From the beginning, Abraham was chosen because he was different from people of other nations. His Jewish descendants became a large tribal family that believed in one God; obeyed specific commandments and laws; adhered to dietary protocols; practiced particular rituals; observed the weekly Sabbath and annual holidays in prescribed ways; and lived together in a land that was promised. This way of life naturally separated them from others of their times – ideologically, philosophically, ethnically, culturally, socially, religiously, and geographically – which often caused fear, suspicion, and mistrust in those around them.
This choice of lifestyle (and resulting consequences) continued for hundreds of years – millennia – even as Jews dispersed around the globe to escape famines, wars, and persecution. Regardless of the countries or nations in which they lived, Jews maintained their “separateness” – or “otherness” – from their gentile neighbors. They adapted to the times and places in which they lived by establishing institutions that served their needs, including: synagogues, schools, legal courts, and even butcher shops. They passed along their beliefs, values, practices, and traditions from generation to generation without question. My grandparents and great grandparents grew up this way in shtetls – small Polish and Russian Jewish villages – where they spoke Yiddish and worried about pogroms.
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…
We now find ourselves in changing times. We live in the twentieth century with primarily four generations, where each embraces different attitudes and perspectives based on when they were born. Consider the following:
- Traditionalists: My parents. Born between 1925 and 1945, these people learned about and experienced waves of immigration (their parents and/or grandparents) to the U.S.; the draft and major wars (World Wars I and II, and Korea); and the Great Depression. The Holocaust was ever-present in the Jewish psyche, along with the desire to learn to speak English and assimilate. Going to movies was a great escape. Structured Judaism was a fact.
- Baby Boomers: My husband and me, and our siblings (towards the end of the generation). Born between 1946 and 1964, these people experienced the civil rights and women’s movements; the sexual revolution; the space program and man’s landing on the moon; the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the founding of the State of Israel and the Six Day War. Having a black and white TV in one’s home was a big deal! Meaningful experiences, like overnight summer camps, connected young people to each other, Judaism, and Zionism.
- Generation X: My youngest sister and my cousins. Born between 1965 and 1980, this generation developed an early independence as divorce rates skyrocketed; the AIDS epidemic launched conversations about “safe sex”; Watergate and corporate downsizing shook their confidence and promoted cynicism. Jewish youth group trips and summers in the Catskills were rites of passage. MTV launched music videos and changed the industry. Egalitarianism and music like Debbie Friedman’s changed the look and sound of Judaism.
- Generation Y (also known as Millennials): My children, nieces, and nephews. Born between 1981 and the early 2000s, it can be argued that this group is the most radically different of all. The shootings at Columbine; September 11, 2001; “personal” technology (laptops, cell phones, instant messaging, social networking, the internet, etc.); blended and non-“traditional” families; and reality TV – all point to more liberal attitudes with regard to social and cultural issues than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Full acceptance of Jews in society and Israel experiences like Birthright tremendously impact Jewish identity.
All of this makes sense. The above descriptions, however, only offer broad generalizations and hardly skim the surface of the potential disconnects between the decades. To the point, it is clear from the recent Pew Study that Jewish identity in America has changed dramatically across the decades. Most notably, a large percentage of today’s younger Jews do not even identify with the Jewish religion.
With all of this in mind, an article in this week’s Forward called “Answer This Question: Why Be Jewish?” inspired me. I decided to conduct an informal survey of fifteen people of various generations, Jewish connections, and relationships to me. I asked them, “Why do you choose to be Jewish?” I was pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful, positive, and heartfelt responses I received.
With the exception of two “Traditionalists” who talked mostly about the religious aspects of their choices, the other respondents spoke about many things that moved and motivated them to be Jewish. Some of these include: God-given DNA, Jewish culture (including yummy foods), traditions (like Passover Seders with family and friends), connections with ancestors, values (like goodness and tzedakah – charity), experiences (like camp and trips to Israel), and a framework by which to live and treat people. Not one respondent regrets his or her choice to be Jewish. All intend to “pay it forward.”
There will be a Jewish future. It isn’t bleak. It just may look different than it does today. But, for now, there’s much to DO to keep Judaism vibrant and engaging.