There is a documentary in theaters right now about Sholom Aleichem, the pre-eminent Yiddish author who brought the world such notable stories as Fiddler on the Roof, and produced an incredible amount of Jewish literature at a time of Jewish cultural upheaval (the late 1800’s and early 1900’s) in Eastern Europe.
The documentary was good. The questions it brought to the surface were exquisite. Sholom was working to preserve popular Jewish culture at a moment in history when attempts to change (and, in many ways, shed) popular Jewish identity were proliferating. Violence toward Jews living under volatile regimes and bourgeois movements articulating enlightenment ideals of equality, helped to foment many changes in the once static Jewish world of the Shtetl. Many upwardly mobile Jews began to develop secular Jewish practices, shed their outward signs of Jewishness, and taught their children Russian instead of Yiddish; mass migrations ensued in the heavy pogrom years of the 1880’s.
Sholom saw the importance of preserving popular Jewish life, particularly in this moment when it was at risk of disintegrating in the face of migration and assimilation. When Sholom himself moved to NYC to escape the violence of Eastern Europe, he was deeply disappointed in the American Jewish culture he found there. He stated that America would ruin Jewery, as Jews were too well off in America.
Additionally, in a recent article called A Jew of No Religion by Gershom Gorenberg, the differences between American Jewish identity and Eastern European Jewish identity were highlighted in that, “those who migrated to America arrived in a country that was [more] tolerant of religious division than ethnic separatism, Liebman explained. It’s acceptable in America for Catholics to have parochial schools, but separate schools for Italian Americans would be illegitimate. As a result, American Jews switched categories: They identify as a religion but often behave more as an ethnic group. For many, synagogue membership really means belonging to an ethnic club, and Israel functions as a replacement for the lost "old country” of Eastern Europe.“
It’s this complexity that most captivates me. Having grown up in a privileged American Jewish community, where Jewish ethnic identity was fiercely guarded, yet largely indistinguishable from my white christian peers, I spent much of my young adult life trying to understand what being a reform Jew was all about. It took until my post-college years, living in an intentional Jewish farming community called ADAMAH, to understand that I could cultivate my own relationship the Jewish culture and religion. Disenchanted with the parts of Judaism my community had preserved, I had initially cast Judaism aside altogether. Only when I discovered for myself ways that Judaism could deepen my sense of personal and communal identity did I begin to see myself as a Jew.
What was curious about Sholom’s assertion, and my own experience, is that in both instances, being Jewish was an identity contingent on otherness. When I experienced Jewish identity as "no different than,” much as Sholom feared in his allusion to to Jews being too well off, being Jewish carried little meaning. When I re-discovered Jewish identity as something that separated me from my non-Jewish peers, through Jewish customs such as kashrut and shabbat, as well as Jewish food traditions and unique Jewish histories, I took a renewed interest in my Jewish identity. For me, my most sacred and important Jewish act is continuing to muddle through exactly what being Jewish means to me, and to my Jewish community.
In Eastern Europe, whether Jews were assimilating or maintaining their Jewish identity, there were massive amounts of external pressure surrounding their otherness. While American Jewry still strives to maintain it’s distinctness, it begs the question of what exactly being an other looks like, especially for privileged, white, secular, American Jews. When the only thing we maintain, as a community, is our conviction that we're not christian or any other religion, what is it that we are? Which is exactly the question I find myself asking in so many areas of life. When we define ourselves as other than, what does cultural preservation look like? If the vessel of my identity is “Jew,” what do I fill it with? and how do I make sure it’s something worth transmitting to future generations? Just another something the chew on, I suppose.