A Quick History of Jewish Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Jewish identity, its uses, its limitations, its value. For the better part of the past few decades, it has been at the center of Jewish educational efforts and thus, at the center of much Jewish communal policy. It has become something of a holy grail, an aim unto itself, a safely secular synonym for a strongly articulated sense of Jewish self-hood. The educational motivation seems so obvious as to be self-evident: people who identify more strongly as Jews are, in turn, more likely to perform the various behaviors, beliefs, and tasks that have defined Jewish communal belonging in the past.

I’m not sure that this logic holds. Nor am I certain that it has ever held.

So, I did a little digging into the history of the concept of Jewish identity. Very little. I typed the term into google’s “n gram” viewer, which basically looks through all of the texts currently in google books for occurrences of a particular term. Jewish Identity’s n-gram looks like this:

It’s pretty clear that the number of incidences of “Jewish identity” in any kind of literature is a pretty recent phenomenon, emerging sometime in the 1950s, and increasing pretty steadily ever since. So, I just want to posit that if Jewish identity is a concept of pretty recent vintage, that maybe its sacred status should not be taken for granted and that maybe there is a way to imagine Jewishness or Jewish education without emphasizing identity, but perhaps looking elsewhere for motivation for engaging in this work.

  1 comment for “A Quick History of Jewish Identity

  1. Jon A. Levisohn
    November 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    As you know, Ari, I agree. The more you think about it, the more confusing the concept of “Jewish identity” seems to be. If you ask me whether I have a Jewish identity, my first response will be to look at you funny. And then, if I’m not feeling too ornery, I suppose I’ll agree that I do, because of course I think about myself as a Jew. And, that aspect of how I think about myself is important to me (although, at the same time, how I answer a survey question about how important my Jewish identity is to me seems like a rather poor proxy for all of the other things that I do and say that one might point to as expressions of my Jewish identity). But the idea that somehow my Jewish identity might be bolstered or strengthened, and that this would then have an effect on what I choose to do — what does that really mean?

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