Debates surrounding Jewish identity, culture, and religion abound across time and space. At the root of the discourse are questions about group boundaries; inclusion and exclusion; and the foundations of Jewish identities. In the United States, Jews from diverse, non-Ashkenazi backgrounds often find their Jewishness questioned, their stories marginalized. However, mirroring a broader trend, the US Jewish population has become increasingly diverse. In response, academics, Jewish institutions, and Jewish communities are attempting to understand diverse Jewish stories, centering the voices of Jews outside the white Ashkenazi mainstream.
One area of academic activity is the study of Jewish sub-ethnic groups. More than 10 years ago, the term Latinx still nascent, I began researching the identity construction and assimilation trajectories of Latino Jews. I interviewed Jews from Latin America—primarily Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico—who had settled in the United States. I wanted to understand how they defined their ethnoreligious identities as immigrants, Latinos, and Jews in their new country. The research culminated in my book Kugel and Frijoles: Latino Jews in the United States (2019).
As I discovered, their identities were shaped by robust Jewish communities in Latin America as well as their immigrant experience in the United States, where Latinx immigrants are often racialized and Jewish spaces are not always inclusive. Overall, the majority of Latinx Jewish immigrants preserve a strong national identity and sometimes embrace a pan-ethnic Latinx identity. Although Latinx Jews are unlikely to refer to themselves as non-white, their ethnoreligious identity and Jewish cultural practices often distinguish them from the white American Jewish mainstream. Their experiences offer a lens through which to understand how the Jewish experience was shaped by previous waves of immigrants—and how contemporary Jewish immigrants will likely alter Jewish life in the United States.
Much like my work on Latinx Jews, Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt’s influential book JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews (2016) focuses on Jews outside the white Ashkenazi majority. JewAsian is the only books that highlights two issues—intermarriage and race—that are commonly seen as pillars of authentic Jewish identity. Kim and Leavitt examine the lived experiences of intermarried couples and their children, contesting the myth that children from intermarried couples reject Jewishness as a central identity. Their book is of utmost importance and amplifies a conversation about the boundaries (formal and informal) inherent in Jewish spaces that often marginalize Jews outside the white majority.
Much has changed since the publication of these two books—a migration crisis, attacks on U.S. democratic governance, a global pandemic, a resurgence of white supremacy and antisemitic acts, and a racial reckoning in the United States. With heightened awareness of systemic and institutional racism, many individuals examined their own racial biases and prejudices. Following suit were Jewish communal, religious, cultural, and academic institutions. All have begun to reflect more profoundly on Jews outside the white Ashkenazi Jewish mainstream. All are asking how to enlarge the definition of Jewishness in order to include groups from across the racial and ethnic spectrum.
For example, contemporary Sephardic communities in the United States have been chronically understudied. Dr. Mijal Bitton, a scholar in residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the co-founder of the Downtown Minyan in New York City, is working to change this. Bitton writes extensively on the diversity of American Jewish life, particularly as it pertains to Sephardic Jews in the United States. Sephardic Jewish communities are diverse and comprised of many sub-national groups. Bitton’s work shows the importance of understanding how pan-ethnoreligious (Sephardic) groups compare to Ashkenazi groups, while drawing a portrait of sub-national communities within the larger Sephardic population. In particular, Bitton shows how the pre-migration ethnoreligious culture of Syrian-Sephardic Jews preserves strong communal cohesion and networks—and does so without strict adherence to Jewish law (as is the case with Orthodox Ashkenazi communities). While Bitton’s research is on the Syrian Jewish community in New York, her work sheds light on how other communities emphasize belonging, culture, and endogamy without strict observance of religious law.
Another recent trend among Jewish institutions is an emphasis on research by and about Jews of Color. While academics have pioneered this research, so have communal and non-profit organizations, which are eagerly discussing issues of inclusivity and belonging among Jews who identify as non-white. They are attempting to explore Jewish identity and existing racial boundaries, and also guide practices that promote understanding and inclusion across a racially diverse Jewish population. One such group is the Jews of Color Initiative, a non-profit that focuses on grantmaking, research, and community education by and for Jews of Color. Recently, it sponsored a formative study surveying over 1,000 Jews whose identity veers from the white Jewish mainstream.
The term “Jews of Color” is defined as “an imperfect, but useful umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of identities and meanings.” Furthermore, those who self-identified as JoC in this study used the term in a multiplicity of ways: as a racial grouping (e.g. Black, Asian, and multiracial Jews); to indicate national heritage (e.g. Egyptian, Iranian, and Ethiopian Jews); to describe regional and geographic connections (e.g. Latina/o/x, Mizrahi, Sephardic Jews); and to specify sub-categories (e.g. transracially adopted Jews and Jewish Women of Color). Essentially any Jew that is not born in the United States and identifies as white. (1) (Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color) (2021)
The study is remarkable in encompassing of so many different racial and ethno-racial identities. The resulting report is rich with insights on Jewish identity; how Jewishness is lived and practiced; the social embeddedness of Jewish life; and measures of inclusion and exclusion across Jewish spaces. It is the first report to tackle such a diverse group of Jewish people and illustrates the complexities of their identity—which for some is spiritual, for others is cultural or ethnic, and for many a combination of all three. Moreover, the intersection of Jewishness with other genders, races, or ethnicities results in new groups, varied lived experiences, and different levels of belonging in Jewish spaces. Initiatives like these, which support Jews outside the white mainstream, serve to give voice and legitimacy to diverse perspectives and identities.
The trend in recent scholarship (both in Jewish studies and social sciences) is one that highlights rather than diminishes groups and populations that have been understudied, undercounted, and undervalued. This is a promising and important development: it widens the dialogue about who is a Jew, what comprises a Jewish identity, and how Jews are (or are not) included in social spaces. It also legitimatizes and values diverse cultural, spiritual, and religious ways of being Jewish in the United States. By exploring identity construction through the lens of Jewish people outside the mainstream, we are better equipped to both understand the contemporary Jewish American experience and support inclusivity across the racial, ethnic, and gender spectrum.
Laura Limonic, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at SUNY Old Westbury.
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