Hoffman discusses Jewish identity crisis, generational differences

As marrying outside of one’s ethnicity becomes more and more acceptable in America today, Lawrence A. Hoffman said the loss of such heritage is leading to a crisis of identity among Jews.

Hoffman spoke Thursday from the Hall of Philosophy sharing his lecture, “Beyond Ethnicity: Religion for an Age of Anxious Identity.” He focused on how, via simple interactions of time and migration, religions are losing some of their bonds of ethnicity.

“America actually was fully ethnic until recently. It just depended on what ethnicity it was,” Hoffman said. “That’s what made religion so possible. You’re all part of a hermetically sealed group … But by the 1960s that was gone. For a variety of reasons, we broke through our hermetically sealed circles. We began meeting other people, and we forgot about that ethnicity. What do you do then, when the religious glue is missing?”

Focusing specifically on the Jews — pointing out the problem is by no means uniquely Jewish — Hoffman detailed the four “generations” of Jews and how they affect the modern Jewish identity.

The first major Jewish migration came from Europe in the 19th century. While Jews came from all over Europe, they were predominantly German and brought over their culture. These Jews found a balance between their American citizenship, their Jewish faith and their native culture as they settled.

The second generation of Jews came from Russia in the early 20th century. They fled from their homeland in the face of fierce, growing anti-Semitism. When these Jews arrived in America, they were quicker to assimilate to American culture, but were more successful at maintaining a sense of community when in the States than the previous generation — namely by way of building synagogues and establishing a presence in the states.

These Jews didn’t have the Napoleonic understanding of Judaism as a religion as opposed to diaspora that had taken over much of the world, Hoffman said. Despite their assimilation, they did decide to establish their Jewish presence as a people in America.

“In America, that’s what you did,” Hoffman said. “So they realized, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ So they built synagogues.“

The third generation of Jews, circa 1950, began two of the main practices behind today’s lost sense of the Jewish self, Hoffman said: interbreeding and affection for one’s children.

Of the former, Hoffman said because the old taboo of Jews marrying outside their race was being torn down, family heritages were — in part — lost by the wayside.

“What they had of course was ethnicity, but here’s the problem — ethnicity lasts only three generations,” Hoffman said.

Coupled with this, a growing trend in child rearing at the time was paying affection to one’s children as opposed to the stricter upbringings of the 19th century. Hoffman said Jews took this to heart to the point of focusing resources on children as opposed to adults, which led to a lack of knowledge for the children as to how to be a Jewish adult.

“We put so much emphasis on the children that we spent everything on Jewish education and nothing on Jewish adulthood, and we ended up with what I call ‘pediatric religion,’ ” Hoffman said.

These two factors led to today’s fourth generation of Jews, a generation that Hoffman said, “just doesn’t care.”

“In the post-ethnic era, we no longer know who we are,” Hoffman said. “The post-ethnic era, therefore, is an era of anxious identity. Who are we?”

Hoffman did, however, offer insight as to how to reclaim a Jewish identity. He said the loudest voices in religion today come from the organized political movement of the religious right. He said that today’s Jews could make it their mission to unify as a liberal, religious response to the right to publicly testify to their Jewish values and make a new meaning for what it means to be a Jewish adult today.

“There can be another great religious voice of religion in America,” Hoffman said. “And I argue that America needs it as much as you or I do.”