What does it mean to be a Jewish American? Thumbnail

As with any label, identifying as Jewish comes with connotations of biases – both positive and negative – heated political views, and opposing perspectives that can trigger discord.

What does it mean to be a Jewish American?

What does it mean to be a Jewish American? It depends on who you ask and at what point in history. Certainly, the present is a challenging time in which to identify as Jewish – with some individuals experiencing direct overt antisemitism while others being aware of and vicariously impacted by the knowledge that it is happening around them.

As with any label, identifying as Jewish comes with connotations of biases – both positive and negative – heated political views, and opposing perspectives that can trigger discord.

“Jewish” implies both religion and culture, yet the majority of Jews, throughout the world, identify more with the core values of the culture – being family oriented, practicing tolerance of differences, committing to being “a mench”: living a life of integrity & dignity – than the spirituality of the religion. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that for Jewish Americans, the fact that “religion is relatively unimportant in their lives does not necessarily mean their Jewish identity is not meaningful to them.”

So, what does having a “Jewish identity” mean?

For Jewish Americans, this is a hard moment in time … and there have been a multitude of hard moments throughout history:

Biblically, Judaism is about “wrestling” … embracing the “both and”; finding value in the paradox … honoring tradition and respecting the struggles of past generations while embracing the modern and assimilating into a variety of communities … loving one’s family and practicing engrained rituals while also needing distance and forging one’s own unique identity … wanting to embrace one’s heritage while feeling perpetually vulnerable and not wanting to confront the associated torment …

Jews have been scapegoated, fleeing persecution, and relocating in various parts of the world since the beginning of time and under various leaderships: early Biblical wanderings, Babylonian Empire, Roman Empire, The Crusades, Ottoman Empire, fines and living restrictions in Islamic States, Spanish Inquisition, Massacres in Damascus, Baghdad, and Persia, expulsion from Yemen, Russian Empire Pogroms, The Holocaust, etc.

Jews in America, arriving as early as the 1500 &1600s as refugees from around the world, continually faced discrimination and marginalization. Yet despite the biblical and history-long challenges, and despite both overt antisemitism and more subtle microaggressions, the Jewish identity has been synonymous with resilience and impact. Every facet of life has been influenced by and included Jewish Americans … literature, sports, the judicial system, physical & mental health, the arts, social media, technology, the sciences, politics, cinema, activists, clergy, etc. 

Famous Jewish Americans among us, past & present: Judy Blume, Stan Lee, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Stephen Sondheim, Alix Baur, Elie Wiesel, Lillian Wald, Albert Einstein, Levi Strauss, Barbra Streisand, Judith Resnik, Bruno Mars, Steven Spielberg, Max Glücksmann, Gertrude Elion, Gego, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Zuckerburg, Aly Raisman, Will Elsner, Bernardo Wexler, Sandy Koufax, David Lederman, William Gutiérrez-Levy, Irving Belin, Salomón Libman, Jerry Seinfeld, and many more non-famous individuals who have a daily impact on the lives of others. 

It is important to acknowledge that even when identifying with our Jewish American heritage, there is complex intersectionality with other components of our culture and identity: gender expression, sexual orientation, the country of origin of our ancestors, languages we speak, foods we eat, professions we have chosen, holidays we observe, level of religiosity we practice, community within which we live, roles we hold without our family, etc.

To prevent “a story” from becoming “the story”, it is important to acknowledge and respect that each person has their own unique experience and that every voice counts, no matter the identity. Biases and stigma impact effective service delivery, help seeking/accepting, and interpersonal relationships. I invite you to reflect on your own unique experience, regardless of your personal heritage or affiliation, and to practice compassion and cultural humility to promote safety, trust, and mutual wellbeing.

Contributor: Dr. Ruth Nirenberg, CHE Clinical Director East Region, acknowledges the complex intersectionality of her identity, without labels.

American Jewish Committee: https://www.ajc.org/news/amazing-jewish-americans & https://www.ajc.org/jewishamericanheritagemonth

Brandeis University: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/americanjewishcultureandscholarship/Archive/JewsintheColonialandEarlyNationalPeriods.pdf

Facing History & Ourselves, "Being Jewish in the United States," last updated March 18, 2018: https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/being-jewish-united-states

ICS: https://icsresources.org/wp-content/uploads/ICS-Jewish-Americans-Lesson-with-Documents.pdf

Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/haven-haven.html & https://jewishheritagemonth.gov/

NIH: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36044705/ (“Mental Health Public Stigma in US Jewish Communities”)

OMH: https://omh.ny.gov/omhweb/cultural_competence/spotlight-on-jewish-americans.pdf

PBS Series by David Grubin: https://www.pbs.org/jewishamericans/jewish_life/index.html

Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-identity-and-belief/