Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives

Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives

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Edited by Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman

ISBN: 9781644691281 (hardback), 9781644691298 (paperback)
Pages: 290 pp.; 1 illus.
Publication Date: September 2019

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There is something deeply problematic about the ways that Jews, particularly in America, talk about “Jewish identity” as a desired outcome of Jewish education. For many, the idea that the purpose of Jewish education is to strengthen Jewish identity is so obvious that it hardly seems worth disputing—and the only important question is which kinds of Jewish education do that work more effectively or more efficiently. But what does it mean to “strengthen Jewish identity”? Why do Jewish educators, policy-makers and philanthropists talk that way? What do they assume, about Jewish education or about Jewish identity, when they use formulations like “strengthen Jewish identity”? And what are the costs of doing so?

This volume, the first collection to examine critically the relationship between Jewish education and Jewish identity, makes two important interventions. First, it offers a critical assessment of the relationship between education and identity, arguing that the reification of identity has hampered much educational creativity in the pursuit of this goal, and that the nearly ubiquitous employment of the term obscures significant questions about what Jewish education is and ought to be. Second, this volume offers thoughtful responses that are not merely synonymous replacements for “identity,” suggesting new possibilities for how to think about the purposes and desired outcomes of Jewish education, potentially contributing to any number of new conversations about the relationship between Jewish education and Jewish life.

Contributors: Netta Avineri, Sarah Bunin Benor, Eli Gottlieb, Ari Y. Kelman, Shaul Kelner, Jonathan Krasner, Jon A. Levisohn, Shaul Magid, Samira K. Mehta, Lee Moore, Katka Reszke, Jonathan Woocher, z’’l, Tali Zelkowicz

Jon A. Levisohn is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Associate Professor of Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University, where he serves as the director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

Ari Y. Kelman is Jim Joseph Associate Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University, where he serves as director of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies.


Beyond Jewish Identity interrogates the long-standing premise that the goal of Jewish education is to strengthen a monolithic ‘Jewish identity,’ challenging us to create more specific and more aspirational goals and pushing us to broaden our understanding of ‘Jewish identity’ beyond the traditional measures of ‘greater religious observance’ or ‘Jewish affiliation.’ Most Jews carry a multiplicity of identities. This book articulates a set of frameworks for pursuing this important, timely conversation.
— Angela Buchdal, Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue
At once both a useful exploration of how the term ‘Jewish identity’ came to dominate the discourse of American Jewish elites and a probing analysis of the term’s appropriation to define the goals of Jewish education, Beyond Jewish Identity offers a no-holds-barred critique of the politics surrounding the term. Collectively, the accomplished scholars assembled in this volume make the case for shifting the focus from how Jews feel to how they act as Jews.
— Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History, Jewish Theological Seminary
What are we talking about when we talk about Jewish identity? The Jewish community sorely needs a dose of clarity and discernment about this vital question. This volume not only unmasks the many problems with how we use that phrase, but also reveals the fruitful concepts buried within it, paving our way forward to a new understanding of exactly what elements of flourishing Jewish life our community’s organizations and leaders can build and sustain.
— Andrés Spokoiny, President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network
‘Jewish identity’ is such a complex idea—neither simply a religious, nor cultural, nor ethnic ‘identity,’ but all of those things combined (and more). This important volume rejects narrow definitions and resists the way that ‘identity’ has been oversimplified and flattened in Jewish communal contexts. Along the way, it offers new paths for other communities struggling with concepts of identity to follow as well.
— Felicia Herman, Executive Director, Natan Fund

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman

2. Taking Jewish Identity Metaphors Literally
Eli Gottlieb

3. You are Jewish if You Want to Be: The Limits of Identity in a World of Multiple Practices
Samira K. Mehta

4. On the Origins and Persistence of the Jewish Identity Industry in Jewish Education
Jonathan Krasner

5. Identity and Crisis: The Origins of Identity as an Educational Outcome
Ari Y. Kelman

6. Regarding the “Real” Jew: Authenticity Anxieties Around Poland’s “Generation Unexpected”
Katka Reszke

7. Re-Thinking American Jewish Zionist Identity: A Case for Post-Zionism in the Diaspora (Based on the Writings of R. Menachem Froman)
Shaul Magid

8. Jewish Educators Don't Make Jews: A Sociological Reality Check About Jewish Identity Work
Tali Zelkowicz

9. Beyond Language Proficiency: Fostering Metalinguistic Communities in Jewish Educational Settings
Sarah Bunin Benor and Netta Avineri

10. Where is the Next Soviet Jewry Movement? How Identity Education Forgot the Lessons that Jewish Activism Taught
Shaul Kelner

11. Jewish Education as Initiation into the Practices of Jewishness
Jon A. Levisohn

12. Jewish Sensibilities: Toward a New Language for Jewish Educational Goal-Setting
Lee Moore and Jonathan Woocher, z’’l

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