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Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities, edited by Harvey E. Goldberg, Steven M. Cohen, and Ezra Kopelowitz.  New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.  268 pp.  $95.00.

 

This edited volume is the result of a seminar and conference on “dynamic Jewish belonging” at the Advanced Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2004.

Reflecting the increasingly common perspective of scholars who analyze the meaning of Jewishness for contemporary Jews, the project starts with a premise indicated by its title: the experience of “belonging” to the Jewish people is “dynamic.” Jewish identity is neither singular nor stable. Rather, its forms and expressions are fluid, malleable, and diverse. Belonging is a continually negotiated process that produces a kaleidoscope of current and emergent Jewish identitiesDynamic Belonging engages this phenomenon through a selection of case studies and general discussions that are wide-ranging, theoretically complex, and sophisticated. They provide an invaluable cross-section of the shifting orientations and trends in the social scientific analysis of different forms of Jewish culture, religious denominations, political ideologies in Israel and diaspora, generational change, marriage patterns, etc.

The volume’s introductory essay on “Dynamic Jewish Identities” by editor Harvey Goldberg sets the stage for a comparative approach to the different ways of being Jewish that deliberately avoids normative judgments about whether certain forms are legitimate or authentic, on the one hand, or marginal or illegitimate, on the other. This section is a gold mine of the questions, dilemmas, and tensions involved in the dynamic boundaries of Jewishness that are detailed in the subsequent chapters.

The rest of the book consists of three parts. The first explores “the fluid nature of Jewish belonging”; the second part deals with “the construction of Jewish sub-cultures in Israel and the U.S.,” and the third offers portraits of “diverse ways of connecting to the Jewish people.” These divisions are to some degree arbitrary and there are a number of overlapping issues among the three parts. The individual chapters are well written and thoughtful, though there is some unevenness in their length, analytic frameworks, and balance between case materials and the volume’s broader theoretical concerns.

Collectively, the individual studies present a compelling challenge to traditional models, which assume that there are natural Jewish boundaries that demarcate some core Jewish self, whether based on land, language, ancestry, or religion. On the contrary, this collection of studies fully embraces an understanding of Jewishness that continually frustrates all attempts at establishing clear guidelines for determining who belongs to the Jewish people. Many of the taken-for-granted boundaries between religious and secular Israelis, between Orthodox Jewish women and feminist Jewish women, and between Israeli and American Jews—examples that are deconstructed in the book—are far more porous and insubstantial than generally realized.

There are a number of recurring themes and issues that can be discerned throughout these chapters that reflect the gradual influence of ideas from post-colonial theory and cultural studies on the social scientific study of Jews and Jewishness. Most important is an insistent anti-essentialist orientation that recognizes the instability created by a constant interaction of identities and cultures, a phenomenon known as hybridity in trendy academic discourse. 

Related to the rejection of Jewish essentialism is a decentralization of the process of recognition and the authority on which it is based. The recognition of what and who is Jewish has become personalized and individualized, something to be constructed and invented, just like other parts of the self. For many of the people described in these studies, Jewish belonging is not dependent on religious authorities or institutions. The final authorities and sources of recognition are within.

Lurking throughout this book is the enigma of authenticity and its role in a world of fluid identities. Virtually all of the subjects in these studies are determined to discover, invent, or construct a form of Jewish belonging that is not only fluid but also authentic. One soon realizes that authenticity mirrors the structure of the self. It is neither solid nor singular, but rather a process whose outcome is emergent and tentative. It remains a motivating force for many of the examples in this book. These include religious Zionists who combine religious Orthodoxy, romanticist nationalism and individual creative expression, Masorti women who manage to combine feminist ideas with religious traditionalism, American Jews who hold on to both liberal democratic values and loyalty to Israel, and young unmarried American Jews who are inventing new forms of multicultural Jewish involvement, all of whom have constructed forms of Jewish belonging that merge their senses of personal and collective authenticity.

One of the most fascinating examples of the enigma of authenticity is Shaul Kelner’s analysis of participants in Birthright trips to Israel. He brilliantly shows the process by which these young American Jews are prodded to develop Jewish self-narratives by which they can construct, rehearse, and perform what they think of as a previously undiscovered inner Jewish core. At the same time that people exercise new freedom to create their Jewish selves, they also seek assurance that what they have created is really real and recognizable to others.

Overall, this book is an excellent introduction to current thinking about the fundamental sociological question concerning Jewish group identity—how boundaries are drawn and re-drawn, within the group as well as between the group and outsiders. The picture it offers of the Jewish people is one that is crisscrossed by a multitude of messy boundaries. Jewish belonging involves the fluid process of not only maintaining boundaries, but also transgressing and relocating them. The result may be the continued proliferation of more and more “undocumented” Jews, whose legitimacy and authenticity will challenge past models and push them in new directions.

 

Stuart Z. Charmé

Department of Philosophy and Religion

Rutgers University (Camden)