The Jewish magazine, Sh’ma, recently published a series of articles concerning the viability of the Jewish people in a post-ethnic America. Can Judaism thrive as its apparent ethnicity breaks down? Shaul Magid argues in “Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in Post-Ethnic America,” that ethnicity is becoming voluntary as people reject the notion of “descent as destiny.” No longer do many of us identify as the ethnicity of our grandfathers. According to Magid, in this world of voluntary ethnicity, in which people might choose to be part of the “chosen people,” the construct of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood will continue to evolve and thrive. Referencing the website, Jewcy.com, where the majority of its staff is the product of intermarriage, Magid stakes a claim that voluntary ethnicity is allowing Judaism or Jewishness to be reconstructed as a “reflection and expression of their multiple identities.” Despite the “cultural and creative renaissance” of Jewish America, these contributors to Jewcy.com are not defined by a Jewishness that is “exclusively ethnic.” They actively want to be a part of the community and construct Jewish identity for themselves – just as every ethnicity is wrestled with today. Most importantly, Magid understands that the evolution of Jewish civilization does not (nor has it ever) existed in a vacuum; Judaism has adopted traditions and practices of the dominant culture.
However, in “What Is So Great about ‘Post-Ethnic Judaism?” Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer respond with an alarmist picture of Jewish community evolving into a post-ethnic community. Post-ethic Jewish life, they claim, would ruin the “dual identity” as a people-nationality-ethnicity, apparently the only cause for the Jews to have been able to create a “remarkable civilization.” Cohen and Wertheimer argue, in fact, that a “porous, self-constructed, and voluntary ethnicity” is not “good for the Jews,” as if to say any change in who Jews are and the reality of the repercussions of a continually interconnected world will leave the Jews “at risk” of “abandoning a critical aspect of our ‘thick’ Jewish culture.” What Cohen and Wertheimer do not seem to understand is that Jewish ethnicity has never been static and has continually evolved since its birth thousands of years ago. The Jews of Brooklyn of the 1950s are not the same ethnicity as the Jews of India today nor the same as the Jews of Cordoba in 1400. The real question that should be asked then, is, what is Jewish ethnicity? Where do Jews like Yevila McCoy, an Orthodox African-American woman (born Jewish) fit into this Jewish ethnic paradigm? Where do Jews, who are descendants of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews belong? Where does the “Happiest Man in America,” an Orthodox Jew by choice who happens to be Asian-American fit in their “ethnicity” paradigm?
Cohen and Wertheimer seem to have little faith in the evolution of Judaism – which has and will continue to be a good thing – and Judaism’s amazing ability to adapt. Rather than dwelling on an idealized version of Jewish peoplehood that has never existed, let’s recognize and celebrate a tradition that has allowed for the growing diversity we see in the Jewish community today and find ways to expand our tent even further, especially by including the children of intermarriage. Let’s focus instead on reason to join, contribute, and educate ourselves and our children Jewishly. Post-ethnic Judaism is very good for the Jews, if it demands we better explain to ourselves what it means to be a Jew.
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