Lori Schneide Shapiro: Judaism Unbound Episode 160 - Open Temple

Lori Schneide Shapiro joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about Open Temple, an emerging Jewish community she founded in Venice, California.

00:01 - 15:32: Lori Schneide Shapiro begins this episode by telling the story of a Jewish journey that started from scratch. As someone who began with very little Jewish knowledge and eventually came to her Jewish identity through the arts, Schneide Sharpio founded the organization “Open Temple.” Founded in Venice, CA, as a way of reaching Jews on the periphery, [1] Open Temple seeks to integrate spirituality, music, and arts into Jewish ritual.

15:33 - 29:26: Schneide Shapiro discusses how Open Temple seeks to meet certain unmet Jewish needs, creating a space for “weavers” who can make connections between Jewish people and the arts. She describes an Open Temple Yom Kippur service involving a Rolling Stones song blended with liturgy, multimedia performance, and a former antisemitic “life after hate” member seeking forgiveness as an example of teshuva for our modern political moment. [2] The conversation turns to use of digital media in Judaism and questions about the integration of digital media into Jewish experiences. Schneide Shapiro says that using screens and digital media in ritual is another way that Jews are interacting with contemporary American culture, just as Jews have always done with their surrounding cultures.

29:27 - 42:40: Schneide Shapiro explores the intersection of Judaism and pop culture, along with ways in which organizations can encourage Jewish creators to make Jewish creations. She praises Reboot in particular, [3] an organization that provides Jewish education and engagement for people involved in popular culture — including “Transparent” Director, Jill Soloway. [4] The conversation moves briefly to the role that museums can play for Jewish creativity. Schneide Shapiro sees these as multi-media experiences and as places that are like temples: spaces where people go to come alive. She remarks that spiritual communities should be places that people go to feel something through a type of spiritual alchemy, emphasizing the importance of creating a Judaism that has levity and joy. She explains that a traditional Jewish God is a God who writes, and that as contemporary Jews we should honor that concept with our own creations. Schneide Shapiro concludes the episode by describing Open Temple as an open door for anyone to go on a “soul journey” to find their Jewish identity. [5]

[1] Learn more about Open Temple by visiting OpenTemple.org. Read a full bio of Lori Schneide Shapiro here.

[2] Take a look at LifeAfterHate.org to learn more about that project.

[3] More information about Reboot can be found at Rebooters.net.

[4] Watch a Reboot interview of Jill Soloway, director of Transparent, here.

[5] To explore two programmatic elements of Open Temple that were mentioned in this episode, check out the following links: Arts 36, Soul Journey

Jonathan Safran Foer: Judaism Unbound Episode 159 - Judaism Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and the non-fiction Eating Animals, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about the creative process. [1] This episode is the fourth in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums. [2] [3] [4]

Image Credit: Rebecca Hendin

Image Credit: Rebecca Hendin

(0:01 - 12:57): To begin the episode, Safran Foer dives into the process that goes into creating one of his books. In particular, he emphasizes that his books aren’t particularly pre-mediated, evolving in unexpected ways as they are being written. He then explores the role of Judaism in his works, which he cites as the element of his books that has most surprised him over the years. [5]

(12:58 - 24:40): Safran Foer looks in particular at one of his most explicitly Jewish books: The New American Haggadah. He looks back at his experiences of Passover, his sense that the holiday was not being observed to its fullest potential, and his efforts to fill a gap in the Passover world through the creation of this new resource. Next, the conversation turns to a non-fiction book that Safran Foer wrote, entitled Eating Animals, which Dan sees as a kind of “halachic” text (a text with implications for how one might act in the world).

(24:41 - 39:46): Providing an overview of the case he makes in Eating Animals, Safran Foer outlines the harmful impact of contemporary meat consumption — on animals themselves and on the environment more broadly. [6] He and the two co-hosts also explore the extent to which Judaism itself both does and does not comment directly on the question of ethical meat consumption. Continuing, he considers the intersection of religion (and Judaism specifically) with art. To close, he calls for an embrace of creativity — both within Jewish life and outside of it — while simultaneously cautioning against perfectionism.

[1] Learn more about Jonathan Safran Foer by clicking here. Browse his various books, and purchase them for yourself, here.

[2] Learn more about the Council for American Jewish Museums by visiting CAJM.net.

[3] Check out an interview of Safran Foer on NPR, shortly after the release of his 2016 book Here I Am, by clicking here.

[4] Two of Safran Foer’s books have been adapted into films. View trailers for each of them at the following links: Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

[5] Dan alludes to a conversation with painter Yishai Jusidman at this point in the episode. Listen in to that conversation here: Episode 157: Painting the Unpaintable - Yishai Jusidman

[6] Check out Safran Foer’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, talking about Eating Animals, at this link.

Ivy Barsky: Judaism Unbound Episode 158 - Curating the Jewish Story

Ivy Barsky, the CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about what Jewish museums are, why they matter, and the impact they are having on contemporary Jews. This episode is the third in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums. [1] [2]

0:01 - 15:23: Ivy Barsky begins this episode by describing the function of a museum in modern life, explaining that the role of a museum is to help the public explore what it is to be human through arts, sciences, and culture. Museums also take on an interpretive function, making the past accessible. She then moves on to discuss the concept of a “Jewish Museum,” and the National Museum of American Jewish History in particular. Barsky posits that one of the challenges of a Jewish Museum is communicating stories to a wide variety of audiences with differing levels of background knowledge, many of whom are often not Jewish. Here, the conversation shifts towards questions of curation, which is full of many “hard choices” about whose voices and narratives to display in the process of crafting stories. [3] Barsky says that these decisions are often driven by the materials and artifacts available to curators, which she calls “star-tifacts”; striking artifacts that might “star” in an exhibit and tell a story well.

15:24 - 28:30: Barsky briefly offers perspective on the importance of Jewish History for contemporary American Jews, especially as it pertains to traditions of lay leadership. She observes how the role of curation has an impact on which stories survive and which are lost to history. While many people may have “star-tifacts” that could preserve histories, Barksy explains that regular people often have different understandings of what material culture is significant than historians or curators, leading many people to believe that they don’t have meaningful materials to donate to museums and archives. However, Barsky says that many objects are “witnesses” to history. [4] This is why the “star-tifact” objects that she discusses are an important, substantive, and memorable part of exhibits - when we see them, we remember them.

28:30 - 47:30: Barsky discusses a handful of significant “star-tifacts” in her museum’s collections, such as a letter of recommendation written Leonard Bernstein’s Rabbi for Bernstein’s Harvard Application and a letter from George Washington, written to Moses Seixas, a Jewish-American immigrant in the late 1700s. [5] She raises the cultural significance of these letters for Jews creating a new life in America. Barsky reflects on the dual, and perhaps contrasting, roles of museums, serving as both a window into the past and a glance at the potential future. Barsky uses the example of the “Sara Berman’s Closet” exhibition, to be featured on the Liberty Mall. The episode ends with a discussion of the new and expansive modalities of museums today, which often provide commentary about contemporary issues, such as the Tenement Museum’s role in discussing modern American immigration [3]. how much of curation is about wrestling with telling both the good stories and the hard stories. Barsky finishes by declaring that the mission of the Jewish Museum is not to say “how great we are, but how grateful we are.”

[1] Learn more about the National Museum of American Jewish History at NMAJH.org. For more information about the Council of American Jewish Museums, head to CAJM.net. Find a Jewish museum near you by clicking here.

[2] Judaism Unbound recently released a number of bonus episodes, featuring scholars of American Jewish history, which were recorded in the exhibition of the museum that Barsky directs. You can listen to them at this link.

[3] Barsky briefly mentions Isaac Leeser, and the important role he played in American Jewish history. Learn more about him here.

[4] Dan alludes to a Judaism Unbound episode featuring Ruby Namdar, on the question of tangible ritual versus intangible ideas. Listen to that conversation here: Episode 153: Fiction Between Worlds - Ruby Namdar.

[5] Learn more about Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport here. For the text of the “Richmond Prayer,” which Barsky alluded to (crafted to pray for the American government by a Richmond, VA congregation in the 18th century), click here.

[6] Click here for more information about “Sara Berman’s Closet” — a 2019 NMAJH special exhibition.

American Jewish History Unbound #3: Levy’s Jewish Rye - Beth Wenger

Beth Wenger, the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, joins Judaism Unbound on the ground at the National Museum of American Jewish History. In conversation with Lex Rofeberg, she looks at a series of famously successful advertisements produced in the mid-late 20th century by Levy’s Jewish Rye. This bonus episode is part of a series of bonus episodes, recorded in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

We’ve included pictures of the advertisements that Wenger examines below, so that you can look at them as you listen to the interview.

Levy's Rye Young Black Boy.jpeg

American Jewish History Unbound #2: B'nai B'rith - Deborah Dash Moore

Deborah Dash Moore, Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan, joins Judaism Unbound on the ground at the National Museum of American Jewish History. In conversation with Dan Libenson, she looks at the origins and evolution of the organization B’nai B’rith. This bonus episode is part of a series of bonus episodes, recorded in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

American Jewish History Unbound #1: Jews in the Confederacy - Adam Mendelsohn

Adam Mendelsohn, Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Capetown, joins Judaism Unbound on the ground at the National Museum of American Jewish History. In conversation with Dan Libenson, he looks at Jewish involvement in the Confederacy during the Civil War. This bonus episode is part of a series of bonus episodes, recorded in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Yishai Jusidman: Judaism Unbound Episode 157 - Painting The Unpaintable

Yishai Jusidman, a painter whose exhibition Prussian Blue features a series of works looking at the Holocaust, questions of memory, and representation — joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to discuss his work and the thinking behind it. [1] This episode is the second in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums.

For video and images of Prussian Blue to view as you listen to the episode, scroll down this page.

Image Credit: Mariana Yañez

Image Credit: Mariana Yañez

(0:01 - 13:56): To begin the episode, Jusidman looks back at the events that led him to lean into the fraught arena of painting “about” the Holocaust, the works that became the exhibition Prussian Blue. First, he reflects on visiting an exhibition by Luc Tuymans, [2] and how its understanding of representing the Holocaust (and whether one can ever succeed at doing so) differed from his own. [3] He then explores a series of discoveries he made about the pigment “Prussian Blue,” its physical presence in some death camps as a result of chemical reactions with the gases used in the extermination chambers, and his idea to utilize the pigment as a tangible way of connecting to the Holocaust itself. Jusidman also explores, more broadly, the role that art can play in representing precisely those elements of the past and present that are hardest for us capture in words.

(13:57 - 27:05): Jusidman offers a critique of pedagogies that attempt to create an experience that “feels like” being in the Holocaust. Looking in particular at a methodology of providing visitors with a passport of someone who experienced the Holocaust, to Jusidman, it feels a bit manipulative. [4] He recognizes that such approaches come from a place of positive intentions, geared toward the important goal of sparking empathy for those who were murdered, but still believes that “prosthetic experiences” are ineffective ways to relate to elements of the past. Lex compares the idea that one can never authentically represent the Holocaust in art to the religious presumption that one can never effectively represent God in artwork. [5] Jusidman gives his take on those parallel ideas and broadens the conversation to push back on the notion — held by some artists — that representational painting of any kind (not just about the Holocaust or God, but more generally) is impossible, such that attempts at it necessarily fail.

(27:06 - 41:38): The question of audience arises, and Jusidman puts forth the belief that artists always need an audience. In doing so, he pushes back on the cliché image that many people have in their heads, of artists whose only mission is to express themselves, independent of what potential viewers will experience from their work. To close the episode, Jusidman looks back on his own development, from his upbringing as a Jew in Mexico, [6] through experiences in American universities studying art and philosophy, and how all of these served to shape the person and artist that he haJs become.

Prussian Blue - Video


[1] Learn more about Yishai Jusidman, and his work, by visiting YishaiJusidman.com. For a variety of articles about Prussian Blue, check out these links: The Village Voice, New York Times, Ha’aretz. For a video that introduces the story behind the paintings and shows many of the paints themselves, scroll down this page and click play on the video.

[2] Get a better sense of the content in Luc Tuymans’s San Francisco show, which propelled Jusidman towards creating his work, by clicking here.

[3] Jusidman discusses the influence of Theodore Adorno’s claim that “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Learn more about the context of that quote, and read a critique of it, by clicking here.

[4] Gain a sense of what these passports are, and how the Holocaust Memorial Museum uses them, here.

[5] Lex ties this conversation back to Amichai Lau-Lavie’s appearance on the show, in which he argues that he would have contributed to the construction of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. You can hear Lau-Lavie’s argument by listening to Episode 29: Lab/Shul - Amichai Lau-Lavie.

[6] Jusidman briefly alludes to immigration restrictions in the United States, which led many European Jews to immigrate to Mexico instead. Learn more about the context of those restrictions, and contemporary political parallels to them, by listening to the bonus episode Antisemitism, Nativism, and Immigration - Eli Lederhendler.

Aaron Henne: Judaism Unbound Episode 156 - Creating Jewish Theatre

Aaron Henne, Artistic Director of Theatre Dybbuk, [1] joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation blurring the lines between art, education, politics, preservation, and creativity. This episode is the first in a series, brought to you in partnership with the Council of American Jewish Museums. [2]

Image Credit: Taso Papadakis

Image Credit: Taso Papadakis

(0:01 - 16:15): To begin the episode, Henne provides an overview of Theatre Dybbuk’s work. In doing so, he argues that too often we treat the realms of education, and art, and ritual as entirely separate from one another, when they actually can and should be seen as deeply intertwined. He calls back to ancient Greek tragedies, noting the ways in which they were actual in and of themselves serving a kind of religious, ritual function. He cites a recent work by Theatre Dybbuk, called Exagoge, [3] which draws from ancient Greek texts and styles, to flesh out what the genre-blurring he calls for can look like in practice.

(16:16 - 31:40): Henne considers the ways in which many perceive art as only instrumentally valuable. He claims that we should see art as inherently valuable, not as worthwhile only when it serves some other element of human experience. At the same time, he considers how artists can learn to focus more deeply on the idea of impact, without thinking that doing so is artistically inauthentic. He also pushes back on a dichotomy that many sometimes draw (and which, candidly, Judaism Unbound has occasionally drawn) between preservation, on the one hand, and creativity. Then, riffing off an analogy Dan draws regarding the different ways people can experience a museum, Henne explores how the experience of a good theatrical production can look very different from audience member to audience member.

(31:41 - 49:59): Looking back on a production called Assemble, [4] Henne considers how art can be a successful modality for taking lost rituals from the Jewish past and recovering them in our present. [5] In Assemble, the ritual was associated with Sukkot (called Hakhel). Continuing with the theme of “lost Jewish traditions,” Henne also names a recent production called Lost Tribes, which explicitly looked at the theme of hidden narratives — through an ancient deep-dive into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel — and examines how one might elevate those voices that have been marginalized or silenced. [6] To close the episode, Henne talks about why artists shouldn’t be afraid of the political, and encourages us to understand audience members (and community members in a synagogue) not as “recipients” of art or worship, but as active participants in it.

Image Credits: Taso Papadakis

Image Credits: Taso Papadakis

[1] Learn more about Aaron Henne by checking out his website. Explore Theatre Dybbuk’s work more broadly by visiting TheatreDybbuk.org.

[2] Head to CAJM.net to learn more about the Council of American Jewish Museums, and visit this link to hear more about the 2019 CAJM conference in Los Angeles, in which Judaism Unbound will be featured.

[3] For more information about Exagoge, click here.

[4] Henne briefly mentions the Leichtag Foundation, and a Sukkah Building competition that they sponsored. Click here to learn more about it! Check out some photos of the 2015 Harvest Festival, at which Assemble was featured, here. This link includes images of a Sukkah built in partnership with the NewSchool of Architecture and Design.

[5] Learn more about Assemble here.

[6] For more details regarding Lost Tribes, check out this link.

April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy, Abby Stein: Judaism Unbound Episode 155 - The Women’s March

April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy, and Abby Stein, the three Jewish members of The Women’s March steering committee, [1] join Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about intersectionality, coalition-building, and embodiment — and how all three of those key concepts served a key role in the success of the second annual Women’s March.

Image Credit: Jill Peltzman

Image Credit: Jill Peltzman

(0:01 - 12:22): To begin the episode, McCoy and Stein outline the intersectional approach of the Women’s March Steering Committee, and how that approach plays a key role in how the march manifests. McCoy adds to this, arguing that the work of intersectionality is not merely to gather different kinds of people in a space, but to really internalize the ways in which various forms of oppression intersect. [2] In order to achieve that (embodiment) she calls for increased relationship-building across boundaries of difference.

Image Credit: ARQ

Image Credit: ARQ

(12:23 - 26:53): To further understand the values of the Women’s March, each of the three guests looks at each of the two pieces of its name — “Women’s” and “March.” [3] In particular, they name why there is a need, in particular, for a women-led movement in our society, and why that movement has unified through the modality of a march. Baskin speaks to the ways in which a march can help combat feelings of isolation, showing women that there are others out there who care deeply about the same issues that they do. Stein cites progress that has been made in the past century toward gender equality (for women, and for transgender people, in different ways), but calls on society to recognize in which there is so much work left to be done. McCoy asserts that social justice work must transcend the level of words and become fully conscious “in our kishkes” — deep within our bodies. Baskin also describes one of the most powerful moments of the march, when participants "parted like the sea” so that Jewish women of color could stand at the forefront of the entire movement.

(26:54 - 43:04): The guests look at the topic of coalition-building. In particular, they explore how and why it is so crucial, even and especially in moments when doing that is hard. [4] They look at some of the public discourse regarding leaders of the women’s march, and argue that both intra-communal healing (healing among Jews) and broader healing (around ways in which Jews and non-Jews are not always fully understanding one another) will be important parts of justice work moving forward. McCoy calls for a recognition that Jewish womanhood is represented in their bodies, and Baskin “sings from the rooftops” the need for continuing engagement despite forms of distraction and misinformation in the media. To close the episode, Stein implores listeners to familiarize themselves with the political goals endorsed by the Women’s March policy platform, entitled The Women’s Agenda. [5] [6]

Abby Stein Squarespace2.png

[1] Learn more about each of the three guests, by reading their bios on the Women’s March Steering Committee website: April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy, Abby Stein. You can also visit AprilBaskin.com, Yavilah McCoy’s Jewish Women’s Archive page, and this profile on Abby Stein in The New York Jewish Week.

[2] For a full presentation by McCoy on Intersectionality as a Jewish Practice, click here.

[3] Learn more about the Women’s March at WomensMarch.com.

[4] Baskin cites the work of Joy Degruy, and in particular the idea of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Learn more about it here.

[5] Take a look at the full Women’s Agenda platform at this link.

[6] For a few different pieces describing some of the debate about the Women’s March, see the following links: by Nylah Burton, in The Forward, by The Jewish Currents editorial board, and by Josefin Dolsten in JTA

Judaism Unbound Episode 154: Ten New Commandments

Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg get a bit revolutionary, introducing (and debating) 10 New Commandments for contemporary Judaism. [1]

Dan and Lex Ten Commandments.png

(0:01 - 15:57): To begin the episode, Dan transports us to a hypothetical conversation happening in the year 30 C.E, in which someone proposes a new vision for the future of Judaism — without the sacrifices that had been the defining feature of Judaism to that point, and having replaced them with prayer — and promptly gets laughed out of the room. Comparing that moment to our own context in American Judaism, Dan proposes ten new “commandments” that would establish (or re-establish, as Dan argues that these commandments constitute the tried-and-true Jewish way of re-imagining Judaism) a process for helping us make some of the hard decisions associated with discarding elements of Judaism that we have inherited and experimenting with new ideas and practices that will be part of the Judaisms of the future. In exploring these issues, Dan and Lex also ask what it would look like to more consciously “archive” and study rituals from the Jewish past that may not continue as part of the lived Jewish experiences of Jews in future generations. [2] They also consider the role of two groups — first, Jews who were not born as Jews, and second, people who were not born Jewish and are not currently Jewish either — in shaping Judaism(s) of the future.

(15:58 - 30:21): Dan and Lex model a process they endorse for contemporary Jewish communities — debate around which pieces of received tradition should be retained into the future. In particular, as an example of the application of this process, they look at the practice of Mincha, the afternoon prayer service, and whether it merits inclusion in the Judaism that will be practiced in future generations. To deepen this conversation, Lex proposes that we apply lessons from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life to our Jewish futurism. [3]

(30:22 - 48:36): Dan compares the It’s a Wonderful Life conversation to the hit Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (and, earlier, her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up). [4] He compares the process of saving and discarding Jewish practices to that of identifying which objects in your house spark joy in you (one of Kondo’s hallmark practices). Dan then hones in on the latter five “commandments” that he proposes for the future of Judaism, and Lex responds to one of them in particular — the idea of "putting artists in charge.” Lex then calls for a centering of those groups who have historically been marginalized from Jewish leadership, citing the famous phrase “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” [5] Dan then calls us to focus on elements of Jewish history that resemble our own contemporary time of transition. To close the episode, Lex asks us to hold — equally — the memory of our grandparents and the future realities of our grandchildren, as we craft Judaisms for today and for coming generations.

[1] This conversation continues many threads from the most recent “guest-less” episode of Judaism Unbound, #150. Access it by clicking here — Episode 150: “Jews” of “No” “Religion.”

[2] Lex shouts-out to Mordechai Kaplan in arguing that the past should get a “vote, not a veto.” Learn more about Kaplan, and what he meant by this aphorism, by clicking here.

[3] For another take on some of the key lessons of It’s a Wonderful Life, click here.

[4] The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up can be purchased here. Watch the show based on it on Netflix by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about the over-100-year history of this phrase, frequently invoked in Jewish contexts, here.

Ruby Namdar: Judaism Unbound Episode 153 - Fiction Between Worlds

Novelist Ruby Namdar, author of the award-winning The Ruined House, which interweaves the stories of an American-Jewish professor and an ancient Judean priest, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation that straddles the Israeli and the American, along with the ancient and contemporary. The Ruined House won the Sapir Prize, Israel's highest literary honor, the first novel by an expatriate to receive the award. [1]

Image Credit: University of Illinois Program in Judaic Studies

Image Credit: University of Illinois Program in Judaic Studies

(0:01 - 15:36): To begin the episode, Ruby Namdar looks back at his life as an Israeli, and with respect to his Iranian-Jewish family background. [2] He explores how he has always questioned and straddled the divide between “secular” and “religious” Judaism. He then gives an overview of the two intertwining plots of The Ruined House, [3] emphasizing the ways in which they are sometimes parallel with one another, while at other points they exist in tension with one another. He explains why, of all the rituals of ancient Judaism, he chose to make the sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur a core part of his novel. In doing so, he argues that contemporary Jews make a mistake if they assume that there is little to learn from ancient iterations of Jewish tradition, and if they assume that a humanistic Judaism of ideas is inherently superior to a ritualistic Judaism of material substance.

(15:37 - 27:59): Continuing to ask important questions about ancient and contemporary Judaism, Namdar contrasts ancient modalities of meat consumption with those that are most common in the industrial world today. He looks at how, and why, the material Judaism of sacrifice shifted toward a Judaism revolving around words, which failed in certain ways to fully substitute for the depth of meaning that arose from the sacrificial rituals. He then turns to a frequently explored topic on this podcast — the idea of an “elite.” [4] He argues that “elites” are a necessary component of Jewish life, and of the world, and that the goal should not be to eliminate any kind of elite, but to create one that is not focused on its own privilege. He also looks at why his “insider-outsider” status, as an Israeli new to American-Jewish life, played a key role in shaping The Ruined House.

(28:00 - 45:52): Namdar takes on the question of language, arguing that we should hold two seemingly contradictory points simultaneously. First, he argues that it is challenging to lead a meaningful Jewish life without knowledge of Hebrew, and then he states that those who don’t have familiarity with the Hebrew language can and should still connect deeply to Judaism and Jewishness. [5] He clarifies that, even among Israelis that speak fluent Hebrew, there has been a widespread alienation from ancient Jewish tradition and its constituent texts. Closing the episode, he notices a seeming “slip of the tongue” from Dan in asking a question, arguing that his accidental phrase “secular religion” may actually be a profound comment, worth examining further in the future. [6]

[1] Learn more about Ruby Namdar by visiting RubyNamdar.com. Purchase The Ruined House by clicking here.

[2] Explore the history of the Jews of Iran here. For an NPR segment featuring Jews who continue to live in Iran today, click here.

[3] For a New York Times book review of The Ruined House, click here.

[4] Judaism Unbound has explored the idea of “elite” as it relates to contemporary Judaism in a number of conversations. To further explore this topic, see Episode 77: Folk Judaism, Episode 84: The Jewish Catalog, Then and Now - Riv-Ellen Prell, and/or Episode 85: B-Mitzvah Revolutions - Isa Aron.

[5] Our co-host Lex Rofeberg writes his thoughts on the conception of “Jewish language” in a Jewish Currents piece entitled “Every Language is a Jewish Language,” accessible by clicking here.

[6] For a deep look at the frame of “secular religion,” see Religion for Atheists, a book by Alain de Botton that can be purchased here.

Ariel Burger: Judaism Unbound Episode 152 - Elie Wiesel's Classroom

Ariel Burger joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to discuss his book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, winner of a 2018 National Jewish Book Award. [1]

Image Credit: Boston University

Image Credit: Boston University

(0:01 - 15:11): To begin the episode, Burger provides an overview of Elie Wiesel’s life and accomplishments. [2] He emphasizes that, in addition to being a writer and an internationally-recognized activist, he took pride in his work as a teacher (an element of Wiesel’s legacy that sometimes remains under the radar). Burger reflects on his own first impressions of Wiesel, along with how their teacher-student relationship evolved and grew over time. [3] He asks an important framing question — “How does a teacher create a space for transformation?” — and considers some of the answers embodied by Wiesel’s classroom.

(15:12 - 32:28): Burger looks at the context in which Wiesel taught — an American university. He explores how universities prioritize their work, and how professors prioritize the various elements of their jobs, arguing that teaching often is under-valued in favor of research. Continuing along that thread, Burger examines the distinction between “professor” and “teacher,” along with the powerful relationship that can come when “teacher” and “student” are understood as relational terms. In particular, he talks about Wiesel’s difficulties with being seen by students as a person to be revered. Burger also looks at how Wiesel understood the uniqueness of the Holocaust, [4] along with the broader question of how particularism and universalism relate to one another. [5]

(32:29 - 43:16): When looking at figures who are largely understood to have led heroic lives, there is always a danger of mythologizing them. Burger names the tension between the exercise of hagiography — telling only the positive about historical figures — and on the other hand, of refusing to see the sacred in individuals who really led commendable lives. He also explores Elie Wiesel’s approach to Israel and Palestine, [6] along with how those who differ staunchly with him on that issue could still attempt to learn from his legacy. To close the episode, Burger calls listeners to embrace Wiesel’s distinction between “a hope of quietism” and “an active hope that gets you off the couch.” [7] He cautions against despair, as each individual works to do their part to improve a broken world.

[1] Learn more about Ariel Burger by visiting ArielBurger.com, and purchase Witness by clicking here.

[2] For a wide variety of books written by Wiesel and available for purchase (including Night), click here.

[3] Burger mentions Yitz Greenberg as one of the key individuals that helped Wiesel first attain a job as a teacher at City College of New York. Hear Greenberg’s appearance on Judaism Unbound by listening to Episode 100: The Third Era - Yitz Greenberg.

[4] Burger cites Wiesel’s opposition to the “banalization” of the Holocaust. Wiesel’s concerns about how the Holocaust’s uniqueness might be trivialized are noted in the book Holocaust Images and Picturing Catastrophe, written by Angi Buettner and available for purchase here.

[5] Wiesel’s aphorism of “And yet” comes up here. For more on the importance of that phrase for him, see this obituary in The Economist.

[6] For two different perspectives on Elie Wiesel’s relationship to Israel and Palestine, see “On Palestinians, Elie Wiesel Had Nothing to Apologize For” (featured in Ha’aretz) and “Elie Wiesel’s Moral Imagination Never Reached Palestine” (featured in Foreign Policy")

Joy Ladin: Judaism Unbound Episode 151 - Judaism from a Transgender Perspective

Joy Ladin, author of The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about being transgender, being Jewish, and how the two intersect. [1]

Image Credit: Joy Ladin

Image Credit: Joy Ladin

(0:01 - 14:33): To begin the episode, Joy Ladin reflects on her childhood, highlighting the challenges of growing up with a female gender identity, while society perceived her to be male. [2] Continuing on to the recent past, she looks back at the reaction of her employer (Yeshiva University), and her students there, when she came out as transgender. She names her struggles with depression and suicide, and how gender transition was not about becoming happy, but rather was the only way to survive. [3]

(14:34 - 33:48): Ladin explores the ways in which her gender identity and Jewishness flowed together quite seamlessly. [4] While surprising for many people, who ask about “reconciling” the worlds of being Jewish and being trans, the Torah (and God in particular) were actually modalities that provided a rare form of affirmation for her. In other words, because God transcended human gender categories, and struggled to relate to human beings, Ladin found in the Bible a role model that she failed to find in other realms of her life. She also considers the idea of being created “in the image of God,” arguing that, because God is incomprehensible, the part of each human being that is most “in the image of God” is the part that is most incomprehensible to one’s fellow human beings. [5]

(33:49 - 50:19): To look at the tension between individual identity and communal belonging for many Jews, Ladin looks at the case study of the Nazirite vow. [6] She explores what it means, in the Bible, for individuals to place their relationship with God over their relationships with human beings, and what we can apply from that ancient question to contemporary questions of gender identity. She then calls for Jews to understand and embrace their satisfaction with existing manifestations of Judaism, so that they can play a role in shaping more satisfying Judaisms of the future. Closing the episode, Ladin offers up the simple and related ideas that, first, being trans is a “flavor of being human,” and that, second, “being a transgender Jew is one flavor of being Jewish.”

[1] Learn more about Joy Ladin by visiting her website. Purchase any of her books, including The Soul of the Stranger and Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey Between Genders, here.

[2] To familiarize yourself with important vocabulary, we highly recommend this glossary of terms from TransStudent.org.

[3] Lex references the book Twice Blessed, which looks at related questions of being both Jewish and Gay or Lesbian. The book is available at this link, and you can access a previous podcast that explores some of its themes by listening to Episode 35: Twice Blessed - Joshua Lesser.

[4] Ladin references Moses Maimonides in this section. Learn more about Maimonides, and his theology, by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about what a Nazirite vow was (and in some cases, is!) by clicking here.

Judaism Unbound Episode 150: “Jews” of “No” “Religion”

Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg dig into conceptions of "Judaism,” “Jewish identity,” “Religion,” and a wide variety of other terms that should probably also be in quotation marks. [1]

(0:01 - 17:33): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex launch off from the previous week’s episode with Daniel Boyarin, exploring the “modern notion” of Judaism, and questioning the idea (as Boyarin did) that it should be understood through the lens of “religion.” [2] In the spirit of questioning key terms, they next look back at “Jewish identity.” In particular, they distinguish between the identification of Jews as Jews (“Who is a Jew?”) and the abstract conception of “Jewish identity” as something that Jews have — and something that can be strong or weak. In doing so, they look back at their recent conversation with Tobin Belzer, regarding the history of the term “Jewish identity,” and how it is deeply intertwined with existential fears about the end of Jews and Judaism.

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

(17:34 - 35:56): Dan and Lex explore the question of who-is-a-Jew, along the axis of both choice and dissent. [3] They critique the idea that looking at genealogy is the primary way to determine whether someone is Jewish or not, and advocate for a greater recognition of Judaism as a voluntary association. To flesh out that issue, they look at recent developments related to newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the news that she has Jewish ancestry. [4] They then dig deeper, not just at the answers to who-is-a-Jew, but at the weight we should impart (or not) to the question itself. Should the Jewish future be one where “who is a Jew” matters less, or should it be one where “who is a Jew” matters the same amount — but for different reasons? Dan and Lex debate that topic, and look at other forms of self-identification, including politically as a Democrat, to deepen and clarify how their approaches differ.

(35:57 - 51:32): Returning to an ongoing theme in the podcast, the two co-hosts explore the ramifications of these conversation threads for contemporary Jewish institutions. They argue that many of them will not exist — some in the very near future — but that that fact need not be perceived as a failure of 21st century Judaism. [5] To hammer home that point, they bring back the idea of “Judaism” as an ancient, largely unchanging thread throughout history. They argue that many basic elements of Judaism (as we understand and construct it) are perceived as ancient when they are actually quite new, and that fully internalizing that reality can lead us to feel less resistant to changes in Jewish tradition. [6]

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Image Credit: The Daily Beast

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Image Credit: The Daily Beast

[1] This episode rounds out a 10-episode series reflecting on 5 years since the Pew Research Center’s landmark study of the American Jewish population. Entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” you can look at the study and its findings here.

[2] Listen in to the previous episodes in this series at the following links: Episode 140: The Pew Study, Five Years Later - Len Saxe, Episode 141: Federations Facing the Future - Danny Grossman, Episode 143: Milk and Honeymoons - Avi Rubel, Mike Wise, Episode 144: Beyond Chrismukkah - Samira Mehta, Episode 145: Studying Jews Differently - Tobin Belzer, Episode 146: The Jewish American Paradox - Robert Mnookin, Episode 147: From Selling Pews to Temple Dues - Dan Judson Part I, Episode 148: Pennies for Heaven…and Building Upkeep - Dan Judson Part II, Episode 149: Judaism? - Daniel Boyarin

[3] One interesting take on the question of Jewish identification by choice versus dissent can be found in The Forward. Written by the late Leonard Fein in 2013, the piece is entitled “Are We Jews by Choice or Blood?”

[4] Explore recent developments around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jewishness by reading this New York Times piece, and/or this piece in The Forward, which includes Ocasio-Cortez’s own commentary.

[5] To explore the relationship between Judaism and Jewish institutions further, flash back to our pilot episodes. They can be accessed at the following links: Episode 1: Genesis, Episode 2: Genesis II, and Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe

[6] Lex alludes to the movie Prince of Egypt, and its motif of pharaoh refusing to be “the weak link in the chain.” For a key snapshot from that movie, which illustrates how pharaoh mobilizes that idea towards oppressive ends, view the video on the left.

Daniel Boyarin: Judaism Unbound Episode 149 - Judaism?

Daniel Boyarin, eminent Jewish Studies scholar and most recently author of Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, part of a series on “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to ask whether Judaism exists (!!), and to explore what that question means — both for the study of Jewish history and for contemporary Jewish practice. [1]

Image Credit: University of California-Berkeley

Image Credit: University of California-Berkeley

(0:01 - 14:56): To begin the episode, Boyarin states that “There is Judaism…now.” But he also argues that “Judaism” did not exist in the ways we tend to talk about it, in the category of “religion,” until the last few hundred years — that the abstraction “Judaism” would not have meant much to Jews in any language until the 18th century. To explain what he means, Boyarin rewinds to a person (and topic) whose relevance may not be totally obvious — Paul, and the emergence of Christianity in the first few centuries of the Common Era. [2] Weaving these two questions together, Boyarin explores how Christians constructed and mobilized the idea of “Judaism” as a religion long before Jews did.

(14:57 - 24:11): Boyarin explores the idea, which first emerged in Germany in the 18th century, that one could be a “man in the street, but a Jew at home.” [3] He also looks at how Judaism grew to be understood as a “religion,” despite a variety of ways in which it isn’t quite a parallel category to Christianity. Furthering this point, he considers why it is that people tend to perceive two possible identifiers for Judaism — “religion” and “nation.” He names that, because of that duality, it tends to confuse people when he argues against the idea that Judaism has historically manifested as a “religion,” while he simultaneously identifies as an anti-Zionist. [4] He then speaks personally to how Jewish collectivity resonates deeply for him, across the centuries and millennia, despite his resistance to the idea that Judaism as we talk about it today has “existed” in a trans-historical sense. [5]

(24:12 - 42:50): Speaking not only to scholars, but also to rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, Boyarin talks through some of the problems that can arise in Jewish spaces as a result of framing ideas of what “Judaism believes” or “Judaism says.” He rejects that notion that Judaism has agency, such that it can “believe” or “say” anything universally, and states, as a corollary, that Judaism is not a religion, from which one could kick out heretics or dissenters. [6] To close the episode, Boyarin reflects on his upbringing in rural New Jersey, and how his local Jewish Community Center — which might host services one night and a socialist meeting the next — helped him to forge a lifelong relationship to yiddishkayt.

[1] Learn more about Daniel Boyarin by clicking here, and purchase Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion by clicking here. You can take a look at other books he’s written, and purchase them, by clicking here.

[2] To explore the emergence of Christianity further, we recommend The Ways that Never Parted (the “ways” being Judaism and Christianity), which features an essay by Boyarin, alongside others.

[3] Boyarin refers to Cardinal Lustiger. Learn more about him by reading this movie review, featured in The New York Times and looking at the 2013 movie The Jewish Cardinal.

[4] Learn more about Boyarin’s anti-Zionism by checking out this piece, written by past Judaism Unbound guest Alix Wall, and entitled “Daniel Boyarin: Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew”

[5] Boyarin names Bertha Pappenheim as one of his heroes, while also citing the problematic ways in which she conflated German Jewishness with Jewishness writ large. Learn more about Pappenheim’s life and legacy by clicking here.

[6] Learn more about rabbinic ideas of Yavneh, which Boyarin explores briefly toward the end of this episode, by reading “A Tale of Two Synods: Nicaea, Yavneh, and Rabbinic Ecclesiology,” which Boyarin wrote in 2000.

Dan Judson Part II: Judaism Unbound Episode 148 - Pennies for Heaven…and Building Upkeep

We continue our conversation with Dan Judson, Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, in the second part of a two-episode series, turning our focus to more recent history and to the future outlook for synagogues in the face of the demographic and religious changes American Judaism has been going through. Judson is the author of the recent book Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money. [1]

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

(0:01 - 15:21) To begin Part II of this conversation, Dan Judson hones in on a phenomenon known as “mushroom synagogues” [2] — prayer services (largely for the High Holidays) taking place in bars or theatres, available for cheaper prices than the established synagogues’ services were. Their popularity infuriated synagogues to the point that synagogues eventually succeeded in lobbying to make for-profit services illegal in New York City. Moving forward to the mid-20th century, Judson highlights the synagogue building-boom of the post World War II era. Simultaneously, he argues that this boom actually created an unsustainable situation, such that many congregations should be looking to merge with one another today. [3]

(15:22 - 29:39): Judson dives into the present-day. In particular, he looks at the most common structure of synagogue fundraising — synagogue dues — and calls for a shift away from that model. He critiques the ways in which institutions take membership dues for granted and create a culture whereby those who can’t afford the full cost of dues feel less-than. Furthermore, he says that such models are out-of-step with our contemporary society, much as selling seats became out-of-step with the early 20th century zeitgeist of democracy (discussed in Part I). Anticipating those who argue that “pay what you can” models are unrealistic, Judson cites data demonstrating that such models actually have led to an increase in both membership and revenue. [4]

(29:40 - 41:56): Continuing the thread about synagogue dues, Judson creates a picture of what “pay what you can” models look like in practice, [5] including the ways in which they could potentially rely on a few wealthy donors for a much greater contribution than they are asked to commit through a traditional dues model. To close the episode, Judson looks at the question of rabbinic salaries — both in earlier eras of Jewish history and today — emphasizing how rabbis have consistently been paid far more than clergy of other religious traditions. He also plays a little bit of “futurology,” offering some educated guesses regarding how the rabbinic role may evolve over the next few decades. [6]

Image Credit: UJAFedNy.org

Image Credit: UJAFedNy.org

[1] Learn more about Dan Judson by checking out his bio, accessible at this link. You can purchase Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by clicking here.

[2] Read more from Judson on the subject of “mushroom synagogues” in this 2011 piece he wrote for The New York Jewish Week.

[3] To think more about the role of synagogue buildings, and to hear about one community that has chosen not to have one (San Francisco’s The Kitchen), listen to Episode 23: Hello Mazel - Noa Kushner, Yoav Schlesinger.

[4] Read the full report that Judson co-authored with Lianna Levine Reisner on voluntary dues structures here.

[5] Learn more about what the New York Times terms “pay what you want” models in this 2015 piece, which quotes Judson.

[6] Think further about the present and future role of rabbis by listening to Episode 68: Rabbis Without Borders - Rebecca Sirbu.

Dan Judson Part I: Judaism Unbound Episode 147 - From Selling Pews to Temple Dues

Dan Judson, Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, joins Judaism Unbound for the first of two episodes on the story of how synagogues have sustained themselves economically throughout American history and how they will have to adjust to the great changes in Jewish life we are experiencing today. Judson is the author of the recent book Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money. [1] [2]

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

(0:01 - 17:03): To begin the episode, Dan Judson explains that “when you look at religion through the lens of economics, you see things that you weren’t otherwise going to see.” He also talks about how, and whether, language from the realm of business can be helpfully applied to synagogues and Jewish life in general. Then, shuttling back in time to the 1800s, Judson begins to tell the story of the evolution of synagogue funding, [3] starting in a place that may be surprising: the auctioning off of synagogue honors. [4]

(17:04 - 34:34): Judson looks at another way in which synagogues raised money in the 19th century — the selling of seats (the farther forward in the sanctuary, the more expensive the seats). He explores the ways in which synagogue funding in the 19th century looked both similar to, and different from, the funding approaches used by American churches in the same time period. [5] Judson looks at the growth of the Free Church movement in American Christianity, and he investigates why it was that the idea of a God who wants, or obligates, people to give to their places of worship resonated for Christians but not quite as much for Jews.

(34:35 - 45:31): Looking at how the mechanism of selling seats disappeared (mostly) from Jewish life, Judson cites Stephen Wise’s “Free Synagogue” movement. [6] As selling seats faded away, and as World War I (The Great War) created a societal “zeitgeist of democracy,” many pushed for a model that would not allow for economic segregation in synagogues (where the wealthier members purchased better seats, toward the front, and those who had less sat toward the back). Judson also counter-intuitively links the end of purchasing seats to the construction of large “synagogue centers.” To close Part I of this two-part conversation, Judson explores how, in interesting ways, synagogues did both incredibly well and incredibly poorly when the Great Depression hit.

[1] Learn more about Dan Judson by checking out his bio, accessible at this link.

[2] You can purchase Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by clicking here. Hear more from Dan Judson by listening in to his appearance on The Moth: True Stories Told Live, available here.

[3] In his reflection on 19th century synagogue funding, Judson alludes to a variety of reforms underway by the burgeoning Reform movement. For a fuller telling of the history of Reform Judaism, see another two-part Judaism Unbound special, featuring Daniel Freelander. Episode 87: Reforming Judaism - Daniel Freelander I, Episode 88: Reform or Revolution - Daniel Freelander II

[4] For a fascinating case study of auctioning off synagogue honors, click here.

[5] Learn more about the Second Great Awakening, a fascinating period in American religious history, by reading A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

[6] Learn more about Stephen Wise, and his Free Synagogue, here.

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.

Tobin Belzer: Judaism Unbound Episode 145 - Studying Jews Differently

Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Tobin Belzer, an applied sociologist, for a conversation about why it might be time to re-conceptualize the study of American Jews and their identities. [1]

(0:01 - 16:43): To begin the episode, Tobin Belzer explores the lens through which she does her work as an applied sociologist, citing the idea of “strong objectivity” (pioneered by Sandra Harding) [2] as an important influence. She also reflects on her own life experience, as a Jew and otherwise, emphasizing her enduring identification with being both an “insider” and an “outsider,” often simultaneously. Belzer contrasts quantitative and qualitative approaches to sociology, and she argues that in Jewish life, there has been a predisposition towards the quantitative, leaving a great deal of room for growth in the qualitative realm. [3] She then explores some of the historical phenomena that contribute to that emphasis on the quantitative, asserting both that the conception of “Jewish identity” was created by sociologists — it has only existed for a short time — and that the fashion in which it was constructed dovetails closely with anxieties about the “ever-dying” Jewish people. [4]

(16:44 - 27:34): Belzer explores how sociological ideas of Jewish identity have evolved over time. In this analysis, she offers a new framework of Jewish identity, based on the presumption that Jewish selves (and all selves!) exist only in relationship. She explains why this idea, though subtle in its distinctions from some others, actually could contribute to a drastic re-evaluation of how Jews understand themselves and the practice of Judaism. To further demonstrate the point, she cites her finding that often, people who aren’t Jewish play a huge role in the construction of Jewish identity-narratives for those who are.

(27:35 - 42:52): Through examining questions of intermarriage and Jewish authority, Belzer provides examples of how her ideas about the social self could have an impact on a variety of hot-button issues in contemporary Jewish life. She also spotlights the tendency of many participants in her studies to frame themselves with the pre-amble “I’m not religious but…” along with the strong pre-disposition of post-Baby-Boomers against religious triumphalism. [5] To close the episode, Belzer and Dan each explore moments in their own Jewish identity construction that, perhaps counter-intuitively, manifested through the rejection of Jewish labels, or honors, that were offered to them by well-meaning people, but which did not resonate with them.

[1] Learn more about Tobin Belzer by reading her bio, accessible here. For a short overview, written by Belzer, of her approach to studying American Jews, click here. We also recommend a 2013 piece by Belzer, entitled “Putting Aside the Study of Individualism.”

[2] Gain an understanding of Harding’s framework of strong objectivity by reading “‘Strong Objectivity’: A Response to the New Objectivity Question.”

[3] For more conversations looking in-depth at the role that quantitative data has played in American-Jewish life, see Episode 7: Numbers- Barak Richman and Episode 8: Numbers II.

[4] Belzer mentions her colleague and co-author Ari Kelman. Listen in to a conversation with him about Jewish identity in Episode 74: Beyond Jewish Identity - Ari Y. Kelman. For a podcast on the idea of being a “bad Jew” — a modifier Belzer applies tongue-in-cheek to herself — see Episode 97: “Bad Jews” - Jenna Reback.

[5] We highly recommend reading Belzer’s (and 4 co-authors’) essay, entitled “Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers,” as a follow-up to this podcast episode.