Judaism Unbound Episode 74: Beyond Jewish Identity - Ari Y. Kelman

Jewish communal conversations often take for granted that the goal of Jewish education and other endeavors is to develop or enhance "Jewish identity," but what does that term really mean? Stanford professor Ari Kelman, a leading scholar of Jews and Judaism in contemporary America, joins Dan and Lex to explore the language and concepts that are most helpful in thinking about American Judaism today. [1]

Image Credit: Stanford Graduate School of Education

Image Credit: Stanford Graduate School of Education

(0:01 - 11:47): To begin the episode, Kelman questions the value of the phrase "Jewish identity," which is pervasive in many Jewish conversations, [2] and he suggests alternatives to that framework that could prove helpful in understanding Jewish life today. He then explores the divergent perspectives operative in contemporary Jewish life, citing recent developments with respect to the issue of intermarriage as an example of that diversity. [3]

(11:48 - 25:46): In addition to taking on the question of Jewish identity, Kelman takes on the idea of Jewish ethnicity. He argues that ethnicity may be less resonant for younger generations of Jews than it was (or is) for older generations of Jews. He also discusses the term "tradition," which has proven particularly resonant for Jews he has studied, and argues that the ideas of preservation and innovation may not entirely conflict with one another. [4] He then discusses the potential ramifications of the fact that an increasing percentage of individuals raised in interfaith families identify as Jewish. [5]

(25:47 - 44:03): Kelman considers the connection between what we have discussed and American Jews' relationship to Israel. [6] He also revisits the issue of intermarriage, in particular discussing how the increasing prevalence of Jewish intermarriage, along with the common nature of close friendships between Jews and others, combine to create a situation where Jewish communal institutions no longer serve Jews alone.

[1] Click here to access Ari Y. Kelman's bio. For those interested in learning more from Kelman, his books are available at the following links: Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary (co-written with three other authors), Is Diss a System?: A Milt Gross Comic Reader, Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States

[2] Hear more from Kelman on the question of Jewish identity by reading this article, featured in eJewishPhilanthropy, entitled "Jewish Identity Ain't What it Used to Be."

[3] Kelman mentions two recent pieces related to intermarriage, which diverge sharply from one another in their conclusions. To read these for yourself, click here (for Steven M. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman's piece for the Jewish People Policy Institute) and here (for Amichai Lau-Lavie's "Joy: A Proposal"). 

[4] In exploring the concept of tradition, Kelman cites Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's analogy of cultural preservation to the preservation of a coffee cup. To explore her ideas further, including this analogy, check out her book, entitled Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage.

[5] Kelman cites the work of Ted Sasson in examining the ramifications of this increase. Read his thoughts in this Tablet article, entitled "New Analysis of Pew Data: Children of Intermarriage Increasingly Identify as Jews"

[6] Explore Kelman's past work on the question of American Jews and their relationship to Israel by reading his 2007 study, entitled "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel." For an updated look at American-Jewish politics around Israel and Palestine, Dov Waxman's 2016 book, entitled Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel is of great interest.