Opin­ion The Anx­i­ety of Iden­tity

Our read­ers re­spond to Gal Beck­er­man’s fi­nal ar­ti­cle.

Forward Magazine - - News -

In his fi­nal col­umn as opin­ion editor, Gal Beck­er­man di­ag­nosed the “pathol­ogy” plagu­ing Amer­i­can Jews: iden­tity anx­i­ety. We in­vited For­ward read­ers to pre­scribe so­lu­tions. Here are seven of your re­sponses, edited for style and length.

Kill the Idea of “Au­then­tic­ity”

On Beck­er­man’s read­ing, we have Amer­i­can Jewish hu­mil­i­a­tion on the one hand and Is­raeli nar­cis­sism on the other. Is it not the case that both poles ex­press the same thing — a frac­tured per­son­al­ity re­spond­ing to its dis­in­te­gra­tion with the al­ter­na­tives of re­treat or over­com­pen­sa­tion?

If this is the case, we should in­quire into the na­ture of this frac­tured self rather than cri­tique its dual ex­pres­sion. In my opin­ion, the frac­tured self is first and fore­most di­vided along the fault line of au­then­tic­ity. It is tempt­ing to imag­ine that there is an “au­then­tic” self and, by ex­ten­sion, an in­au­then­tic or fake self.

But the real chal­lenge does not lie in the search for an an­swer to the ques­tion of “au­then­tic” Jewish iden­tity. It lies in ad­mit­ting that the ques­tion it­self is both va­pid and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, that it does not ar­tic­u­late a cri­sis but en­gen­ders one by es­tab­lish­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial bound­ary be­tween the “au­then­tic” and the “in­au­then­tic.”


Don’t Be Afraid To Cherry-Pick

As you would with any other por­tion of your iden­tity, pick and choose the parts of Ju­daism that feel right and true. And then, live them. Turn anx­i­ety into ac­tion.

For me that in­cludes learn­ing Yid­dish so I can sing it, and fight­ing along with my Jewish, Pales­tinian and other com­rades for a just and peace­ful Holy Land.

I be­long to a free- form Jewish com­mu­nity group that com­bines Jewish rit­ual with what­ever else works for us. That in­cludes mu­sic, food, car­ing for each other and ac­cept­ing each other for what we are and for what we con­tinue to be­come.

There is so much rich­ness in be­ing Jewish and in shar­ing that with the world around you that there is no time for angst.


Go Back to the Books

De­spite our thou­sands of years of history and great­ness, Jews don’t know who they are. Jews don’t know their her­itage. They have no foun­da­tion, and that is why they have a high in­ter­mar­riage rate and con­ver­sion rate. Be­ing a “food Jew” does not guar­an­tee our con­tin­u­a­tion, which is cer­tainly in jeop­ardy by our own hands and ex­is­ten­tially by our en­e­mies’.


Look to the Artists

Times are chang­ing, slowly. A few ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing the new Jerusalem Bi­en­nial, are tak­ing Ju­daism — as a re­li­gion — se­ri­ously. Yet there is a steep hill to climb. Beck­er­man be­moaned “a lack of self-con­fi­dence and, per­haps even scarier, a lack of ma­te­rial with which to build a more con­fi­dent iden­tity.” These artists and crit­ics do not lack con­fi­dence; they lack the con­fi­dent au­di­ence that is not chal­lenged by what they do not know.


Main­tain Your Bal­ance, Even If It Means Not Fit­ting In

As a teenager I have been ex­posed to dif­fer­ent types of Jewish teens who are hy­per-aware of them­selves, have be­come overly con­scious of their Jewish­ness, and have cho­sen to deal with it in the way that helps them “fit in” best. They live on a bal­ance beam of Ju­daism, un­sure how to make it to the other end with­out fall­ing into the large pot of as­sim­i­la­tion be­low.

To make it across the beam, the gym­nast Jew must have trained her­self in the art of con­cen­tra­tion and strength. And teenagers are rarely known for be­ing paragons of ei­ther trait. We want to be open- minded, so let’s be Re­con­struc­tion­ist! But wait, ev­ery­one loves the tra­di­tion in Or­tho­doxy, so let’s do that! Or maybe Con­ser­va­tive, be­cause we can to­tally have a bal­ance of the two? But no, that to­tally sup­ports the pa­tri­archy!

Teenage Jews want to fit into so many cat­e­gories at once, and in their search for Jewish iden­tity they are at a loss for mean­ing. They want too badly to fit into the world around them, and are filled with anx­i­ety at the con­se­quences of not do­ing so. They sac­ri­fice Jewish iden­tity in or­der to cre­ate a per­fect teenage one.


Em­brace the Anx­i­ety

Beck­er­man con­sis­tently pre­sumes that cer­tainty is prefer­able to am­bi­gu­ity when it comes to con­struct­ing iden­tity. But rather than seek­ing so­lace in easy res­o­lu­tions of in­tractable prob­lems, Amer­i­can Jews should ques­tion overly sta­ble con­struc­tions of iden­tity by con­fronting the messy re­al­ity of the world.

We Amer­i­can Jews in­habit a uniquely equiv­o­cal, al­most para­dox­i­cal mo­ment in Jewish history. We are, his­tor­i­cally, the most hunted Oth­ers of Western civ­i­liza­tion, and we are also, over­whelm­ingly though by no means ex­clu­sively, white folks im­pli­cated in our na­tion’s sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of black bod­ies. Be­tween vic­tim and con­queror, be­tween per­se­cuted and priv­i­leged, Amer­i­can Jews nav­i­gate a his­tor­i­cal ter­rain shot through with ten­sions.

Af­ter Fer­gu­son, many of us won­der whether the nar­ra­tive we were given about Amer­ica as a land of op­por­tu­nity wasn’t just a tall tale. Af­ter Gaza, many of us doubt that Is­rael is the peace- lov­ing, lib­eral site of Jewish re­demp­tion we were led to be­lieve it is. But if that’s the case, it can only be for the good. Ar­tic­u­lat­ing an Amer­i­can Jewish iden­tity that is strong at the price of re­main­ing un­trou­bled by the per­ni­cious lega­cies in which we are in­ter­twined is tan­ta­mount to com­plic­ity. If be­ing dis­turbed by the cries of pain that emerge from the un­der­side of our his­to­ries makes us anx­ious, then it is bet­ter to re­main anx­ious.


Re­mem­ber, We’re All in This To­gether

The un­ease that you speak of is not just for Jews who don’t know what it means to be a Jew. Prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one I know who is not fun­da­men­tal­ist and who is grow­ing and learn­ing has gone through in­tense ques­tion­ing of his or her orig­i­nal re­li­gion and tribe. This isn’t a Jewish phe­nom­e­non; it’s a hu­man phe­nom­e­non that is due to the era we are liv­ing in.

We are evolv­ing with the rest of the planet into the un­known. My Jewish iden­tity is more con­fi­dent than ever — I think we can evolve into any­thing.



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