Robert Mnookin: Judaism Unbound Episode 146 - The Jewish American Paradox


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin to discuss his new book, The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World, which explores what it means, and what it ought to mean, to be an American Jew in the 21st Century.

 Image Credit: Memphis Daily News

Image Credit: Memphis Daily News

(0:01 - 17:08): To begin the episode, Robert Mnookin reflects on his own life, and how his experiences, from growing up in Kansas City to becoming a grandfather, led him to write The Jewish American Paradox. [1] Then, as an introduction to the content of his book, he explores the case study of Erik Erikson, a scholar of identity whose own identity — interestingly enough — opens up a wide array of questions about Jewish identity and how it is ascribed. [2] To explore the topic of those who choose not to identify as Jews, even as they acknowledge the Jewishness of their parents or grandparents, Mnookin goes on to describe the story of Madeline Albright and her Jewish roots. [3] [4]

(17:09 - 26:38): Mnookin looks beneath the question of “Who is a Jew?” to the meta-question of “How much should importance should we impart to the question ‘Who is a Jew?!’” He then outlines a proposed two-pronged approach to answering who-is-a-Jew questions. With respect to Judaism writ large, he advocates for an expansive answer, that accepts anyone who self-identifies as a Jew. With respect to individual institutions, he advocates for a freedom to draw exclusive boundaries, so long as no institution in particular has the right to enforce its definition on others.

(26:39 - 42:51): Pivoting slightly, the conversation turns toward the question of “Jewish-And.” In what ways might the who-is-a-Jew question become complicated when addressed toward individuals who identify as both Jewish and another religious tradition? Mnookin looks at this question from the angle of contemporary Jewish life — in JCCs, synagogues, and even film festivals — along with bringing up a different case study from his book: a man known by the title “Brother Daniel.” [5] To close the episode, Mnookin looks briefly at some of the baseline differences between Judaism in America and Judaism in Israel. [6]

[1] Learn more about Robert Mnookin by reading his bio, accessible by clicking here. Purchase The Jewish American Paradox here.

[2] Mnookin alludes to an incisive New York Times article, critiquing Erik Erikson’s decision to change his given name to one that sounded “less Jewish” (among other criticisms). You can read the article, published in 1975 and authored by Marshall Berman, here. For Judaism Unbound conversations that look at the idea of “looking Jewish” in greater detail, see Episode 16: Intermarriage and the Future - Paul Golin and Episode 33: JewAsian - Helen Kim, Noah Leavitt.

[3] For a Washington Post piece that brought Albright’s Jewish family roots to light, click here. For a more expansive look at her story, see a piece written by Peter Margulies a month later, entitled “The Identity Question, Madeleine Albright’s Past, and Me: Insights from Jewish and African American Law and Literature.”

[4] In this section, Mnookin cites a very different case study — Angela Buchdahl’s — as a contrast to Madeleine Albright’s story. Learn more about Buchdahl by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about Brother Daniel by clicking here.

[6] The Jewish American Paradox was reviewed, along with a number of other books, in a recent New York Times piece that can be accessed here. For a response to this piece, due to its failure to include any works written by women, click here, and for a list of books written by women about contemporary American Judaism, click here.