Jew­ish Families

Jonathan Boyarin
  • Review
By – October 6, 2014

Jonathan Boyarin is a dis­tin­guished Juda­ic Stud­ies schol­ar who com­bines his exper­tise in anthro­pol­o­gy, Yid­dish cul­ture and ethnogra­phy in a focus on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the dias­po­ra, and the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict, among oth­er topics. 

In the cur­rent work, Boyarin explores the evo­lu­tion and trans­for­ma­tions of the Jew­ish family. 

In Boyarin’s analy­sis, through­out his­to­ry the Jew­ish fam­i­ly has been any­thing but uni­form. Jew­ish fam­i­ly con­fig­u­ra­tions come in mul­ti­ple vari­eties and, Boyarin main­tains, can­not be held up to an arti­fi­cial nor­ma­tive stan­dard such as a nuclear Jew­ish fam­i­ly cel­e­brat­ing a Seder with grand­par­ents in Flori­da. Such fam­i­lies no doubt exist but inter­mar­riage, assim­i­la­tion, gay mar­riage, sin­gle par­ent­hood, and a shift to the right among Ortho­dox Jews have com­bined to rad­i­cal­ly alter the tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish fam­i­ly landscape. 

Boyarin’s beloved Stan­ton Street Shul on New York’s Low­er East Side (the sub­ject of his pri­or work, Morn­ings at the Stan­ton Street Shul) is emblem­at­ic of his con­cep­tion of Jew­ish fam­i­lies. An Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue the con­gre­ga­tion is staunch­ly inclu­sive and attracts a broad range of wor­ship­pers and a wide vari­ety of fam­i­lies. Boyarin cel­e­brates their diver­si­ty, putting him square­ly at odds with tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox Judaism and close to heresy in the eyes of the Hare­di community. 

Jew­ish Fam­i­lies is an aca­d­e­m­ic book suit­ed for spe­cial­ists in the soci­ol­o­gy of the Jew­ish fam­i­ly, Jew­ish cul­tur­al stud­ies, and Jew­ish eth­nography. Lay read­ers with a strong inter­est in the dynam­ics of Jew­ish fam­i­ly life may also gain valu­able insights from this work. 

Read­ers should be fore­warned: Jonathan Boyarin’s bril­liance and wide-rang­ing eru­di­tion some­times come at the expense of clar­i­ty and cohe­sion. The innu­mer­able digres­sions and Tal­mu­dic-like analy­ses of the book’s cen­tral themes might lead a read­er to think that this fas­ci­nat­ing work is meant to be stud­ied, ide­ally, in a course taught by Pro­fes­sor Boyarin. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Relat­ed content:

Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

Discussion Questions