Identity and Identification

Happy Chanukah to you and your family.

When I returned home from Israel last weekend, I received an intriguing blog entry from a former colleague titled, Being a Part of the “Organized Jewish Community.” The blog writer commented on a tweet they recently received: “I wonder if I am part of the organized Jewish community. I am not a member of a synagogue. I do attend services and a few Jewish events.”

Now, why is this person raising the question? Why would they not feel a part of the “organized Jewish community?” What does that even mean?

In many ways, we have created a communal definition about Jewish life, one that translates into paying a fee to a Jewish organization or observing specific Jewish practices. Jewish community demographic studies for years have measured synagogue membership, Jewish Community Center membership, giving to Jewish Federations, etc. In addition, these same studies ask questions about ritual behaviors: lighting Shabbat/Chanukah candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, attending a Passover seder, attending Shabbat services, etc. This is (supposedly) what it means to be Jewish.
But do these types of questions tell the full story of one’s Jewish connections and involvements. In many ways, we have to think differently. We have to understand the “Jewish question” from the perspective of the individual as the starting point. We must move beyond a “checklist” mindset in exploring the Jewish behaviors of those in our community. This does not mean that those behaviors are unimportant, or should never be explored – they do matter. But we cannot stop there. There are still many who care deeply about Judaism, express Jewish values, and create a Jewish life in their own (different) way.

The author of the blog went on to address this challenge. She raised a question I never thought about before – is there a difference between Jewish identity and Jewish identification? She suggests that identity is individual-based and identification is group-based. She references this distinction in H.A. Alexander’s book, Jewish Education and The Search for Authenticity: A Study of Jewish Identity and in Simon N. Herman’s Jewish Identity: A Social Psychological Perspective.

The blogger shared the following from a thought paper she recently finished:

When I reflected on Alexander’s work, I wrote that this was the first time I had read about a distinction in identity and identification. But, right on page 1 of Herman’s book there is a section entitled “Identification and Identity.” He writes that we need to “draw the important distinction … between the act of Jewish identification, the process by which the individual comes to see himself as part of the Jewish group, and identity, what being Jewish means in the life of the individual, the content of his Jewishness,” (pg. 2).

This is similar yet nuanced to Alexander’s writing, “A person’s identity is that which distinguishes her from others,” (p.2) and that “Identification, therefore, is about how an individual is related to a class of concepts or people outside of herself,” (p.3).

Herman takes to task the field of literature that exists in Jewish “identity” study. He writes, “Almost any study of Jewish attitudes is pretentiously called a study of Jewish identity. A glance at most studies of Jewish communities in the Diaspora shows that they are at best studies of Jewish identification. They may deal with the process by which the individual comes to see himself a part of the Jewish group and the form the act of identification takes, or they may describe the extent to which and the circumstances under which the Jews in a particular community are prepared to stand up and be counted … But very few of them are studies of Jewish identity, of what being Jewish means, of what kind of Jew and what kind of Jewishness develop,” (p. 28).

We are caught today between “essentialist” and “existentialist” conceptions of Jewish identity: The former identifies a set of behaviors and attitudes that have historically been associated with Jewishness and asks to what extent individual Jews manifest these. (This is the “checklist” approach). The latter asks what individuals do, think, and feel that they see as an expression of their Jewishness. Or, as Bethamie Horowitz of New York University says: “How Jewish are Jews?” and “How Jews are Jewish.”

This all came together for me last night at the Oregon Area Jewish Committee’s Maurice D. Sussman Award Dinner honoring Mara and Rob Shlachter. David Shlachter, when speaking about his parents, said they taught him a fundamental lesson – “Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

We know Chanukah as the “Festival of Lights,” reminding us of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. But, Chanukah also means “dedication.” Following the Maccabees’ defeat of the Greeks in 165 BCE, the Temple in Jerusalem was purified and rededicated for future generations.

As we continue to celebrate the last two nights of Chanukah, may we each dedicate ourselves to creating a Jewish life, strengthening our individual Jewish identity, and increasing our Jewish identification with the Jewish people.

Shabbat shalom and chag Chanukah sameach.


PS – As we approach the end of the calendar year, do not miss your opportunity to make your tax deductible contribution to the Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign. Remember, all increases of 10% or more and all new gifts will be matched dollar for dollar.


Add Comment