I always give the same advice to reporters who are going out to interview a Jewish celebrity. “Don’t ask, ‘How Jewish are you?’ Instead, ask, ‘How are you Jewish?’”
The first question puts people on the defensive, since it presumes a sort of quantitative ideal of Jewish behaviors and beliefs. The second opens up the conversation, and let’s people describe the Jewish behaviors and beliefs that are most important to them.
The first question is often asked by traditionalists, who like to set a baseline of what it means to be an “engaged” Jew.
“How are you Jewish?” is asked by the so-called “transformationalists,” who are interested in the ways today’s Jews understand their own Jewish identities, quite apart from the ideals presented by, say, their rabbis or parents.
Apparently there is a traditionalist streak over at The Wall Street Journal, which essentially asked recently, Just how Jewish is Michael Bloomberg?
Bloomberg’s Jewish identity was back in the news thanks to the mayor’s double-barreled support for the Islamic center near Ground Zero. In a speech on Governors Island, Bloomberg spoke movingly about religious freedom. His aides told The New York Times that Bloomberg was inspired in part by the discrimination his Jewish parents faced when they tried to buy a house in an “unwelcoming Massachusetts suburb.”
The Journal’s article on Bloomberg’s Jewishness set out its thesis at the beginning: “[T]he role of religion in the Jewish mayor’s life has been marked mostly by detachment during his nearly nine years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous city.”
Read on, however, and you find a curious case for Bloomberg’s “detachment.” Here’s a checklist, based on the Jewish behaviors Bloomberg or his associates describe. Apparently, Hizzoner
- believes in God
- eschews many of the traditions and customs of Judaism
- gives generously to Jewish organizations
- believes strongly that “your values and how they influence you to make the world a better place are the key parts of Judaism and every other religion”
- belongs to a Reform synagogue
- thinks God will judge you “on what you do and how you help others, as opposed to how you worship”
- goes to services for the High Holy Days
- believes “freedom of religion is more important” than practicing it
- attends Passover seders
- supports the State of Israel, and has visited as a private citizen as well as on official business
In other words, Bloomberg comes across as a typical American Jew, but in some ways even more engaged than all but an intensively identified elite.
For example, according to a 2001 survey conducted by the Center for Jewish Studies at CUNY, 73 percent of Jewish-American adults believe that God exists — but nearly half of these regard themselves as “secular.”
Meanwhile, only about one million Jewish households belong to a congregation, fewer than half. Reform is the largest denomination in terms of adult adherents. According to a recent Brandeis University survey, only 36 percent of American Jews report having been to Israel.
By these various measures, Bloomberg would be seen as a “macher” in many American-Jewish circles. According to the Journal, he’s “detached.”
The Journal article speaks to a fairly conventional view of “religiosity,” namely, that one’s religious identity is measured by ritual acts and stated theological beliefs. That has never been a useful measure of Jewish identity. For at least 100 years, the Jewish community has been a cholent of believers and skeptics. Some go to shul; others cut a big check for the local federation. For every Yiddishist who shuns religion, there’s a temple president who can’t understand a word of Yiddish or Hebrew.
Which of these you consider a “good Jew” is a Rorschach test. I’m sure the folks at Hadassah Hospital, where Bloomberg bankrolled a wing, consider him among the righteous. His Governors Island speech made me proud to be a Jew.
On the other hand, Bloomberg’s current companion isn’t Jewish, and his kids were “kind of raised…to be Church of England,” says one of his daughters. If you believe that the Jewish future begins with the family, Bloomberg may not be your role model.
But that’s a test we apply within our own community. The Journal article seems of a piece with a different sort of test, one being applied to our public figures with greater frequency and intensity. Politicians strive to appear more religious than their rivals. Figures like Glenn Beck demand ever more ostentatious displays of religious fervor in the public square. President Obama’s somewhat understated practice of Christianity is held against him, or feeds the falsehood that he is a closet Muslim.
The diversity of American Judaism has always stood as a rebuke to these kinds of litmus tests. There is no one definition of a “good Jew,” and the community is stronger for it. How Jewish are you? The only correct response is, “Who’s asking?”