Another Take on Who is A Jew

I finally get it.  It finally makes sense to me.  For my entire Jewishly-aware life, I have struggled with the intellectual tension between being Jewish religiously, and being part of the Jewish people, or tribe. The struggle that has me asking questions like: why so many American Jews don’t “do” Jewish;  why there is a whole sector of Israelis that on the one hand, accept me as Jewish regardless of my level of observance because my mother is Jewish, and on the other hand, won’t accept a convert if their conversion wasn’t “orthodox” enough, and that requires Jews that are even one or two generations removed from practicing to convert all over again.

And then I attended a session at the GA today about “What Do Israelis Really Care About Anyway?” and the first speaker, Haviv Rettig Gur made some very interesting observations that I put together with comments made at last week’s “A Jew is A Jew” Haver program, and now it makes perfect sense.

Haviv Rettig Gur

What Rettig Gur said was that after the Holocaust, when the European center of Jewish life and culture disappeared, two new centers of Jewish life and culture grew up in its place.  One was the United States, and one was Israel.  And they took two entirely different paths to Jewish life and culture.

Israel, as the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, became the center of tribal Jewishness.  To be Jewish in Israel, the only country in the world that moves to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar; the only country in the world that takes Saturday off; the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, it takes nothing more than to be in Israel.  Which is why Israeli society is largely secular, but very comfortable with their Jewishness nonetheless.  When you are born in Israel, there is no question that you will grow up to be Jewish… you just are.  And when you enter the army at age 17 or 18, it is to defend your homeland, your family, your “tribe.”

America, on the other hand, is the home of individual choice.  America is a nationality that anyone that arrives here can immediately take on while casting off whatever identity they had when they arrived.  (For some, this might take an extra generation to lose an accent, but even so, Americans are uniquely tolerant of newcomers who want nothing more than to play by the rules and make a better life).  America was founded on the principle of religious choice; freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.  People are able to change their religious views and affiliations more easily in America than in any other corner of the world.  On top of which, the 65 years since the end of the Holocaust have seen unprecedented levels of freedom for and acceptance of Jews in America.  By and large today, Jews don’t need to hide to have a good life in America.   Being Jewish in America is a choice… and defined as a religious choice.  All that said, if you are born Jewish in America, you will grow up American…. but there is no guarantee that you will identify as Jewish at 30.

This has resulted in an almost complete bifurcation of the Jewish people — as though the yin moved to Israel, and the yang moved to America.  The tribal Jews live a “naturally” Jewish life with strong Jewish identity in Israel; the Jews of America define Jewishness primarily in religious terms and count Jews primarily by their affiliation with organized religious Jewish life.

Jews of America fear greatly for the “continuity of the Jewish people” by which they mean, religiously affiliated and observant (at whatever level) Jews.  Jews of Israel fear greatly for the “continuity of the Jewish people” by which they mean the physical survival of the Jews living in the land of Israel.

Is it any wonder the two groups do not really understand one another?  The greatest fear of an American Jewish parent is that their child will intermarry, and they and their children will be lost religiously.  The greatest fear of an Israeli parent: their child will be killed by a terrorist; their next greatest fear is that their child will lose the Zionist dream and move to America.  These are very different fears indeed.

What Americans came up with to raise the odds of their Jewish kids (most of whom don’t go past Bar Mitzvah in Jewish education, if they get that far) staying and marrying Jewish is … create a bond with the State of Israel.  That is, re-establish the yin of the tribal Jewish identity that is so strong in Israel.  One of the most successful programs for doing this has been Taglit-Birthright.  Young adults go on a free 10-day trip to Israel that is designed to re-connect them to their tribal roots.  But what is often the outcome?  The revitalized American Jew comes home and then does something that few if any Israelis do — affiliate with a synagogue.

But here is the interesting corollary that I heard last week at Haver’s “A Jew is a Jew” forum:  That secular Israelis that move to America sometimes actually find religion!  That the pluralistic, open, modern strains of Judaism as practiced in America actually fill a spiritual yang that many Israelis long for, but rarely find in Israel.

And Rettig Gur has an explanation for this too:  Judaism in America has always been the fractured, diaspora model.  For the vast majority of American Jews, there are no chief rabbis, no central authority.  As close as the American model can come, and so typically American, is that each established denominational branch of religious Judaism has its seminary, its rabbinical council, and an elected President, but no “chief rabbi” that unilaterally speaks for the community in halachic — or other — terms.

In total contrast, Israel adopted, as in so many other areas, the British model.  Since Israel was to be a Jewish state, then it follows that Judaism is the state religion.  And this leads to, if not a high priest (or an Archbishop of Canterbury) then at least a chief rabbi.  But bowing to the political realities of the time (and to this time), there must be an Ashkenazi chief rabbi and a Sephardic chief rabbi, but these two were more like covering the needs of two distantly related tribes than that of  two distinct denominations.  With essentially one state-recognized denomination, and a liberal socialist collectivist body politic, there developed only two options: Torah-observant orthodoxy, or secularism.

Sixty-three years after the re-birth of the State of Israel, we have two almost equal-sized branches of a family that look at their very identity as a family in polar opposite ways… no wonder there is so much confusion and even friction in the family!  But at least now, I get it.

About David Fellows

I've been writing things since grammar school, and served as a writer, photographer and/or an editor on my junior high and high school newspapers; the Daily Trojan at USC (where I earned my journalism degree); the student newspaper at the Anderson School at UCLA (where I earned my MBA); and written and edited countless business documents and presentations in the ensuing twenty years. I've been involved Jewishly since my bris and in Boulder since 1995. I'm married to my Executive Director Cheryl, and we have two children, Lauren and Ethan.

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  1. Really interesting article…thank you. Never felt the need to be part of a Congregation when I lived in NY or in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. But moving to Colorado, where schools and the world in general are not really aware of Jewish holidays, etc., even to a place like Boulder with a significant Jewish presence, I felt like there was the need to be more actively "Jewish."

  2. Very insightful. Thanks.

    • Yasher koach David! Thanks for "getting it" and sharing it…really well articulated. I think it would be great to hold a forum of Boulder's Isreali's and Jews on this topic. I've had conversations around these differences with a number of Israeli's over the years and have also been fascinated by the Ahoova's and Smadar's from the community who've come here to have their own "religious" experiences.

      Great job on bringing the GA to us as well!

  3. Thanks, David – very thoughtful and helpful comments. And definitely worthy of more conversation!

  4. it's clear there's friction; like you said, "[they] view their very identity as a family in polar opposite ways". Yet, what can be done to fix this? Haviv mentioned the Birthright trip, but made it clear that this program is doing very little to solve the problem that this polarized Judaism presents .Did Haviv, or any other speaker for that matter, mention what we Jews can do to solve this problem? lastly, just as a side note, i wanted to mention just how true your comment related to Israelis coming to the US and "finding" new and meaningful aspects of Judaism . a year ago an Israeli had left the United States after 3 years as an educator here, upon his departure he said that " of all the things that i have learned here that i am going to bring back with me to Israel the need for a Jewish community is the utmost. before coming here [to the US] i never realized just how much community adds to a Jewish observant life style".

  5. Excellent analysis. I'd add only one small point. At his scholarly and insightful talk Monday night, Ambassador Oren made the point that Israel does not have a state religion. I was a bit taken aback by that, and it may be that as a formal, legal matter Judaism is not a state religion even if it is de facto. I just thought that might be of interest to you.

  6. Wonderful and clear. My family is a fractured one and I feel great sadness. The continual questions of who can eat where and who is a real Jew is a deep source of pain for everyone. Thank you for this expression.