Jewish Identity

Update: Jul 3rd, 2011

Key Factors in the Transmission of Jewish Identity during the Postwar Years

by Adam Thompson ’13 (January 2011)

The phrase Jewish identity poses an interesting problem. Before attempting to study Jewish identity one must ask how to define Jewish identity. It is especially important to realize the subjectivity inherent in this topic. Since the first Jews arrived, a diverse and continually evolving array of Jewish expressions have existed within the various spheres of Waterville’s community. But identity does not consist solely of one’s observable expressions or behaviors within a contained community. A truly comprehensive understanding of Jewish identity cannot be restricted to analyses of conventional, normative, and easily discernable Jewish characteristics or traditions. As the Jewish identity researcher Bethamie Horowitz observed, “Although specific Jewish behaviors are certainly powerful indicators of Jewish commitment, focusing only on these indicators may lead us to either under or overestimate the extent and importance that being Jewish may play in the lives of both individuals and their families” (Horowitz 22).

Fortunately, the goal here is not to provide a comprehensive understanding of all the variables that constitute Jewish identity.  Instead, the goal is to highlight some common factors in the stories Jews in Kennebec County have told about how parents sought to transmit Jewish identity to their children in the postwar years. Each family’s attitudes and experiences were obviously unique, yet many fundamentally Jewish attitudes and expressions were widely shared across Waterville’s Jewish community. Key factors shaping the transmission of Jewish identity in the Waterville area are those involving religious education, intermarriage, and behavioral displays of Jewishness such as holiday traditions and food customs.

Religious Education

Steven Cohen, in his article “The Impact of Jewish Education on Religious Identification and Practice,” highlights the importance of looking at religious education when assessing the nature of Jewish identity transmission.  Cohen’s insight is borne out through analysis of interviews with Jews from Kennebec County.

Many of Kennebec County’s Jewish children attended some type of formal religious education, most often not by their own impetus. In her essay on religious education, Nicole Mitchell justifiably asserts that students who took Hebrew classes or lessons in central Maine generally report dull and unrewarding experiences. Ken Slosberg said that his Hebrew education in Gardiner was “something to endure.”

Judith Levine Brody explains,

My parents were also concerned, because there was no Hebrew school, that their children learn to read Hebrew…. So they hired a tutor. I had a tutor when I was probably in the third or fourth grade who came a couple times a week, if I remember correctly. All he taught me to do was read Hebrew in a prayer book. I can read it today. But I can’t understand a word.

When pressed as to whether she considered this a rewarding experience, Mrs. Brody replied, “No, it interfered with my social life [laughter]. No, I didn’t like it, but it was just something that my parents insisted on.”

Susan Shapiro, who grew up in postwar Waterville, recently spoke with her mother Carol about Hebrew school. In my interview with Sam and Carol Shapiro, Carol recounted that conversation with her daughter. “She said, ‘I don’t know why I went to Hebrew school. I didn’t want to go, I hated it, I didn’t learn anything.’” Sam explained, “Yeah, well I made her go.”

What can be inferred from the fact that so many children who studied Hebrew or attended Sunday school disliked those activities? At the very least, it means that parents cared enough about instilling and preserving a sense of Jewishness to enforce their children’s attendance. Nicole Mitchell points out a significant shift in the role of Hebrew training that accompanied students’ waning interests. Starting in the interwar years, Hebrew education became geared towards providing students with just enough background to perform readings for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. Often relying on rote memorization of Hebrew passages, a focus on Bar Mitzvah training accompanied a rise in the irrelevance of attaining deeper religious identity. Bar Mitzvahs attained new prominence as the single most Jewish thing that many Jewish children would experience. As successive generations of rural Jews became increasingly assimilated into gentile culture, Bar Mitzvahs became the stronghold in what remained of a thinning repertoire of activities relating to religious observance. Some parents who sought to transmit a stronger Jewish identity sent their children to Portland where they could benefit from better-developed Jewish educational programs.

Sam Shapiro was one of many parents who decided that transmitting a strong Jewish identity was important and that some formal religious education was a reasonable way to do it. In Sam’s case, being raised in an Orthodox family had a lasting impact on his own Jewish identity and his subsequent desire to transmit Jewishness to his children. Carol Shapiro, on the other hand, grew up in a non-religious Jewish home in Waterville: her parents did not keep kosher and she did not complete any type of religious training. In comparing Sam with Carol, it is easy to see that their contrasting identifications with Jewishness are highly influenced by the vast differences in their own parents’ religious orientations and levels of synagogue involvement. In our interview, Carol said to me, “I wish we didn’t have to have differences of religion, that everybody could get along and be one. But, it’s never going to happen. My grandson… is going to marry a Catholic girl…. I mean, it’s a different world today. I think a lot of non-Jews felt … that their children shouldn’t marry outside of the religion, but it’s a lot different today. It’s more important who the person is rather than what their religion is. I don’t think my husband feels the same way.”

Intermarriage

Mrs. Shapiro’s comment on the topic of intermarriage highlights two important dynamics. First, it shows the prominence of intermarriage as an issue pertaining to Jewish identity. Second, it reveals the attenuation of anti-intermarriage sentiments over time. With regard to transmitting a Jewish identity, especially the farther back we look, intermarriage was seen by parents as a foe to the continuation of a strong Jewish community. Ken Slosberg characterizes that attitude, generally, as a type of fear.

I think that was a fear among my parents’ generation, that kids who married outside the faith—that their children would have less Jewish identity. And I think it’s a valid fear. I think that actually happens in a lot of cases, probably including my own family. My kids don’t have the same Jewish identity that I do and their kids, my grandchildren, will have even less.

Mr. Slosberg’s comment on intermarriage and Jewish identity strongly echoes the sentiments of other Jews from Kennebec County and reveals a major generational difference. The same generational difference can be noted in the Shapiro family where both Sam and Carol, raised during the interwar period, never considered marrying a non-Jew, while their daughter Susan did just that. Similarly, both the interwar and immediate postwar generations of Levines, one of Waterville’s largest Jewish families, did not intermarry. Many in the following generation, however, are intermarrying. Does the rise in decisions to intermarry reflect evolving Jewish identities or simply a lack of Jewish identity? Ken Slosberg reminds us that decisions to intermarry are probably neither a rejection nor a distinctly new interpretation of Jewish identity; it may have more to do with more general cultural shifts in American culture. “I think the ’60s—because the culture in general was changing so rapidly, there were lots of other changes too: the whole idea of intermarriage, and people being freer, breaking the old bounds a little bit.” This insight is useful because it brings to light another example of the cultural gravity that put old notions of Jewish identity in direct conflict with assimilation.

Behaviors: Food, Holidays, and Outward Displays of Jewishness

The inhabitants of small Jewish communities throughout the United States share a number of experiences—the food they ate, the types of schools they attended, the cultures they encountered, the holidays they celebrated, the economic trails they blazed, and the parental relationships they dealt with. In their study of a 1950s suburban Jewish town, presented under the pseudonym “Lakeville,” Sklare and Greenblum provide data on Jewish residents’ concepts of what it means to be a “good Jew” (Sklare and Greenblum 321-32).  In this study, 23% of participants thought marrying within the Jewish faith was essential to being a “good Jew” while 26% said marrying Jewish makes no difference. In contrast, 93% thought it was essential for a “good Jew” to lead an ethical and moral life while only 1% said this didn’t matter. These patterns of Jewish identity typify the same general trends that are apparent within the transcripts of interviews with Waterville’s Jews. Consider the following: Only 1% of Lakeville respondents thought it was essential for a “good Jew” to follow dietary laws. 85% said it makes no difference.

Waterville exemplified the general shift of younger generations away from strict tradition towards assimilation within local culture. Although dietary traditions were not left unimpeded by the forces of assimilation, they remained an important way in which Jewishness was transmitted to children in Waterville. In her essay on Jewish mothers in Kennebec County, Kimi Kossler suggests that the prominence of meals as a time for families to unite was significant in the transmission of Jewishness. “One way Jewish mothers used food to instill a Jewish identity in their children was by following the dietary laws of kashrut. For Ida Levine’s mother, Gordon Wolman’s mother and Sumner Fanger’s grandmother, keeping kosher was a very important aspect to their Jewish identity.” Ida Levine and Judith Brody, who are sisters, grew up learning to respect dietary traditions as part of their Jewish identity. Mrs. Brody said this about her and her husband’s decision to keep kosher: “It’s part of establishing our identity, I think, and respect for the identity…. This was one of the ways in which I think we showed respect for our parents and our religion.” Kossler highlights the connection between food and holidays as related aspects of the transmission of Jewish identity: “By preparing traditional Jewish dishes mothers also used food to teach their children about Jewish holidays and traditions.” Food was clearly a key aspect in the direct transmission of Jewishness from parents to their children in Waterville.  (See also Madeleine Kurtz’s study of food and Jewish identity.)

The observance of holidays represented another significant aspect of the transmission of Jewishness in Waterville. Recounting the era before Jewish holidays were widely acknowledged in American culture, several of our interviewees recounted stories about feeling singled out by missing school. Missing school in observance of Jewish holidays was often a result of persistence on the part of parents convincing the public school system to permit their children’s absence. This was the case for Ida Levine and Judith Brody’s family. Judith said:

I was out of school for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur… I always was because my parents made an effort, and accomplished it I think, of keeping us aware of holidays and all that you could do within the home to identify as Jews…. When I was out of school for one of those major holidays, I had to tell the teacher ahead and I had to make up the work when I got back. I think it was a little bit embarrassing. …Other people of my generation didn’t know why I was out of school. It wasn’t a holiday the way it is today where there would be a picture in the newspaper and an announcement – it wasn’t like that.

In addition to food and holidays, a third key behavioral aspect in the transmission of Jewish identity was the outward display of Jewishness. This aspect is illustrated by Sam Shapiro’s desire for his children to openly express a Jewish identity. “All our kids knew they were Jewish, were proud of being Jewish… The boys all wore Stars of David to make sure that everybody knew it.” Perhaps this example of wearing Stars of David is related to additional findings in the Lakeville study which support the notion that many Jews find it very important to accept one’s being Jewish with open arms. Certainly, accepting and embracing Jewishness always has been and continues to be an important piece of identity for many of Waterville’s Jews. Encouragement of such public display is a great example of how parents sought to transmit Jewish identity to their children.

Print Sources

Horowitz, Bethamie. Connections and Journeys: Assessing Critical Opportunities for Enhancing Jewish Identity. New York: Commision on Jewish Idenity and Renewal, UJA-Federation of New York, 2000.

Cohen, Steven M. “The Impact of Jewish Education on Religious Identification and Practice.” Jewish Social Studies 36 (1974): 316.

Sklare, Marshall, and Joseph Greenblum. Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier: A Study of Group Survival in the Open Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Interviews

Slosberg, Ken. Interviewed by Nicole Mitchell, January 19, 2010.

Brody, Judith. Interviewed by Adam Thompson, January 27, 2011.

Shapiro, Sam and Carol. Interviewed by Adam Thompson, January 9 and 19, 2011.

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