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Friday, January 19, 2007

Who is a Jew?

Who is a Jew?

You probably will want to read all of this article by Vic Rosenthal , and we can all agree with some of it. Vic wrote:

For example, there may not be a single set of facial characteristics common to me and the rest of my family, but in some sense we look alike: a nose here, eyebrows there, etc. A family resemblance may be more or less intense, and the decision to include or exclude a person becomes harder to make as the resemblance weakens.

For example, which of the following photos exemplifies the famous Jewish physiognomy, and which does not?

Doesn't the gentleman at left look like he should be Gabbai of your synagogue? Which of these fine fellows would you cast for the role of American tough guy? Jewish intellectual? Concentration camp victim? I promise a reply to those questions in the future.

Vic wrote:

In other words, if an Ashkenazi Jew has certain 'Jewish' characteristics and a Sephardic Jew has other, different, ones, then the result of mixing them -- both in terms of children and of culture -- will tend to have more of the overall set of 'Jewish' characteristics than we'd get from all Ashkenazim or Sephardim.

Well I don't know about. My aunt is Sephardic, my uncle is Ashkenazi. They live in Tel-Aviv. Their son ought to be much more "Jewish" than they are according to Vic's theory, but he lives in New York and has an African-American girl-friend, goes hitch-hiking in India, and doesn't eat either gefilte fish or couscous when he can help it. And nonetheless he is Jewish of course, and identifies himself as "Jewish."

What is my point?

Identity has two aspects: how others see you, and how you see yourself. It is not a collection of "characteristics." The important part of identity is how you see yourself. It should be the factor in deciding if someone is Jewish, or Greek or anything else.

Ami Isseroff

By Vic Rosenthal

One of the most persistent issues among Jews today, especially non-observant Jews living in the Diaspora, is that of Jewish identity: what is it, do I have it, are we losing it, is that bad?...

So exactly how are the Jewish people a people or a nation? Is it the same sense in which, for example, the Dutch or the French see themselves as a people?

No, it's not the same. The Dutch or French have lived in the same place for hundreds of years. They speak the same language (or dialects thereof). They do share, more or less, a culture. Maybe if modern Israel can survive Ahmadinijad etc. for a few generations there will begin to be this kind of national culture – in Israel. But it still won't explain the Jewishness of those in the far-flung Diaspora.

...human language is a tool for doing practical things in the world, not a formal structure like mathematics. So the way that we make definitions of practical concepts, like Jew, is not necessarily as neat and closed as the way that we define complicated mathematical concepts in terms of simpler ones. Wittgenstein found it explanatory to talk about family resemblances.

For example, there may not be a single set of facial characteristics common to me and the rest of my family, but in some sense we look alike: a nose here, eyebrows there, etc. A family resemblance may be more or less intense, and the decision to include or exclude a person becomes harder to make as the resemblance weakens. But that doesn't mean the idea of the family resemblance is meaningless -- language is meaningful insofar as it is useful, and a degree of uncertainty is part of life. Wittgenstein thought that concepts like 'game', for example, which are notoriously hard to define, are best understood as applying to things having a sort of family resemblance.

So I think it's not unreasonable -- and also quite appealing – to think of the Jewish people as a large family, with family resemblances. Some of the features that we find among Jews are Judaism, certain values (e.g., a respect for learning), certain languages (especially Hebrew, which unites observant and Israeli Jews), certain customs, foods, even a preponderance of certain DNA sequences...

... the overall pool of diverse Jewish characteristics is amplified when the group includes a more diverse mix of Jews. In other words, if an Ashkenazi Jew has certain 'Jewish' characteristics and a Sephardic Jew has other, different, ones, then the result of mixing them — both in terms of children and of culture-- will tend to have more of the overall set of 'Jewish' characteristics than we'd get from all Ashkenazim or Sephardim.

Of course, the place in the world where there is the most diverse mix of Jewish people and cultures is Israel. So in another sense, added to the religious and political ones, we see the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Perhaps A. B. Yehoshua was not entirely wrong when he said that it's necessary to live in Israel to live a fully Jewish life.

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  • One can be both Jewish and Greek. I'm an example.

    By Blogger Nik, At January 19, 2007 12:53:00 PM GMT+00:00  

  • The best definition of a Jew, to me, was given by Ben Gurian, when asked he replied (paraphrasing) a Jew is a person that feels the pain when another Jew is hurt.

    By Blogger perkypauly, At January 19, 2007 5:34:00 PM GMT+00:00  

  • The matter of national/ethnic identity, this is something that infinite quantities of ink has been spilled over, some of which I actually read in college.

    As far as I am concerned, there is an objective side to national ethnic identity, and a subjective side.

    Objectively, I'd say that national ethnic identity is comprised of three major components:

    1. A common language (this is not absolutely necessary - after all, no one speaks "Canadian" - but it certainly helps to establish distinct national ethnic bona fides).

    2. A common point of geographic origin, a piece of real estate that is broadly associated with the group in question.

    3. Shared traditions, holidays, folkways, customs, national mythology/history, that all members of the group identify with, call their own, even if they aren't too particular about observing them on their own account.

    As to the matter at hand, "Who is a Jew?', I'd say that in a purely national ethnic sense, apart from religious observance or lack of the same, Jews certainly count as a national ethnic group as surely as Italians, Irish, Japanese, Mexicans, or Poles. The fact of the "optional" nature of religious observance on this topic has been repeatedly demonstrated. How could one, for example, be a "Jewish atheist", as Trotsky was, if religious observance were the only parameter for defining Jewish identity? Did the Nazis go around asking who was Bar Mitzvah'd or who regularly attended shul before carting them off to the gas chambers?

    But what about the concept of race? Is there a Jewish "race"? I suppose that one could say that the mixture of Semitic features of the original Jewish tribes from biblical Israel along with the European features of the populations amongst whom they settled - and obviously intermarried with - have produced something like a Jewish "race" of sorts, but this is all very imprecise. After all, there has been intermarriage between racial groups of all types all over the world, such that it is very difficult to really sort out who is really this or who is really that. In any case, the exercise of even trying to do so is tedious, and smacks of less than humanitarian motives, to say the least.

    Which brings us to the subjective side of things. Anyone with the motivation to do so can convert to Judaism, no matter their background. Up until recently, by contrast, one could not "convert" to being German. German naturalization requirements were such that one had to prove at least some degree of German ancestry in order to become a citizen...but a few years ago, they changed this law, so that now, anyone can indeed emigrate to Germany and become a "German". The same is true for many countries in Europe and elsewhere, and most obviously so in the immigrant-based polities of the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

    To a very great extent, then, national identity is very much in the eye of the beholder, but the rub is that it doesn't stop with the individual who is trying to sort this out for him or herself. The "beholder" also includes the larger social/political/cultural environment of the individual in question. Again, our history illustrates this conundrum: many German Jews of the early Nazi period protested in the face of persecution that they were Germans first, Jews a distant second, for all the good that did them.

    It is my own view, in light of all of the above, that Diaspora Jews do themselves and their community a great disservice if they downplay or try to otherwise "hide" their Jewish identity. Doing so validates the view of those who would persecute them that there is something indeed "wrong" with being Jewish, that it is something that "ought" to be hidden. In my own personal experience, when I have been quite open and matter of fact about my Jewish roots in the face of people who are obviously anti-Jewish bigots, it is amazing how fast they have backed down, quickly becoming apologetic for their ignorant comments. (Of course, this is America....perhaps in Kiev, or even London, that would only get me beaten up...)

    Along these same lines, Diaspora Jews, as members of the national ethnic group that has found its expression in the modern state of Israel, have every right to celebrate their national identity with Israel as the focal point of that identity the same as Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Mexican Americans, Greek Americans, etc., etc., do with respect to their particular 'national homelands', without any stigma, without any accusations of "dual loyalty". The fact that openly pro-Israeli Diaspora Jews are frequently subjected to such suspicions is one of the most obvious manifestations of anti-Semitism in today's world.

    What is more, Jews not only have the right to celebrate their national identity via Israel, but also, the obligation to do so, for their own good. For as we have seen not only with the Jews, but also the Gypsies, the Armenians, and other groups, national ethnic groups without the validating "anchor", if you will, of a nation state, are subject to something of a "painted bird" syndrome as a perpetual minority in the lands they inhabit, being particularly subject to the worst persecutions.

    The George Soros types who suggest that modern Israel is the "cause" of much of modern anti-Jewish bigotry are simply full of crap. The Holocaust happened before there was an Israel, and as we all know, was only the latest in a long line of many pogroms. The fact of Israel's existence, and her vigorous defense of herself, is not only a source of pride and self-respect for all Jews, but I believe, serves to give pause to many who would otherwise disrespect the Jewish people and hold them in contempt.

    Here in Toledo, every year, there is a Greek American festival, a Polish American festival, a Mexican American festival, and a German American festival. Jews will have achieved full emancipation when there can be a Jewish American festival, replete with Israeli flags, food, etc., and this is seen as no more remarkable as the other festivals listed above.

    By Blogger Robman, At January 20, 2007 1:16:00 AM GMT+00:00  

  • On Robman's comments: Now here is a man after my own heart! As a UK (London)resident I am ongoingly infuriated by the constant stream of anti-Israel (sorry, it's only anti-"Zionist", and certainly not anti-Semitic!!!)propaganda dished out by the British media and swallowed by the majority of a public with a predisposition to bigotry, and even more infuriated, and sickened, by those self-hating Jews here who participate in it. They kid themselves that they are "English" and regarded as such by the "native" population!

    By Blogger Gordon, At January 23, 2007 3:12:00 PM GMT+00:00  

  • I am a very interesting case on "Who is a Jew?"question. My father's side of the family has a Jewish background, not my mothers so, by Hallakhah I was not Jewish.

    After many years of working at the Israeli embassy--having a M.A. and a Ph.D. about Jewish questions, I have also lived in Israel, go there every learned Hebrew, send money to Jewish charities, have a very public involvement on behalf of Israel, and against anti-Semitism--I converted under the Conservative Movement in the U.S. This means that I can have Israeli citizenship, on the assumption that I have Jewish nationality (I don't go due to my age and lack of locally needed skills).

    However, on my own, I decided to be more a few years ago, and recently asked to be converted according to their standards. It is amazing the difficulties I am going through, how hard it is to find someone to guide me, to overcome the uneasiness of the rabbis, even though they know the sincerity of my decision.

    In anthropology we say that religious or ethnic identity is clearly marked on the borders, that is: when someone wants to join, or to leave, the group, what are the exigencies? What makes you X or Z? What makes you a non-X or a non-Z?

    In a recent sad "case study", I was "thrown out" of Frumster, a dating site for religious Jews, on the premises that I did not convert under Orthodox guidance, i.e. I am not a Jew. I took it as an anthropologist, as an interesting case of study on ethnic identity, but it hurted deeply!

    So, who am I? A goy? A Jew?
    Any clues?

    By Blogger Soniabloom, At January 23, 2007 9:31:00 PM GMT+00:00  

  • soniabloom, you are what you see yourself as.
    there is prejudice and snobbery every were.
    the bhreslave rabbi( i know i spelled that wrong sorry) there is no label for jews, reform, conservative or orthodox , only jews who are more observant than others.
    arrogance and snobbery are sins. i am a reform convert of 25 years. i hold my head up against any one.
    i study daily to be a better jew. i support the state of israel and judaism with my whole heart.
    in the end HaShem is the judge not men.

    By Blogger donnella whitacre, At January 26, 2007 12:16:00 AM GMT+00:00  

  • Soniabloom, You are on a much higher spiritual level as a Jew than any of those "Jews" who hurt you out of ignorant bigotry. Their behavior is inexcusable and negates the tenets of Judaism: Love, kindness, respect...

    Since you embraced the Jewish religion by choice, you are on a higher level than those Jews who were born Jews and did not make a choice.

    Paul Hirschl

    By Blogger Paul, At August 27, 2009 11:51:00 PM GMT+00:00  

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