, Israeli Jews ‘are whistling in the dark to keep [their] spirits up’. Of course they cannot forget ‘ that the world is an unpredictable and sometimes hostile place’, in fact for them always hostile, but to call their bravery and steadfastness into question…..even in the face of their indomitable spirit that they display every week following every terrorist attack?

    You call Stephen Fry a celebrity and ‘obscurely Jewish Jew’ – whilst we have it confirmed even in Wikipedia that his mother was “Marianne Eve Fry (née Newman)” …” His maternal grandparents, Martin and Rosa Neumann, were Hungarian Jews, who emigrated from Šurany (now Slovakia) to Britain in 1927. Rosa’s parents, who originally lived in Vienna, Austria, were sent to a concentration camp in Riga, Latvia, where they were murdered. His mother’s aunt and cousins were sent to Auschwitz and Stutthof and never seen again.”

    Jewish sustainability? This is just a little more complex than you appear to view it now. Every group, nation, religion rightly worries about its sustainability. We haven’t had the past few hundred years of enlightenment and technology for nothing; we haven’t gained the understanding, communication, travel, instant news around the world to ignore them and to stop at the boundaries of our own group. Do you think we can turn the clock back by not giving children the choice between Christmas, Chanukah or having both (the latter is the most popular choice) or by ignoring all the other myriad of choices we all have?

    Who is going to tell the whole Jewish world ‘what constitutes good Jewish behaviour’? You? Aren’t there many-many Jewish organisations, examples, teachings, events like your very own Limmud (that we all love and that I helped to organise for quite a few years in Hungary and participated in the UK too; and that has never been arrogant, patronising or narrow-minded, just the opposite) to enlighten ‘the hearts and (poorly) educated minds’ of Jewish people around the world? Are you now saying, every one of these events, camps, Jewish and Zionist organisations are all wrong, their tremendous work is for nought? Diaspora or even Israeli Jews don’t know how to be Jewish?

    You of all people, you whom we have looked up for years, give the impression in this article that you advocate a fossilised view of what it is to be Jewish and especially good Jewish, ‘usefully’ Jewish. You appear to say that I can’t be a good, proud, ‘useful’ Jew if I am not kosher (on Yom Kippur especially). Well, most Jews in the world are not kosher Clive and millions of them, us are good, proud and useful Jews, many of us doing a lot of useful work for Jewish communities and Israel. You are not going to make Jewishness (identity or identification) more attractive -because this is what we are talking about here- by pretending that it is all about religion, especialy about a whole host of ancient, mainly incomprehensible and today irrelevant rules that rabbis of the Middle Ages derived from a very simple text of old that is supposed to have been inspired by God (never mind ‘written’ by God).

    You don’t seem to question why so ‘many young Jews turn their backs on the community and its institutions.’ You just assume that it is because nobody teaches them ‘why they should join a shul’. How about wondering if shuls offer young Jews anything relevant, attractive? ‘..young Jews, in the West at least, are far less likely to give to Jewish causes than their parents and grandparents.’ – sure so but do you truly believe that they don’t know that organisations need money to survive and work? Don’t you for a minute consider that in the unstoppably changing world Jewish institutions also need to change? That our communities, organisations need to be simply competitive in this highly competitive world? That we all have to show why people should join us, give us, support us rather than their myriad other local or national charities, clubs, organisations?
    Jewish civics? If people are taught (like in the UK they are being taught) citizenship, charity, community spirit in general, they will and do apply that to their Jewish world too.
    I believe that they often see the cancer charities, the organisations for the blind, Greenpeace, coastguard etc being in bigger need and, yes, sometimes more relevant to them than Jewish organisations.

    Sure, it is their parents’ and grandparents’ contributions that make these organisations more cash rich than others and we need to find a way to make these donations continuous – but we can only do it by ‘educating’ the organisations and not the people. Yes, young (and not so young) people should be educated to be less selfish or self-centred and more community minded in general, that is general civics, but nobody has a clue how when life is teaching them to be self-centred and it is very hard to counteract that.

    A few years back I was in China and there I understood why Chinese people are so loud, pushy, ignoring queues, persevering with such concentrated effort etc : they simply have to if they want to achieve anything within a nation of 1.5 billions of competing individuals.
    We Jews live and have to succeed in a world of some 8 billion competing individuals.
    We are going to survive as a nation, as a people, but not unchanged.

    We will have to shed some of the ballast, we will, for example, concentrate on the meaning of and reason for our traditions (like looking into our actions and making our peace with people at Yom Kippur) and worry less about what we eat. (It is quite enough to worry about not to poison ourselves by manufactured foods, less than perfect water and polluted air).

    We will, I hope, accept that ‘he who says he is a Jew, is a Jew’ (he meaning he and she of course) and will stop making people’s life a hell by questioning who their grandparents were, what they learnt or didn’t, if they had bar mitzvahs, if they eat (the lovely and healthy) seafood, if their partner is male/female, half/quarter/one-eigths Jewish …..
    We will, I hope concentrate on the basic, vital Jewish values of humanity, charity and tikkun olam (olam to include the natural world around us) and shed our preoccupation with making artificial areas so that we can carry our handbag on Saturday, to make lifts go up and down and stop automatically so that we don’t have to climb 18 stories on Saturday, to have two fridges/sinks/sets of tablecloths/crockery/cutlery just so we satisfy some ivory-tower rabbis’ interpretation of ‘don’t cook the kid in its mother’s milk’ …. and get back to the meaning of the ten commandments and basic human values of decency.
    These will, I believe, attract the people whom you (and all of us) yearn to get and keep Jewish.

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