Sometimes Jewish, Sometimes Not: The Closeting of Jewish American Identity

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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.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

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. …