An­other cen­te­nary, and we still need to learn

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THE VIEW FROM THE DATA

JEWS LOVE an­niver­saries. One hun­dred years since the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion. Fifty years since the Six-Day War. Three hun­dred years since the read­mis­sion of Jews into Bri­tain. We’ve done them all re­cently. Not long ago, it was Jerusalem 3000; a few years ear­lier it was 500 years since the Span­ish ex­pul­sion. Be­fore we know it, the fo­cus will be on Is­rael at 70. I guess that’s what hap­pens when you have a lot of his­tory. And, if there’s one thing that Jews have, it’s a lot of his­tory.

I love that about be­ing Jewish. To me, it’s in our his­tory where much of the drama lies. It’s by ac­cess­ing our story that we un­cover the re­mark­able depth and va­ri­ety of Jewish ex­pres­sion over time. It’s there that we learn there is no sin­gle way to be Jewish, that Ju­daism has evolved over time, and that, while there are vi­tal con­stants, there is also tremen­dous di­ver­sity of prac­tice and be­lief.

And, crit­i­cally, we have an in­cred­i­ble story to tell. Paul John­son wrote his His­tory of the Jews be­cause of “the ex­cite­ment [he] found in the sheer span of Jewish his­tory.” Martin Gil­bert wrote his at­lases of Jewish his­tory to por­tray “the ex­tra­or­di­nary di­ver­sity of the Jewish saga.” Si­mon Schama de­scribes Jewish his­tory as “one of the world’s great won­ders.” Howard Sachar said that the great­est dif­fi­culty in studying Jewish his­tory comes not from a paucity of ma­te­rial, but rather from “an em­bar­ras de richesses.” In­deed, all the great Jewish his­to­ri­ans, from Graetz, Baron and Dub­now on­wards, There is so much more to dis­cover make much the same point: our story is ex­tra­or­di­nary.

I’ve been re­flect­ing on this be­cause I’m cur­rently work­ing on a large multi-na­tional sur­vey of Jews that will be car­ried out across the Euro­pean Union next year. In con­struct­ing the ques­tion­naire, I’ve been look­ing at ex­ist­ing re­search ques­tions to con­sider how best to mea­sure dif­fer­ent as­pects of Jewish iden­tity in quan­ti­ta­tive terms.

Sur­veys mea­sure Jewish iden­tity in many ways. Al­most all in­clude ques­tions about re­li­gios­ity and ob­ser­vance. Many ex­am­ine propin­quity — how close we are to other Jews. Most in­clude ques­tions about com­mu­nal af­fil­i­a­tion. Those are all ob­vi­ous meth­ods. But Jewish­ness is also mea­sured in many other ways: by cul­tural en­gage­ment, char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, vol­un­teer­ing, com­mit­ments to so­cial jus­tice, at­ti­tudes to­wards work and learn­ing, Jewish fam­ily life, at­tach­ments to Is­rael and the Jewish Peo­ple and, yes, con­nec­tions to Jewish his­tory.

And the ev­i­dence in­di­cates that our his­tory re­ally mat­ters to us. Or, more ac­cu­rately, some of our his­tory does. The Holo­caust is par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent — JPR’s 2013 Na­tional Jewish Com­mu­nity Sur­vey pre­sented a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of Bri­tish Jews with 20 dif­fer­ent as­pects of Jewish­ness that might be im­por­tant to them, and found that “re­mem­ber­ing the Holo­caust” came sec­ond, nar­rowly outscored by “strong moral and eth­i­cal be­hav­iour.” By way of com­par­i­son, “be­liev­ing in God” and “keep­ing kosher” came 16th and 17th. “Studying Jewish re­li­gious texts” came last. That doesn’t mean those are unim­por­tant; it just means they don’t res­onate for many.

I have long felt that, on the in­fre­quent oc­ca­sions when we do learn some Jewish his­tory, the heavy em­pha­sis on the Holo­caust, or for that mat­ter, the state of Is­rael, of­ten leaves us with a rather im­paired and lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of our past. Th­ese are im­por­tant, of course, but there is so much more to learn and dis­cover. And with so many Jewish chil­dren in Jewish schools, it should surely be pos­si­ble to teach Jewish his­tory with suf­fi­cient pas­sion and depth to give each child a pro­found sense that they are part of one of the most com­pelling sto­ries ever told.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant in­sight from so­cial re­search is that Jewish iden­tity can be mea­sured in mul­ti­ple ways be­cause Jews ex­press it in mul­ti­ple ways. Our Jewish­ness lies in re­li­gious ob­ser­vance, of course, but also in pol­i­tics and ide­al­ism, lit­er­a­ture and mu­sic, law and de­bate, spir­i­tu­al­ity and mean­ing, food, friend­ship and fam­ily. And it seems to me that un­der­stand­ing our story, in all its rich­ness and com­plex­ity, is the key to un­lock­ing each of th­ese pos­si­bil­i­ties, and help­ing us to find our­selves in the nar­ra­tive of the Jewish Peo­ple.

So now that Bal­four 100 is be­hind us, per­haps it’s time to start tak­ing our his­tory se­ri­ously and lo­cat­ing it much more cen­trally in the Jewish ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum. Is it such a stretch to sug­gest that our fu­ture may lie in con­nect­ing to our past?

Jonathan Boyd is Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Jewish Pol­icy Re­search

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