The conversation at a Rosh Hashanah brunch turned to self-identification, to issues of race, gender, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation and which of these held primacy for the individual.
That prompted my return to a question I had considered asking around the Fourth of July: Do you think of yourself as an American Jew or as a Jewish-American?
This is a touchy subject. Jews in this country are sensitive to accusations of dual loyalty, to suggestions of a greater allegiance to religion than nationality, based in part on whether “Jew” is the noun or adjective.
I put the question to a couple of dozen Atlanta-area Jews on my email contact list.
A woman who converted to Judaism more than 30 years ago said, “So how can I answer your question? By struggling with it — so Jewish, right! Yet identity politics can be dividing. I am an American, drawn to America’s founding principles and bound by her laws. I am a Jewess, drawn to a community that studies, celebrates and honors ethical action.”
A rabbi avoided a Solomonic judgment. “I see both terms as identical, compatible because neither identity contradicts the other. I daven and pledge allegiance with equal passion and loyalty. Abraham and Moshe are my ancestors, as are Washington and Lincoln. Pesach and the Fourth of July are my holidays. Apple pie and cholent are my diet. To be Jewish and American demands no abdication of the other. Those who believe in either one or the other do not understand the majesty of both.”
Recent events affected this response: “I identify as an American Jew. Prior to the election cycle, I identified as a Jewish-American. With what I perceive as an increase in hatred in general and anti-Semitism specifically, I have changed how I self-identify. I went from feeling fully acclimated into the larger society in which I live to feeling separate in my Jewishness, suddenly part of those minorities hated for nothing but their skin color or religion. … As Jews, we blend in physically, and anti-Semitism was something I never considered a problem. I now am Jewish first.”
“My initial response is that basically I dislike the question,” another reply said. “Why? Because it implies a difference where I do not find one in my own self-identity. My answer would depend on the context of the question. If the conversation deals with the mosaic of American culture, I am a Jewish-American. If it has to do with world Jewry or identity within Israel, I am an American Jew. My nationality as an American and my ethnicity as a Jew are two different aspects of my being, each vitally and equally important to me. Fortunately neither forces me to deny or reduce the other.”
A college student answered this way: “I grew up in a time where events like the Holocaust felt historical. In light of recent political changes, though, those events don’t feel so long ago. But in this journey, there is always hope, always faith, always pride. There are few things I am more proud of in my life than being Jewish.”
The issue was addressed in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article about novelists who are American and Jewish setting their stories in Israel.
“Jews in America are always being called upon to declare their loyalties — which of our identifiers do we put before the hyphen, and which do we put after: ‘Jewish’ or ‘American’? This recurrent query — which Jews in America ask themselves with all the breeziness of an online test, and anti-Semites in America ask with all the gravity of an Ellis Island examination — is inevitable but pointless. Jews are more secure in contemporary America than they have been in any other country in Jewish history. This is because America is a country in which the citizens define the ideologies, not the other way around,” said Joshua Cohen, author of “Moving Kings.”
So, if given that choice, do you identify as a Jewish-American or an American Jew?