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What’s In A Name? Thoughts on Jewish Identity

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Gen 32:4), includes the story of Jacob’s name becoming Israel. Basically, Jacob was returning from years of flight from his brother Esau. The night before they met, Jacob wrestled with an angel who wounded him in the leg and renamed him Israel or “one who has struggled with God and life and prevailed.” The name Israel subsequently became the name of an ancient Jewish kingdom, the entire Jewish people and, since 1948, the modern Jewish state. In the Talmud, a Jew is called “Israel.”

In fact, Jews have had many different names. Originally, according to the Bible, our ancestors were Hebrews as in the primary language of the Jewish tradition. Today, we still have the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, to mention a few. The original Hebrew family expanded into a system of tribes of which only one survived the ancient world, the tribe of Judah, which is the basis of the word “Judaism” and etymologically speaking, the word Jew.

In the 19th century in the English speaking world, the name “Jew” was often avoided by Jews as it carried a negative connotation and was even considered a verb as in “to Jew someone,” implying immoral business practices. Instead, Jews self-described as Hebrews (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, founded 1875), Israelites (as in Cincinnati’s Jewish weekly paper, “The American Israelite,” and even compound names like people of the Mosaic Persuasion, oy vey! There are, of course, parallel group name shifts in the African America experience (e.g., Negro, Black, Afro-American, etc.)

Although there was, a New York based Jewish newspaper as early as the 1820s called “The Jew,” the term Jew, or Jewish really did not come into play until the arrival of Yiddish East European Jews in the 1880s who referred to themselves as “Yiddin” or “Yid” in the singular based on the German “Jude” and “Juden” (plural). By the 20th century in English speaking countries, the term Jew became widely accepted both inside and outside of the Jewish community. Of course, in other languages, there are different names for Jews like “Ebreo” in Italian, “Judio” in Spanish and “Juif” in French.

Within the Jewish community, there are many subsets of different types of Jews. In Israel, for example, there are “Hiloni” (secular Jews) and “Dati” (religious Jews). There are also sub-ethnic groups like Ethiopian, Italian, Sephardi, Mizrachi and Ashkenazic. Among Ashkenazic Jews, Jew of German origin are called, “Yeki” (literally, “jacket” implying formality in socio-cultural practice) and, of course, there are denominational names like Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. Among the Orthodox, there are Modern, Yeshivish, Hasidish and Sephardic to mention a few.

In other words, it is basically inadequate to simply call a person “Just Jewish” because there are so many types of Jewish people today. That is why I find it somewhat bemusing that there is a significant and growing number of American Jews today who are called “Just Jewish.” In my opinion, there is no such thing as Just Jewish. Most of these folks are Unaffiliated-Ashkenazic Jews; some are agnostic-atheist, and others are spiritual. Some are highly acculturated “American Jews” just one step away from assimilation or total loss of Jewish identity but then, remarkably, they become “of Jewish ancestry.” On the other side, there are also Jews by Choice and Jews of Color, both of whom are increasing in size in the Jewish world today.

What’s more important than the label Jewish is the content of Jewishness and the relationship of Jews to their collective past and collective future. One sociologist, Leonard Saxe at Brandeis, understands that Jewishness is best described (and measured) in turns of engagement, not by external labels. For example, his data shows that “mixed married” can actually be correlated in many cases with increased, not decreased, involvement. It is all very complex and challenging.

Ultimately, as a synagogue we need to be as mission specific as possible in helping our members become engaged, educated and energized in their Jewishness. Membership is critical; active membership is the goal. So, let us try to move beyond “Just Jewish” and shift to “Engaged Jewish” or “Jewish!” Both the spiritual, cultural quality of our lives, not to mention our collective future is on the line. “Just Jewish” is just not good enough. Together, we can create a meaningful Jewish way of life woven into an active, inclusive Jewish community of our own making. Then, indeed, we will become the New Israel, those who have struggled and prevailed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.