Global Secular JudaismsCaryn_Aviv_Photo_2.jpg

By Caryn Aviv

Someone recently asked me, “How do you use sociology to teach secular Jewish studies?”

Good question. As there are only a handful of academics currently working at the intersection of sociology and Jewish studies, the question was not surprising.

I teach an undergraduate course at the University of Colorado–Boulder called “Global Jewish Secular Societies.” This course serves as a gateway Jewish Studies course for many students who decide to enroll in our Certificate program, which offers students a chance to explore the different facets of the Jewish civilization and to see how these facets relate to the larger world. Using a comparative approach to analyze the varieties of Jewish identities, cultures, and practices in diverse locations, “Global Jewish Secular Societies” uses sociology to speak to students’ questions about self and identity. Questions like: Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? Who do I want to be in the world? How might that self look different from my parents and community of origin.

I’ve found that sociology can serve as a useful entrée to these questions and explore the many dimensions of Jewish secularism. As I’d like to briefly describe, each word in the title of my course is infused with this set of emphases.

Let’s begin with the word global.

On a global scale, my course comparatively engages debates about and concepts of Jewish people, places, and notions of belonging and difference. We look at communities that might be considered the usual Jewish suspects, such as New York, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles. But we also explore those that aren’t as visible, like Rangoon, Havana, and Tehran. We examine how historical time, spatial location, and relationships to political regimes influence processes of secularization and the construction of Jewish identities. “Global Jewish Secular Societies” asks how Jews, primarily in the last two centuries and today, have understood who they are, partially because of where they are, and in relation to other groups and ideas around them. My course also asks how Jews have influenced others in the places they live, and what they leave behind if and when they move on.

Now, to the contested word secular.

Secular denotes both an approach to studying Jews and some dominant expressions of Jewish identity in the modern era. My approach is to begin without making assumptions about Jewish identity, history, or culture. I do not focus on studying Jews from the perspective of Judaism, per se, but rather resist the notion that there is some intrinsic, essential, or hierarchical understanding of Judaism that can be considered authoritative.

When I ask students to define the word “secular,” they usually have a vague sense of it meaning “not very Jewish.” I try to disabuse them of that notion. What I think they mean is “not very religious,” and so on the very first day of class we watch Tiffany Shlain’s 2005 documentary, The Tribe. Watching The Tribe gives the class an opportunity to unpack contemporary, and often contested, manifestations of secular Judaism. For example, many of my students—Jewish or not—implicitly or explicitly assume that the Judaism of contemporary Chabad Lubavitch is the “authentic” form. This is both because Chabad outreach workers deliberately represent themselves as “authentic,” and also because Chabad members seem so “different” and readily identifiable as religious. My students come from a range of backgrounds, but tend to equate religiosity with authenticity, and authenticity with difference. So to think about Jewishness in terms of  “difference,” and to define what we mean by secular Judaism, entails thinking about Judaism in more complex terms.

I take the question of Jewish difference as an opportunity for students to discuss and debate the meanings of secularism, and invite them to look at how people identify as Jews across a broad spectrum of identifications. We talk about how, where, and why religiosity and Jewish difference has been reified, in conversation with or contrast to other Jews and non-Jews alike.  By asking what it means to be Jewish  (and who defines that), rather than “What is Judaism?”, the course asks students to consider the vast range of Jewish practices. It also urges them to confront the expression of differences within the Jewish community and contemporary Jewish life.

Now let’s turn to the word societies.

We begin with a location and a particular point in time—usually within the past 150 years. This point in time is typically significant in the political and/or economic history of that place. Then, on a broader scale, we explore historical events and processes experienced by Jews in that time and location. This leads up to an analysis of contemporary issues, challenges, and cultural trends.

Because this course is organized sociologically, we follow a thematic—rather than an historical—platform. We repeatedly return to persistent themes; for example, when we focus on New York and Buenos Aires we discuss their respective, very different, urban transformations as a consequence of Eastern European migration in the 19th and 20th centuries. We examine how Jews have subsequently negotiated processes of integration and acculturation, and how they have participated in political, social, and cultural change.

We also explore contemporary manifestations of Jewish travel and tourism in multiple directions. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a course that analyzes Jewish notions of homeland and Diaspora, one course unit considers travel to and from Israel. We read sociologist Shaul Kelner’s recent, award-winning work Tours that Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism to think about how free trips to Israel influence the Jewish identity of youth ages 18-26.  What are the differences between pilgrimage journeys (often associated with religiosity), and more secular forms of travel aimed at Jewish political mobilization and contemporary identity construction?  

We then look at the notion of pilgrimage and identity travel in the opposite direction–e.g., the sociological phenomenon of tiyul, the rite of passage journey taken by young post-army secular Israelis to India, China, Thailand, and South America, among other places.  We ask why Israelis choose to travel in communal groups on well-trodden circuits, and how they influence local tourist economies.   We also explore the ways that secular Israeli identity and travel looks similar to, and different from, American Jewish travel.   If, as Shaul Kelner argues, Birthright trips are how young American Jews construct meaning through the consumption of place, then how do their secular Israeli peers differ in their attempts to get as far away from the Jewish homeland as they possibly can?  How do participants in both cases engage in quests for self-understanding and meaning as contemporary Jews? After teaching this course twice, I’ve come to see it as an attempt to understand the Jewish past and present in the context of place. By focusing on Jewish histories and contemporary societies in specific places, my goal is that students begin to see the complex linkages of ideas, historical experiences, and relationships among Jews within the wider global world.  And to return to the question of existential student development, my hope is that students learn something about themselves from taking this Jewish studies course, regardless of how they identify as people.

Caryn Aviv is the Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture in the Center for Judaic Studies at University of Colorado—Boulder. Aviv is co-author, with David Shneer, of Queer Jews (Routledge, 2002) and New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York University Press, 2005). Aviv’s most recent book is titled Unappointed Ambassadors: American Jews and Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation.

This article is adapted from “Global Secular Jewish Societies,” a mini-course presented by the author at University for a Day, a public program sponsored by the Posen Foundation in collaboration with the Center for Cultural Judaism and The New School.

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