Introduction: An Anthropological Approach to Jews and Judaism

By Fader, Ayala | American Jewish History, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Introduction: An Anthropological Approach to Jews and Judaism


Fader, Ayala, American Jewish History


I am a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who studies contemporary Jewish life in New York City. As a cultural anthropologist, my approach is an ethnographic one, which is distinguished by its emphasis on participant observation--that is, participating in and observing the everyday lives of those with whom I work. The majority of my research has been with ultra-Orthodox Jewish women and girls in Brooklyn, or, as I call them, "nonliberal" Jews. (1) This has meant, for example, that I spent two years in a Hasidic girls' school observing kindergarteners and first-graders. I visited with Hasidic women and children in their homes as they ate supper, played and did homework, and I attended a class for Hasidic brides, among many other activities. As I participated and observed, I also took field notes on these experiences, which created one body of data.

I am also a linguistic anthropologist, which has shaped both my methodology and my analytic focus on language. In my research, I regularly record, transcribe and then analyze naturally occurring talk, creating another body of data. For example, in my book, Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn (2009), I not only included transcripts of interactions in homes, schools and other neighborhood contexts in Yiddish and English, but I also analyzed the distinctive languages that Hasidic men and women speak: Hasidic Yiddish and Hasidic English (called "Yinglish" by many in the community). In Mitzvah Girls, I used this focus on talk to theorize about nonliberal religions more generally: I argued that women and girls use language and other embodied practices (such as modest comportment or modest fashions) to create an alternative religious modernity. This religious modernity includes an explicit critique of secular modernity--specifically, the notions of freedom, autonomy, pluralism and tolerance.

I have also used the approaches of cultural and linguistic anthropology to study Jewish prayer, institution building and education in a synagogue study that I, together with ethnomusicologist Mark Kligman, conducted in New York City. Drawing on this research, I have written about Jewish spirituality--the emotional, individualized experience of God--and its relationship to ongoing neoliberal processes of gentrification in a Manhattan neighborhood (2007).

Currently, I am working on two different projects--projects connected by their attention to digital media--that emerge out of my commitment to including Jews and Judaism in anthropological conversations about religion, politics and social change. The first, conducted with Owen Gottlieb, is an ethnographic study of Occupy Judaism, the Jewish inflection of Occupy Wall Street. We are exploring Occupy Judaism's relationship to Occupy Faith and Occupy Wall Street; the ways in which social media, religious practice and political activism interact; and what all of this may tell us about religion and the public sphere in 21st-century urban America (nd. Fader and Gottlieb).

The second, longer-term project involves a return to the world of nonliberal Judaism. My focus this time is the moral panic that indicates a moment of transition: many community members claim that the Internet is leading nonliberal Jews to stray off the derech (path, meaning to leave orthodoxy). This panic became very public in 2012, when some rabbinic authorities held an asifa (gathering) in the Citi Field baseball stadium in New York to warn of the dangers the Internet posed. Forty thousand attended and the event was covered in the Jewish and more mainstream media. Digital media, with its private access to knowledge is creating spaces to challenge to the moral authority of the leadership. In response, there has been increasing communal concern with "strengthening emune (faith), which has included changing cultural beliefs about media altogether (Fader 2013)

I locate this moral panic in a broader historical context in order to understand processes of change in a nonliberal religious community. …

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