Non-Traditional Jewish Identities

A look at the many different ways Jews define their Judaism today.

Reprinted with permission from the website of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Is there any reason to be Jewish if you don’t believe that Torah is the word of God? I would have thought that this question had long ago been answered in the affirmative until I read a recent book review in The New York Times.

In his review of a new book on Jewish culture, the writer David Klinghoffer takes a dim view of those who experience their Jewishness as consisting of anything other than the divine word revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. “Whatever pragmatists insist to the contrary, it’s hard to see why anyone would embrace a religion if it comes down to us ultimately not from God but from some long-dead Middle Eastern guys,” he writes.

Or, as Klinghoffer argues even more pungently in his own book, The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy, “the defining Jewish criterion must not be blood, or culture, or nationhood, or any of the innumerable substitutes for Judaism that have been proposed by factions among our people-compassion, tolerance, freedom, socialism, Zionism, Holocaust veneration, Jewish self-defense, Jewish unity–but Truth alone.”

jewish identityKlinghoffer’s dismissal of the various ways some 83 percent of North American Jews live their Jewish lives brought me back to a conversation I had in a Jerusalem yeshiva almost three years ago. Wherever the conversation had started, it ended up being about the Jewish contribution to the world, which my classmates equated almost entirely with yeshiva learning.

A proud product of the post-war, suburban baby boom, I grew up in a world that was intensely and proudly Jewish, infused with meaning and connection, despite the distance many of our friends and neighbors put between themselves and the “tradition.” And while I now belong to an Orthodox synagogue and send my kids to an Orthodox day school, my upbringing helped me see the innumerable ways Jews find meaning in their Jewishness–yes, outside the yeshiva, outside the synagogue–even as they maintain the shocking position that no one can know the Truth.

In recent years CLAL [the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership] has been exploring the many forms Judaism has taken in 20th century North America, looking beneath the surface of seemingly secular behaviors and events to discover the kernel of Jewish values at their core. With the help of my colleagues, I present below a partial list of what a traditionalist might regard as “substitutes for Judaism,” but what a more generous observer would see as the glory of Jewish creativity and re-invention, from Sinai until today.

Or, as Rabbi David Hartman once said, “I don’t care what happened at Sinai. I care about what people do with what happened at Sinai.”

We urge you to add to the list.

Jewish Geography

Whether you’re in Nova Scotia or Neve Schechter, it’s rarely more than one degree of separation between you and the Jewish landsman across the table or bus aisle. “Maybe you know…” is the Jewish secret handshake.

Jewish Genealogy

JewishGen, the Web Page of Jewish Genealogy (, records an average of 29,481 hits per day from users researching their family histories. Connecting with the past has turned a generation of seekers into amateur historians, and allows today’s Jews to remember how their ancestors lived, not just how they died.

Jewish Gastronomy

A salty slab of lox, a two-inch thick pastrami sandwich with a side of cole slaw, a scoop of chopped liver. Jewish deli may be a nutritional nightmare, but it fulfilled a dream of plenty for an immigrant generation that once had to do with too little, and creates a Proustian connection between the eater and his people with every bite.

Jewish Vegetarians

Pioneers of “eco-kashrut” feel that the highest value we can express at the grocery store and dinner table is respect for life. Citing Rav Kook among others, their vision of the Messianic Age not only has the wolf lying down with the lamb, but the cow making friends with the butcher.

Jewish Doctors

They are our modern priesthood, combining a dedication to scholarship with the ideal of pikuah nefesh–that every life is sacred.

Jewish Lawyers

No joke: For every shyster there are dozens of attorneys who are inspired, whether they know it or not, by the biblical injunction “tzedek tsedek tirdof–justice, justice thou shalt pursue.”

But Seriously, Folks

Stand-up comedy is to Jews what jazz is to blacks: an American art form they pioneered and continued to dominate throughout the 20th century. By playing the holy fools, Jewish comedians hold up a cracked mirror to the hypocrisy and pomposity of American life and allow audiences to defuse their anxieties through the healing power of laughter.

Creative Kippot (Yarmulkes)

Who says Orthodoxy is about conformity? Ask the kids with the yarmulkes sporting Mets and Bulls logos, Batman and Superman cartoons, spider webs, tie-dyed swirls and Pokemon characters. A recent favorite: a simple black crocheted kippah, emblazoned with a tiny white dove.

The Suburban Synagogue

Much maligned by a younger generation that considered it bourgeois and soul-less, the suburban synagogue stands as a living monument to a generation’s peculiarly American celebration of ethnic identity, communal loyalty, and unabashed patriotism. And unlike so many of their “spiritual” offspring, the parents who built the Beth Els and Shomrei Emunahs continue to support their synagogues and temples long after their children no longer need preschool, bar mitzvah lessons or a wedding chapel.

Jewish Preschools

Run privately or by JCCs and synagogues, Jewish preschools are serving as “ramps” to a richer Jewish life for thousands of young families. Toddlers come home with Jewish crafts, songs and prayers, and reverse the process by which Jewish traditions and rituals have been transmitted: it’s the children who shall teach them unto the parents.

Holocaust Survivors

A generation of now elderly people who had every reason to give up on life instead embraced it, pushing aside the horror as they gave their children as “normal” an upbringing as any of us could. That accomplished, they at last began to confront their experiences, and built a network of Holocaust memorials and museums that are as much about hope for a better future as they are reminders of an unspeakable past.

The Federation System

The umbrella fundraising organizations became a model for creating community through shared responsibility, and not merely overcoming communal differences but just as often celebrating them. Not to mention the money itself, which helped build Jewish schools, social service agencies, hospitals, old age homes, and-oh yes-the State of Israel.

Adult Study Classes

Bible, kabbalah, history, Jewish cooking. In any city in the country, on any night of the week, you can find adults engrossed in an old Jewish pastime: Torah lishma, or study for its own sake.

Pick and Choose Judaism

On Passover, eating matzoh in a non-kosher restaurant. Turning Friday night into Shabbos, but leaving Saturday morning for a golf game. The “one from column A” approach offends traditionalists, but the persistence of Jewish identity markers despite the complete freedom available to Americans remains a powerful validation of the Jewish idea.

Is it Good for the Jews?

We all do it: Scan lists of disaster victims for the Jewish names or worry how a global catastrophe will affect the Jews. Our most admirable trait? No. Nevertheless, it’s an expression of peoplehood, a recognition of kinship with far-flung “relatives,” and a way of relating to the pain felt in another part of the world instead of just turning the page.

The Marx Brothers

Did someone call me schnorrer?

Modern Midrash

Jewish educators have rediscovered the power of story in helping people understand themselves as Jews and human beings. Midrash, creative retelling of classic Jewish texts, takes the form of writing workshops, “bibliodrama,” improvisational dance, an off-Broadway play called “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” and a $70 million dollar animated film on the life of Moses.

Candle-Lighting Ceremonies

The bar or bat mitzvah recites a poem. Grandma Bess or Uncle Leonard comes forward to light a candle on the cake. The band plays “Hava Nagila.” The candle-lighting ceremony is a 20th century folk invention, and in a day crowded with rituals dictated by ancient tradition and custom, it is a chance for families to recite their own texts and set their own standards.


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