What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Table ready for traditional Seder ritual during the Jewish holiday of Passover. More and more young Jews identify more with the cultural aspects of their faith than with the religion itself. (Shutterstock)

For the estimated five million Jews living in America, religion and culture come together at the synagogue where the faithful gather weekly to practice their religion.

But for millennials who were raised Jewish, only 68 percent identify as Jews by religion, while 32 percent describe themselves as having no religion, only identifying with the Jewish faith through ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

If not religion, what defines the Jewish identity today? Is it a love of cultural traditions and food, or a deep understanding of the Torah and religious practices?

We talk to three young Jewish Americans about their Jewish identity and how it has changed over the years.

Michael Yashinsky, a director at the Detroit Opera House, grew up in a conservative Jewish household, but he now follows his own blend of secular and religious Judaism. Adam Chandler is non-religious but writes for the Jewish magazine Tablet. Sarah Seltzer works at the National Council for Jewish Women but is also a self-proclaimed atheist. They share their stories of discovering what it means to be Jewish.

Join The Takeaway for a live online chat on religion this Friday at 2:00 PM Eastern. Visit TheTakeaway.org to participate in a discussion about the role of faith in America with our host John Hockenberry and Lisa Pearce, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina.


Adam Chandler, Sarah Seltzer and Michael Yashinsky

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Megan Quellhorst


T.J. Raphael

Comments [10]

mary from DETROIT

1.First Generation Muslim-Americans Navigate Challenges of Faith and Country
2.What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?
I like how these religions got billing on there own, from people who are Jews and Muslims, the Christian story of coure was only reviewed by a few anti Christian and not by any true Christains. But I guess this is fair journalistm.

Oct. 17 2013 10:26 AM
Angel from Miami FL

I don't know if there's a god but I know religion is a human construct.
According to true believers, religion was brought to us by god but that wouldn't explain why the teachings of Odin and Zeus were introduced to me as mythological literature instead of the divine guidance it was meant to be.

Oct. 17 2013 09:47 AM
Courtney from Florida

I appreciate the entire segment on faith attitudes amongst the Millennials. But I want to note that while we are moreover forgotten, many RasTafari also experience many of the same feelings and frustrations as young parents raising the next generation. Still yet, as RasTafari we are hardly ever recognized amongst the worlds cultures, faiths, spiritualities and/or religions. To many of us who keep very strict adherence to principles and cultural identity, we are all and one. RasTafari is culture. RasTafari is faith. RasTafari is spirituality. RasTafari is religion. RasTafari is life.

Oct. 15 2013 10:12 PM
judith cooper from NYC

I don't think it's strange for non religious Jews to identify as Jews nonetheless. No one is surprised when Irish- Americans or Italian-Americans or any other hyphenated Americans identify with their cultural heritage.

Oct. 15 2013 03:54 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Jews are not a religion; Jews are a tribe. The religion is a major cultural part of the tribe, but not necessarily the center anymore.

But the question of "Who is a Jew," or rather, who belongs to the Tribe and who does not is a very important question. Who is to decide? Can anyone just claim to be a Jew and go to Israel and live on what the Palestinian Arabs believe is their land?

Ancient Jewish law has an ancient answer. A Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother, regardless of the father. Alternatively, a Jew is a person who has gone through a very harsh and difficult "naturalization" process by the orthodox rabbinate, and then grafted onto the nation of Israel. To reiterate, Jews are a TRIBE, not adherents of a religion!

Oct. 15 2013 03:54 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The recent restoration of a Jewish state, plus the scientific developments that have vastly expanded our knowledge of the universe, plus the relatively lessening of overt antisemitism, and even the greater willingness of Gentiles to intermarry with Jews, has obviously changed things a lot over the last half century. On top of that is the ongoing controversy and struggle between the Jews and the Arabs over this thin piece of real estate only adds to the puzzle of what Jewish identity is supposed to mean in the 21st century. But this is understandable, and not confined to Jewish identity. Everyone is struggling with identity and to try to find some meaning in what appears to be incredibly vast, random, meaningless multiverse.

Jews are a tribe and have had certain tribal laws, taboos, rituals and values for some 3000 years and everyone decides for himself or herself what he or she feels most in touch with.

Oct. 15 2013 03:36 PM
Bennett Muraskin from Parsippany, NJ

Just once can the producers mention that secular/cultural Jews have an organizational alternative to synagogue? There are secular humanistic Jewish organizations and congregations that cater to those Jews seeking a non-religious path to Judaism.

Why not mention their existence? The Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Workmen's Circle.

It is simply unfair for you not to let your listeners know that such alternatives exist.

Oct. 15 2013 03:10 PM
Polly Lebl from San Diego

I really envy those who have such a sense of community and I think the Jewish community does it very well. I know their are other places in the country that do identify with their faith even if they have never read a bible or a religious book. I remember Easter and Christmas Mass being so important in my family as tradition but never really discussing religion. So I think the story is an important reflection on our younger generations as the powers that be try to push them against each other in the name of faith. More young people should talk so articulately.

Oct. 15 2013 02:35 PM
Cody from Oklahoma

I wonder if religion has become more of a culture or nationality rather than a practice. Something one is born into rather than follows.

Oct. 15 2013 02:13 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The goal is fellowship with God, living with God, and peace and fellowship with one another. Religion is the means, established by God, by which we reach this goal. Religion is also the means by which God reveals truth to man.

One of the most beautiful things I've heard was a description of Jewish scholars of the Torah and Talmud who spend every day studying the Talmud. The Torah is not just a document, but the word of God, a three-dimensional reality one enters into, so in a real sense they are spending their lives in the presence of God. Very inspiring.

Ed Helmrich
Larchmont, NY

Oct. 15 2013 09:10 AM

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