Assorted attempts to define American Jewish identity stem from the confusion as to what precisely Jews are. Do they comprise a religion or an ethnicity, or perhaps both? This ambiguity has not been present for other American ethnic groups, for whom religion and ethnicity are entirely separate categories. The Jewish identity, however, is an amalgam of religion and ethnicity. Save for conversion to another religion, even the most extreme non-believer is a Jew in good standing according to Jewish law and common belief, and Jews have been proud of the atheists and agnostics within their midst.
The fluidity of Jewish identity in America is the central concern of Rachel B. Gross’s interesting and provocative book Beyond the Synagogue. Gross, the John and Marcia Goldman Chair in American Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, is fascinated by the various forms of modern American Jewish identity and nostalgia. Despite the fact that many of these feelings take place outside the synagogue, she insists they are actually alternative means by which Jews express their religious cravings. “Attending public religious services was not where most Jews found existential meaning,” Gross argues. “Rather, the sacred relationships of Jewish community extended beyond those conventional indicators of religion” such as attendance at synagogue services.
Beyond the Synagogue focuses on four of these supposedly new religious forms: genealogical research, the renovation of historic urban synagogues, the publication of Jewish children’s books, and a renaissance involving European Jewish cooking and the patronizing of Jewish-style restaurants. In writing about this culinary renaissance, Gross asserts that it is “is an example of lived religion, activities that practitioners might not recognize as religious but that provide meaningful structures to their lives.” But just because an activity provides meaning does not mean that this meaning has anything to do with religion. In fact, her examples of Jewish identity appeal to a population for whom Jewishness is more a matter of secular culture than of religion, and its members would undoubtedly be surprised if told that they are acting religiously when consuming a corned beef sandwich along with a kosher pickle and a potato knish.
Gross’s approach to Jewish identity and Judaism is illustrated by her discussion at the end of her book of the 2018 wedding at a dim sum restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown of Courtney Byrne-Mitchell, who had been raised Irish-Catholic, and Mattie Ettenheim, a Jew. The couple had met while both working at the museum of the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, and the synagogue’s museum hosted their post-wedding brunch. Gross claims that the wedding ceremony of these two women, which included an Irish blessing, the singing of the Christian liturgical song “Alleluia,” and a female folklorist who served as the rabbi, reveals “the possibilities — and some of the limits — of the institutions of Jewish nostalgia,” and that it was “both fitting and praiseworthy — an American Jewish mitzvah,” for the couple to hold their celebratory brunch at the museum. This is one example of the extent to which the author has stretched the possibilities and limits of Judaism and Jewish identity.