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Ruthless Cosmopolitan: Just Being (jewish)

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Not long ago, a Facebook friend of mine wrote that she had had a great time at a Shabbat dinner even if there had been “a wee bit much talk” of religion.

“Why all this American obsession with Jewish identity?” she wrote on her profile page on the social networking site. “Just BE!”

Her comment got me thinking.

Defining Jewish identity, refining Jewish identity, reclaiming Jewish identity, reinforcing Jewish identity — these seem indeed to be constant concerns among many Jews, and not just in the United States.

“Jewish identity” has been the subject of endless conferences, surveys, books, articles, analyses and movies — not to mention comedy routines. A Google search for “Jewish identity” gave me 573,000 matches!

What impact, I wondered, does this all have on who we are — or at least on who we say we are?

I decided to carry out an unscientific study to find out — a very unscientific study.

My methodology was simple: I used Facebook to see how Jews, or at least Jews I know, define themselves in terms of religious identity.

For those unfamiliar with Facebook, a site that has 120 million users around the world, its software permits you to connect with lists of “friends” who are in turn linked with friends’ lists of their own.

Upon joining you create a profile, including information you want to make public about your age, sex, location, profession, personal views and even your sexual preference. You pick and choose what you want to post. Some people post only their name; others provide the whole megillah.

One of the choices is to state your “religious views.” You can choose whether or not to post anything at all about your religious beliefs and, if you opt to post, you choose how you want to define yourself; there is a blank space you can fill in with whatever you want to say.

For my study, I simply checked how my Facebook friends I know to be Jewish chose to respond.

I have more than 200 Facebook friends, and as it turns out, the overwhelming majority are Jewish. They include several rabbis, a cantor, klezmer musicians, Jewish scholars and leaders or staff members of Jewish organizations, as well as friends and family who have nothing to do with the Jewish institutional world.

About half of them chose not to fill in the “religious views” blank. Some clearly wanted to keep their religious beliefs personal; for others it was unimportant to define them. For others still, filling in the blank would have been redundant.

“It would be stating the very obvious,” Herschel Gluck, an Orthodox rabbi who for more than 20 years has done Jewish outreach work in East-Central Europe, told me in an e-mail.

All of his other postings on Facebook, he noted, including pictures that show him in a long beard and black hat, made his religious identity clear.

“EVERYTHING is naturally and unashamedly proudly Jewish!” he said.

Of my more than 80 Jewish Facebook friends who did choose to state their religious views, only a minority went the standard route. Barely a dozen wrote simply “Jewish,” and only another dozen or so identified themselves as some traditional formulation of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.

The others produced a cornucopia of qualifiers, inventions, political statements and imaginative shadings that demonstrated a vast and colorful spectrum encompassing the widest range of belief, observance and nuanced sense of self.

They include: Jewish atheist; Absolute atheist; I love being Jewish; The Golden Rule; Incoherent; That’s between me and my imaginary friend; It’s all good; Eclectic; Panoramic; Anything I Can Cling To; Ignostic; Resolutely Secularly Jewish; Neo-tribalist, neo-pagan of Zion; “Still haven’t found it” Jewish; Spiritual Jewgayism; Whirling Dervish; Rationalist; Jewishjewishjewish; I can see a church from my window; Jewish but not obsessive; All; Post Pigeon-Holistic; Waiting for UFOs to Take Me to Hawaii.

Some of these are frivolous or funny; others tweak stereotypes. Most, though, even if outlandish, are at heart thoughtful expressions of complex contemporary IDs that go far beyond the usual definitions of who (or what) is a Jew.

One friend summed it all up by stating his religious views as follows: “A simple Jew (who am I kidding? Is there such a thing?”).

I asked a few of my friends why they chose to define their views as they did. The klezmer musician and filmmaker Yale Strom, for example, called himself a “Yiddish pagan.”

“Yiddish is the tongue I relate to most as in my second tongue,” he said in an e-mail. “My pagan beliefs come from me not believing in a typical omnipotent god figure sitting on a throne but a more amorphous one as in ‘Mother nature.’ “

Strom said he felt connected to Mother Nature, “as did the Baal Shem Tov who lived in the forests, studied the plants and was a known herbalist among the Jews and non-Jews.”

“I am not an atheist,” he added, “because I know there is something greater than myself — or there better be or we are all doomed — in fact there has to be, why else be born, put into this life?”

Bruno Bitter, in his early 30s, coordinates a popular Jewish blog and online community in Budapest. He described his religious views as “opiate of the few.”

Why that?

“Marx wrote that ‘Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes,’ ” he told me. “This is often referred to as ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ in English. But the Jewish religion is for no ‘masses,’ as we are a small minority.”

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Michael Seifert, a retired technical writer, described himself as “Secular Humanist Jewish.”

“I call myself a secular humanist because I put my faith in civic, political, charitable, and educational institutions not affiliated with any religions and follow the teachings of the Western humanist tradition, which emphasizes the rights of man and the dignity of the individual,” Seifert told me.

“Oh yes,” he added. “I was born Jewish, so I have certain traditions and beliefs that come from my Jewish upbringing and education, as well as a birthright and familial alliances with Jewish people.”

Two of Seifert’s siblings are also Facebook friends of mine — one, a musician, calls himself a “spiritualist,” and the other, a professor, is “indifferent.”

Members of my own extended family described themselves as “Jewish of the Reform and secular sort,” or “Jewish-ish,” or simply wrote “yes” after the words “religious views.”

Myself? I chose not to say anything.

If anyone wants to know, they can ask.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com/.)

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