Ear­li­er this week, Har­ry Ostr­er wrote about a series of sci­en­tists who con­tributed to our con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ing of Jew­ish­ness. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Albert Ein­stein may have been the most famous Jew of the 20th cen­tu­ry. His biog­ra­ph­er Wal­ter Isaac­son described that when he arrived in New York in April, [1921], he was greet­ed by ador­ing throngs as the world’s first sci­en­tif­ic celebri­ty, one who also hap­pened to be a gen­tle icon of human­ist val­ues and a liv­ing patron saint for Jews.” Over the course of his life­time, Ein­stein became a com­mit­ted Jew and a Zion­ist, a com­mit­ment that result­ed in his being offered the pres­i­den­cy of Israel, an hon­or that he declined. In 1955 he stat­ed near the end of his life, My rela­tion­ship to the Jew­ish peo­ple has become my strongest human tie.” Ein­stein explained his route to Jew­ish­ness in his pop­u­lar 1934 book, The World As I See It: The pur­suit of knowl­edge for its own sake, an almost fanat­i­cal love of jus­tice, and the desire for per­son­al inde­pen­dence – these are the fea­tures of the Jew­ish tra­di­tion which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” He went on to note, In the philo­soph­i­cal sense there is, in my opin­ion, no spe­cif­ic Jew­ish out­look. Judaism seems to me to be con­cerned almost exclu­sive­ly with the moral atti­tude in life and to life. I look upon it as the essence of an atti­tude to life which is incar­nate in the Jew­ish peo­ple rather than the essence of laws laid down in the Torah and inter­pret­ed in the Tal­mud.” Ein­stein was quite emphat­ic that his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty was not reli­gious­ly moti­vat­ed. In 1921, he told the rab­bis of Berlin who had urged him to become a dues-pay­ing mem­ber of the Jew­ish reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty, I notice that the word Jew is ambigu­ous in that it refers (1) to nation­al­i­ty and ori­gin, (2) to the faith. I am a Jew in the first sense, not the second.”

So Ein­stein high­light­ed sev­er­al of the fea­tures that fos­ter Jew­ish iden­ti­ty – nation­al­i­ty (or race or group mem­ber­ship), the cul­ture ema­nat­ing from group mem­ber­ship, and shared reli­gious belief. In the Unit­ed States, reli­gion remains a pow­er­ful force in Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, as do an inner com­mit­ment to being Jew­ish and sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish friend­ship ties. The Nation­al Jew­ish Pop­u­la­tion Sur­vey of 2000 – 2001 observed, Most Amer­i­can Jew­ish adults observe in some way the High Hol­i­days, Passover and Chanukah. Majori­ties also read a Jew­ish news­pa­per or mag­a­zine or books with Jew­ish con­tent, regard being Jew­ish as very impor­tant, and report that half or more of their close friends are Jewish.” 

Ein­stein believed that anti-Semi­tism was a major force in pro­mot­ing affil­i­a­tion to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as when he wrote, It may be thanks to anti-Semi­tism that we are able to pre­serve our race.” Yet, the writ­ers of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Year­book 2007 have shown that anti-Semi­tism is sim­ply not present at lev­els where it would serve as a threat and cohe­sive force, not­ing, The Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the U.S. – the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Jews in the world out­side Israel – expe­ri­enced remark­ably low lev­els of expres­sion of anti-Semit­ic expres­sion, both behav­ioral and atti­tu­di­nal in 2006. This fol­lowed a 50-year pat­tern that reflect­ed the strengths of a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety, even as inter­group ten­sions in gen­er­al con­tin­ued to con­cern polit­i­cal lead­ers and social ana­lysts.” This has trans­lat­ed into a dif­fer­ent set of feel­ings about being Jew­ish in the Unit­ed States with most con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jews view­ing them­selves as Ein­stein did — both assim­i­lat­ed and Jewish.

Dr. Har­ry Ostr­er is the author of Lega­cy: A Genet­ic His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Peo­ple. He is a med­ical geneti­cist who inves­ti­gates the genet­ic basis of com­mon and rare dis­or­ders. He is also known for his study, writ­ings, and lec­tures about the ori­gins of the Jew­ish peo­ple. He is a pro­fes­sor of Pathol­o­gy and Genet­ics at Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and Direc­tor of Genet­ic and Genom­ic Test­ing at Mon­te­fiore Med­ical Cen­ter.

Har­ry Ostr­er, M.D., is the author of Lega­cy: A Genet­ic His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Peo­ple. Dr. Ostreris pro­fes­sor of pathol­o­gy and genet­ics at Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine and direc­tor of genet­ic and genom­ic test­ing at Mon­te­fiore Med­ical Cen­ter. He pre­vi­ous­ly served as direc­tor of human genet­ics at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Medicine.

Joseph Jacobs: Fight­ing Anti-Semi­tism, Genet­i­cal­ly

Arthur Mourant: It’s All In the Blood