Jewish American identity often traverses religion, ethnicity, race, and culture, resulting in Jewishness as both religious and nonreligious behaviors (Goldscheider, 1986; Liebman, 1982; Medding, Tobin, Fishman, & Rimor, 1992; Simon, 1989). Nonreligious behavior includes actions such as Jewish American education, membership in social groups, and philanthropic contributions, while the religious component may be enacted through the observance of the Jewish laws and rituals. Thus, Jewish identity reflects the complex interpenetration and interplay of religious and ethnic components. How and when individuals decide which components are salient to them and how they decide if and when to disclose this information makes these competing aspects of group-based identity worthy of examination to expand theory and research.
Viewing Jewish American identity from a communication perspective illuminates group and individual identity aspects. The Communication Theory of Identity places interaction centrally in the process of identity formation and enactment; identity is considered to be a communication process consisting of four layers of transaction in which messages are exchanged (Hecht, Collier, & Ribeau, 1993). These four layers are labeled the personal, enacted, relational, and communal frames. The personal frame examines one's self-cognition and/or spiritual sense of well-being. The enacted frame focuses on how messages express identity. Individuals use direct and indirect ways of revealing their identity (e.g., telling someone directly they are Jewish or talking about Hanukkah). The relational frame refers to how one's identity is formed through one's relationships, is invested in one's relationship to other people, and exists in relation to one's other identities. Finally, the communal frame focuses on how a group of people or some particular community shares an identity. A community possesses its own identity/ies and shared visions of personhood.
These four levels, or frames, can work individually, in pairs, or in any combination. The layers may operate cooperatively or they may create a dialectical opposition such as a person who feels pride in his/her own Jewish identity, yet does not wish to participate in cultural traditions. Moreover, the layers are considered to be interpenetrating; that is, they are infused into each other. For example, relationships help shape personal understandings, while at the same time relationships are formed out of personal identities. Thus, the relational frame is in the personal frame and the personal is in the relationship. When these four layers are considered, the formation of identity can be seen as a negotiation among the individual, the enacted, the relational, and the communal frames or any combination of the four.
Jewish American Identity
Over time, Jewish identity has been transformed from an all-encompassing identity to an identity that exists alongside or in combinations with other identities (Wertheimer, 1993). While this identity always had both religious and secular elements, for many Jewish Americans the religious element now has become subordinate to cultural or secular elements; it is not so much focused on images of God or religious practices as much as it is a social style. For example, most American Jewish organizations conceive of Jewish identity as a combination of some degree of both religious and ethnic characteristics. A synagogue, for example, has traditionally been a house of worship and study. Now it also serves as a center for secular Jewish cultural and social activities. Alternatively, a seemingly nonreligious Jewish philanthropic organization will close its offices during holidays or will coordinate a religious service for the Jewish homeless. At times, Jewish identities have superseded other identities for group members in the face of oppression. For example, during certain past historical epochs such as the Holocaust, one's Jewish identity often took on a monolithic or singular emphasis.
The Jewish community in America has many identities within it that have been shaped by the embrace of modernism and individualism. Modernity and the rise of individualism have led to the "assertion of an endless variety of religious interpretations" in Judaism (Liebman, 1995, p. 301). This process has been described as an erosion of generational continuities created by increased exposure to non-Jewish ideas and symbols (Meyer, 1990). Some have labeled this phenomenon the "pick and choose religion," "smorgasbord theology," and "cafeteria religion" (Wertheimer, 1993, p. 192). Therefore, Jewish identity can be a product of one's family life, one's religious beliefs, one's social network, one's life experiences, or many other considerations. The presence of four Jewish denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, demonstrates how Jewish religion in America has changed to meet the needs of the individual.
This transformation of religious life to meet the needs of the individual has created a sudden and dramatic shift from a religious to a nonreligious identity. The embrace of modernity has slowly molded Jewish American ethnicity from a "community of belief to a community of shared identity" (Medding, 1987, p. 14). Traditionally, Jewish life existed within the framework of a closed community whose members learned, worked, and prayed together using common languages reflecting a shared heritage. In a community of belief, Jewish identity was both central and salient, consisting of a pattern of prescribed and fixed actions and beliefs (Simon, 1989). For many Americans, Jewish ethnicity is now characterized as a community of shared identity or a "partial system of voluntary memberships and individual decision" with vague boundaries in which Jewish identity is neither as central nor as salient as in the traditional Jewish community (Medding, 1987, p. 29).
The Communication Theory of Identity provides a framework for understanding both symbolic and direct expressions of Jewish identity through its four frames: personal, enacted, relational, and communal. The theory considers Jewishness to be a process that can be examined at one level, across levels or between levels. We begin at the personal level in this paper and explore the ways that individual Jewish identity crosses over into the enacted, relational, and communal realms when an individual is faced with the issue of identity.
Communication Boundary Management
The disclosure of information, particularly that which potentially carries stigmas, presents individuals with the need to balance privacy and revelation because of the potential risk to their self-concept and relationships. Communication Boundary Management (CBM) contends that because of this risk, individuals find themselves faced with the need to balance public disclosures with the need for privacy (Petronio, 1991, 2000). "Revealing private information is risky because there is a potential vulnerability when revealing aspects of the self. Receiving private information from another may also result in the need for protecting oneself" (Petronio, 1991, p. 311).Jewish identity is private information because it is not always readily apparent if someone is Jewish, and because being Jewish may be marked as a tribal or communal stigma (Thompson & Seibold, 1978).
Decisions about disclosing personal information are made based on boundary structures and a rule-based management system. Boundary structures are frameworks, which constrain and promote access to private information and consist of four dimensions: ownership, control, permeability, and levels. The first two dimensions deal with the belief that individuals own private information and therefore exercise control over it, which is to say they have the right to conceal or reveal it (Petronio, 2000). In accordance with this, individuals use boundaries and draw them tightly when they want protection and to decrease the possibility of losing face. Boundaries regulate the flow of private information between oneself and others. When an individual maintains strict control over his or her boundaries, "access to information about the person is limited, autonomy is achieved, and vulnerability is at a minimum" (Petronio, 1991, p. 314). When boundaries are permeable, others are allowed access. Balancing levels of permeability and control allows a person to manage the degree of openness achieved with others. Individuals achieve this balance through rules that regulate access to private information (Petronio, 2000).
People use rules to help them control the level of boundary access others …