Can Secular Jewish Identity Survive the Generations?

Yesterday I served on a panel to discuss the new play by Robert Brustein called “Spring Forward, Fall Back” premiering at “Theater J,” a department of the D.C. Jewish Community Center. The story follows four generations of a Jewish family from 1945 to the present that meets with tragedy and challenge in each generation. A key element of the play is their journey from having a strongly-identified yet totally secular Jewish identity, to an intermarried couple, to ultimately a baptized Christian. Because of this theme, the panel discussion was titled “Assimilation Fears — Are the Problems and Answers So Simple?”

I read the script on the train down to Washington and felt the themes were delivered a little heavy-handedly, though once I saw the actual play I thought they pulled it off nicely (the Washington Post, however, seems to disagree). One of the first things I pointed out after the performance was that while this play is indeed a great launching point for a discussion of assimilation and intermarriage, the family portrayed can in no way be considered representative of Jewish and intermarried families in general (they were dealing with additional issues like drug abuse, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy). One of my co-panelists Rabbi Toby Manewith correctly noted that it’s wrong to use “assimilation” and “intermarriage” synonymously, as intermarried households run the gamut of Jewish identity, and my other co-panelist Julia Andrews was living proof of that, as she is both the product of intermarriage and intermarried herself yet raised strongly-identified Jewish children.

Still, the play presents important themes. By the time we meet the family in 1945, they have already shed the religious aspects of Judaism but identify strongly as secular Jews. However, by not actually doing anything Jewish, they fail to pass their Jewish identity on to the next generation. I believe that “secular” is too vague a word to fully describe all non-religious Jewish families. In this case, “secular” was almost synonymous to “completely assimilated.” In many other families, however, secular Jewish identity includes active involvement in Jewish life, both within the family and communally. I know from my own family experience that strong cultural involvement in Jewish life can indeed sustain Jewish identity through the generations. The key is to actually do Jewish, not just talk about it.

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