By Leo Massey
If you’ve ever been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or have ever eaten a Knish, then you probably know someone that is Jewish. This is especially true if you live in New York City, where approximately 1⁄4 of the population is Jewish, making the city the second-largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel.1 And of all these people, I was fortunate enough to stumble across Abe.
Well, if I am being honest, I am using the term stumbled quite loosely, as we are members of the same club. I know – Who says that anymore? What is this, the 1920s? Let me back up a bit. If you’ve ever walked along East 60th and 5th Ave., near the southeast corner of Central Park, then you’ve probably noticed a gated and guarded structure known as the Metropolitan Club. Many of these exclusive clubs in and around the New York Metropolitan Area were founded by upper-class elites and were originally created as an exclusive space for those of more affluent, Protestant, and Western European ancestry. In the past, these clubs were known to exclude Jewish people and so in response, the Harmonie Club was built. Founded in 1852 by a group of German Jews, the Harmonie Club has stood proudly right across the street from the Metropolitan Club for over 150 years. This is where I first met Abe, at one of the monthly mixers.
It was Oktoberfest themed and costumes were optional. I made my way around the room, Apple Spritz in hand, as Empire State of Mind began to play. I noticed myself staring at this happy-go-lucky man in a simple yet elegant blue blazer. He gestured me over to him with kind eyes and a smile just as kind, if not kinder.
I've been a member of the Williams Club in Manhattan, and then the Princeton Club, [and] the Penn Club. That's three, Abe began when I approached him. I never have felt the connection, the emotional connection, as I walk in the door, as I feel when I come here [The Harmonie Club]. There's a long history here of successful Jewish people and I'm very much honored to be part of this legacy. Something about the way Abe spoke to me sparked a thought in my mind. Considering I had met him at a club with Jewish roots, I began to wonder if this man’s cultural identity, as a Jewish individual, had greatly impacted his decision-making over the course of his life.
Let me just preface by saying that prior to meeting Abe, I had already been looking at my own life through the lens of the developmental life course perspective (DLCP). As someone who grew up Jewish, I was curious to know whether this part of one’s identity greatly influences one’s decision-making. Having grown up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood where I attended Hebrew school twice a week, joined Jewish youth groups like USY and BBYO, and enjoyed my fair share of Bar/Bat Mitzvahs over the years, I began to think about how much my own identity, as a Jewish man, played a role in my decision-making and if it was similar to Abe’s.
Whether it was hosting a Shabbat dinner or attending Hebrew school, Abe's parents, like my own, felt strongly about sharing their Jewish identity with their children. However, neither of our families were extremely religious; instead, Abe and I relate more to the identity of being Jewish in a cultural way.2 To Abe and I, Jewish culture, unlike religion, is defined by the communities we belong to, the foods we grew up eating, the Yiddish or Hebrew language spoken to us as children, the belief that we will always have a home in Israel, and our collective remembrance of the Holocaust.
Abe’s family’s experience of the Holocaust made me think more about this aspect of Jewish culture. For many Jewish individuals, remembering this horrific event and the impact it had on the Jewish community as a whole is what defines and empowers their Jewish identity. This made me feel closer to Abe, as my own grandparents had experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust. Meeting someone that could relate to my own intergenerational trauma allowed me to connect with Abe before even having spoken with him. It was the experience of the Holocaust that made me understand why Abe’s parents, as so many others from this generation, chose to express their Jewish identity as much as they did. It was the persecution and antisemitism that led many after WWII to not only find a new Jewish community here in the states but to seek a community that allowed them to be proud of this part of their identity while engaging with others that felt similar. These prideful, self-identifying interactions that occur for individuals within this cohort are equivalent to the self-identifying, prideful, proclamation I make when I openly share my identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. It is a sense of joy, ownership, belonging, and liberation that is unwavering like no other.
Immigrating to the United States held profound implications for the future of American Judaism.3 In fact, the majority of Jewish individuals within the U.S. see their Jewish identity as more a matter of ancestry, culture, and values than of religious observance, 60% say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of culture or ancestry, compared with 15% who say it is mainly a matter of religion. Roughly 70% say that remembering the Holocaust and leading an ethical life are central to their Jewish identity rather than observing Jewish law.4
Cut off from the Yiddishkeit cultural experience of their parents and the generations before then, the second and third-generation American Jews sought to reestablish a Jewish community that was more compatible with American society at the time. This meant creating modern synagogues, Jewish social centers, and welcoming spaces for a new style of Jewish living – one that expressed the assimilation of the community in the States. It was the culture of these Holocaust survivors that immigrated to the States that made this generation want to work harder and achieve the Jewish-American dream while being around their own kind. Having considered the generational gap between Abe and myself, I was shocked to hear about how there was a gamut of different Jewish subgroups that existed when Abe was a kid, that even back then, there were those who self-identified as just culturally Jewish and not religiously Jewish. In fact, Abe’s cousin made the decision to become more Orthodox even though he and his family were not brought up that way. This is precisely the philosophy behind Birthright, the all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for young Jewish individuals figuring out what being Jewish means to them. Ever since the creation of Birthright in 1999, young Jewish individuals have been able to explore their cultural and religious identities, including myself.5
For other Jewish individuals, periods of cultural rediscovery occur through other life events or turning points. For my twin and me, this experience occurred in college – for him, it meant becoming Orthodox in our sophomore year of undergrad while I began expressing my own identity as a member of both the LGBTQ+ community and the Jewish community. Similarly, Abe’s rediscovery period also took place during undergrad; the only difference was that he was in France.
Before pursuing his Master’s in Political Science at Columbia University, Abe visited France to work on a passion project of his, studying European literature. While abroad, Abe ended up reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, a novel that irrevocably changed how Abe understood his Jewish identity. Abe described this occurrence. One of the books Jean Sartre wrote is a book called “Anti-Semite and Jew,” if you've heard of it. And it's about the idea that Jews have survived because of anti-Semitism. And that got me thinking about this Judaism that I had not really been much involved with.
Abe’s time in Paris gave way to a period of self-discovery and cultural revitalization. Prior to this experience, Abe had not been too involved in Jewish life at Hobart College, his alma mater, despite there being a synagogue across the street from campus. Abe recalled only attending synagogue for Rosh Hashanah; he was generally disengaged from Jewish life throughout most of his adolescence and young adulthood. Returning from his trip to Paris, Abe began to understand himself as a Jewish man within a larger community bound together by shared values, experiences, and histories of persecution and antisemitism. This realization forever changed Abe’s outlook on life and the decisions he would make throughout the years. Abe made a conscious decision to seek out Jewish communities at home and abroad. The cumulative impact of cultural Judaism on Abe’s decision-making, combined with his life experiences, falls into the greater collective human agency of cultural Judaism, not only within Abe’s life.
It's very different, and therefore, I don't regard [Judaism]as a religion, Abe continued. But again, it's a group of people who have developed a strategy and values for their life. For Abe, this meant planning his life in a way that follows his cultural beliefs, such as marrying
Jewish and being an active member within the community. These values are mirrored across cultures, yet we tend to focus on our differences.
I think it's important for all people, Jews, and non-Jews, to learn more about racism and homophobia. I think those three things are all related. They're the same thing. Abe used this understanding of prejudice and identity to educate himself on cultures, religions, and communities different from his own, gradually recognizing that we are more alike than different. He expressed his dream of wanting to create an educational trip for Jewish and non-Jewish people to learn about the Holocaust and the horrific ways it impacted those who lived through it and the generations that followed. Anti-Black racism, homophobia, bigotry, xenophobia, or any other form of hatred toward individuals different from oneself perpetuates historical events like the Holocaust. Abe believed that education is the basis for combating antisemitism and other forms of bias against specific groups of people and that kindness, compassion, and acknowledgment of our identities and histories are essential to bridging communities. It is these same values and the sense of community that so many individuals seek when rediscovering their Jewish identity, whether or not that involves religion.6
It is with these revivals that one comes to understand how they wish to identify as a Jewish person. Abe’s revival made me think about the generations that followed his – including my own – and the increase in interfaith marriages. While some Jewish people might argue that those in interfaith marriages are not really Jewish, Abe and I would have to disagree. If someone identifies as being a member of the tribe, then who are we to deny them this part of themselves, especially if they might have similar cultural experiences as someone who has two Jewish parents?
People that are not as familiar with the Jewish culture, religion, or homeland are often too quick to form an opinion. Like Israeli cuisine, the state of Israel is not a monolith. It is a home to many – Muslims, Arab Jews, Black Hebrews, the ultra-Orthodox, and so many other groups of people, and is an LGBTQ+ safe haven for many in that region of the world.7
Discovering one’s identity can take place through a variety of means. For Abe, this happened unexpectedly abroad while reading a book. For me, it has been a continual process. Having grown up in a predominantly Jewish community, my own decisions have been shaped by my upbringing. Abe’s Jewish identity has also played a pivotal role in his decision-making, yet these life experiences would have never taken place if it were not for his trip abroad. It is these educational explorations and self-identifying experiences in our lives, whether cultural or not, that remind us of who we are, where we want to go, how we want to grow, and what we choose to value moving forward.
Two hours later, one water bottle down, and an hour before closing time at the club, Abe looks at me and says, “So, how do you identify?”
1 “Jewish Population by State,” World Population Review, March 2023, https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/jewish-population-by-state.
2 “Culturally Jewish,” Building Jewish Bridges, July 5, 2015, https://buildingjewishbridges.org/film/culturally-jewish-2/
3 “Postwar Judaism,” The Pluralist Project, 2020, https://pluralism.org/postwar-judaism
4 “Chapter 3: Jewish Identity,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2013/10/01/chapter-3-jewish-identity/
5 “Birthright Israel Foundation,” Philanthropy News Digest, December 23, 2008, https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/features/nonprofit-spotlight/birthright-israel-foundation
6 “Chapter 3: Jewish Identity,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2013/10/01/chapter-3-jewish-identity/
7 Sam Halpern, “More Palestinians than ever want Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem – poll,” last modified March 5, 2023, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-733398; “The People of Israel,” Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest San Francisco, accessed June 12, 2023, https://embassies.gov.il/san-francisco/AboutIsrael/People/Pages/PEOPLE-The%20People%20of%20Israel.aspx; Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “Israel Presents Itself As Haven For Gay Community,” last modified June 4, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/06/04/154279534/israel-presents-itself-as-haven-for-gay-community