Jewish Multiple Identity

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Jewish Multiple Identity

As a collective that has lived and created its history for the most part not merely in diaspora but among a vast array of "host" peoples, Jewry across the generations has been powerfully marked by the need to negotiate, on the one hand, elements of identity understood to be shared with all Jews at all times and places and, on the other hand, cultural motifs and practices shared with their non-Jewish neighbors.

Sephardim and Ashkenazim

The medieval Jewish view divided the world between Edom (Christendom) and Ishmael (the realm of Islam), and the Jewish world was likewise bifurcated (for example, by Maimonides) into Galut Edom (Jews under the cross) and Galut Ishmael (Jews under the crescent). More broadly, and continuing throughout roughly the second Christian millennium, most of the Jews of the world have generally been understood to belong to two major subgroups. One group is called Sephardim, a term derived from the Hebrew name of Spain. The term originally denoted only Iberian Jews, but after the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, it was colloquially expanded to include all the Jewish communities of the circum-Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. The second group is known as Ashkenazim. This term is derived from the Hebrew word designating the German lands and was used to describe virtually all the Jewish communities of northern, western, and eastern Europe, who shared the Yiddish idiom until the modern era. Until the nineteenth century, the former group was more numerous, but the Ashkenazi population increased dramatically in the modern era. Since the establishment of the state of Israel, however, scholars and activists have worked to promote the collective identity and cultural heritage of Arabic-speaking Jews as distinguished, on the one hand, from the "true" Sephardim (Ladino-speaking communities that trace their origin to Iberia) and, on the other, from the largely secular Ashkenazim who founded the central Zionist institutions. It is also understood in the early twenty-first century that the bifurcation of Jewishness into Sephardic and Ashkenazic identities occluded the stubborn persistence of Jewish communal identities in widely scattered parts of the world such as Ethiopia, India, and China, and of nonrabbinic Jewish groups, most notably the Karaites.

Fundaments and Contingencies

Understandably, what is emphasized in the religious liturgy, in traditional literature, and in contemporary collective memory are the supposedly "constant" marks of Jewish identity: study and adherence to the laws of the Bible and (especially) the Talmud and other rabbinic glosses and codices; observance of the weekly Sabbath and the festivals that mark the annual (lunar) calendar; solidarity with Jews in distant places, especially those whose safety is threatened at any particular time; and a shared understanding that Zion is both the origin and the eschatological destination of all Jews everywhere.

Continuity of Jewish identity in diaspora can be traced not only to the existence of these texts and rituals as a "portable homeland" but also to policing of the bounds of identity from within (through autonomously governing communal structures) and without (through social discrimination and restrictive legislation enacted by Christian and Muslim religious and secular officials). Moreover, any Jew in the premodern world who strayed too far from competence in Jewish culture risked a painful loss of status. Hence the story of the village Jew so illiterate that his fellow congregants mocked him as "Zalmen the goy [gentile]." When the rabbi admonished them not to be so cruel, they complied but in a way that dug even deeper, calling him instead "Zalmen the Yid [Jew]."

However, the tradition also acknowledges that Jewish ability to identify as, if not necessarily empathize with, non-Jews is also of value to the Jewish community and its survival. The story recited by Jewish communities each year on the festival of Purim is exemplary here: The emperor Ahasuerus in ancient Persia holds a contest to find the most beautiful woman in the kingdom and make her his queen, and the Jewish girl Esther is selected. Throughout the selection process and the beginning of her reign, she conceals from the emperor the fact of her Jewish birth, only revealing it as she denounces the author of a plot to kill all the Jews of the empire. A clear moral of this story is that at certain times, an individual's pretending not to be Jewish can benefit the entire community.

Questions of Gender

Jewishness is often implicitly conflated with maleness since participation in ritual and in textual study was often limited to males. Indeed, like most group identities, especially perhaps in the West, Jewishness is explicitly patriarchal. However, for centuries Jewishness as an identity transmitted at birth has been determined matrilineally. The contribution of women to the transmission and constant renewal of Jewishness is often articulated only in response to feminist critiques of traditional sexism, but there should be no question that women's role as educators and shapers of the sensibilities of new Jewish generations has always been indispensable.

Modernity and Beyond

Under the pressures of modern secularizing and state-building tendencies, the unique mix of a sense of core unity and adaptive flexibility that sustained Jewish diasporic communities for millennia was massively weakened. Among both Jews and non-Jews, the collective identity of autonomous communities came to be seen as inimical to modernity. Debates raged for decades as to whether Jewish identity was primarily religious, national, or racial; and movements for reform, the establishment of a Jewish nation-state (in Palestine or elsewhere), and the elimination of Jewish difference through intermarriage and assimilation were promoted accordingly. From the Enlightenment until the rise of European fascism, it was commonly believed that it was possible for Jews to identify both with their co-religionists everywhere and with fellow citizens of their countries of residence.

Since World War II, it has been a commonplace that the twin pillars of shared Jewish identity are the memory of Nazi genocide and identification with the Jewish state of Israel. However, since the last decades of the twentieth century these emphases have been countered, or at least balanced, by a renewed engagement with the Jewish textual tradition and by a reinvention of the liturgical and ritual tradition, both placing more emphasis than ever before on the goal of making women equal participants in Jewish identity. These phenomena, along with the dramatic regeneration of Orthodox Jewish communities, demonstrate the continued vitality of Jewish capacities for the negotiation of multiple Jewish and human identities.

See also Diasporas: Jewish Diaspora ; Judaism .


Biale, David, ed. Cultures of the Jews: A New History. New York: Schocken, 2002.

Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Goldberg, David Theo, and Michael Krausz, eds. Jewish Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Zimmels, H. J. Ashkenazim and Sephardim: Their Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1996.

Jonathan Boyarin

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Jewish Multiple Identity

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