American Jews or Jewish Americans?

In response to the recent PBS Special called “The Jewish Americans,” Shari Rabin posted in her Chutzpah Chronicles, part of the Washington Post’s “Faithbook,” an entry entitled “My Jewish Identity”. In it, Rabin meditates on Faithbook’s question, THE question, as she dubs it: 

“We know what ‘Jewish identity’ has meant in the past. What will it mean in the future? How does a minority religion retain its roots and embrace change?” 

Rabin expresses her concern that, in this day and age, we are first Americans and then Jews: while we don’t have to choose to do activities that distinguish us as American, we do have to consciously choose activities and friends that allow us to distinguish ourselves as Jewish. We have to actively seek out those Jews in our immediate world, and have to specifically live in places where we know there will be other Jews, lest we assimilate into secular society. I agree with Rabin’s assessment. But, as I posted as a brief comment to her above post, I am more concerned with a different, yet related subquestion: Are we Jewish Americans, as the title of the PBS special  indicates? Or, are we American Jews? Is there a difference?

In discussing this with my father last night, he neatly averted a clear response to the question by saying, “I am Jewish, and I am an American. They’re both adjectives. Why does one have to be more important than the other?” His answer rings somewhat true. I am an American. I have American values, believe in American government, and I thrive while living under American public law. But the core of me is Jewish. I identify with other Jews, anywhere in the world, while I don’t have the same connection with other Americans around the world. I live my life Jewishly, and I keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and let halakha rule my life. On the other hand, my Americana also defines my Judaism: American social values are the reason the Conservative Movement within Judaism started in the first place. The idea of “Tradition and Change” is an idea that can only rule if we are in a society that allows us to practice both, a luxury that not everyone in every country has.

To be a “Jewish American,” I would have to let the “American,” the noun of my existence, be influenced by my “Jewish” adjective nature. To be an “American Jew,” though, allows myself to be defined as a “Jew,” the true noun of my existence, and the core of my character, to be influenced by my “American” adjective nature.

I am an American Jew.

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