Jewish Cultural Identity

More than half of American Jews define themselves as secular

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While the organized Jewish community often identifies Jews by their denominational affiliation, more than half of all Jews in North America resist such categorizations. Defining themselves as secular, these Jews express their Jewish identity in cultural terms. This article argues that the organized Jewish community should support more Jewish cultural expression. This article is reprinted with permission of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey (Egon Mayer, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar) reports that a full 48% of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue. When asked what their religious outlook is, 35% identified as secular and 15% as somewhat secular.jew quiz

Reflecting on the findings, Felix Posen, Vice Chairman of the International Federation of Secular Humanist Jews, says, "Secularism is a serious conviction for some Jews, as well as an existential condition for a great many more… whatever its functions, secular Judaism must be appreciated and supported as a potent source of identification and motivation; it must be utilized by the organized Jewish community for all the opportunities it affords."

 

Jewish Culture as a Gateway

Gary Tobin takes a more expansive position. The head of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, Tobin studied Jewish culture in the Bay Area in an effort to determine what role it plays in the identity of local Jews. Published in 2002, A Study of Jewish Culture in the Bay Area proposed "a definition of Jewish culture elastic enough to encompass customs, daily rituals, and popular culture as well as intellectual life, historical preservation, the visual and performing arts."

The conclusion? Participation in Jewish culture is more wide-spread than any other form of participation in Jewish life in the Bay Area. In addition, it found that for some Jews, culture--including film festivals, klezmer concerts, and fiction--is their sole form of identification.

Tobin contends that the significance of Jewish art and culture as an expression of Jewish identity has largely been ignored. Culture is "a legitimate form of Jewishness" and "the path to community leads through cultural institutions as well as religious ones," he says.

According to the study, over 90% of Jews in the Bay Area participate in some form of Jewish cultural activities, with film, music and lectures ranking highest on the list. In addition, 90% of respondents were interested in attending more Jewish cultural programs--specifically, film, art exhibits, and theater.

"The dichotomy between religion and culture doesn't really exist," Tobin says. "Every religious attribute is filled with culture; every cultural act filled with religiosity. Synagogues themselves are great centers of Jewish culture. After all, what is life really about? Food, relationships, enrichment… So is Jewish life. So many of our traditions inherently contain aspects of culture. Look at the Passover seder--it's essentially great theater. Jewish education and religiosity bereft of culture is not as interesting."

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