Jewish-American Identities

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Gil Student

In past times, Jews used to agonize over whether they were American Jews or Jewish Americans. The assumption, however, is that Jews ever become Americans rather than just Jewish residents in the country.

Some see this definitional conflict from the perspective of the Jew but I prefer to look at how American society sees us. Do they see Americans who fully participate in the culture, albeit with a Jewish flavor? Or are we Jewish visitors in American life? Put differently: those people whose lives revolve around Judaism but merely adopt some American attitudes are American Jews; those who wish to participate fully in the American culture while remaining faithful to their heritage are Jewish Americans; and those who live in enclaves and fight all acculturation, not always successfully, are Jews in America. Jewish law recognizes all three categories, as we can see if we follow the midrashic trail.

Ya’akov and Yosef

When Ya’akov began his migration from Israel to Egypt, he sent Yehudah first “to teach the way” (Gen. 46:28). Rashi famously quotes the midrash that Yehudah was tasked with establishing a hall for Torah study. However, the midrash has another opinion — that Ya’akov sent Yehudah to purchase for him a home. This is certainly a curious suggestion. Wouldn’t Yosef, the second highest official in the land, have ample space for his father to live? Why would Ya’akov insist on buying his own house with what little money he had left after two devastating years of famine?

When Yosef and Ya’akov reunite, the Torah states the he, in the singular, wept on the other’s neck. Rashi quotes the midrash that Yosef wept but Ya’akov was reciting Shema. Commentators struggle over this unequal response. Why did Ya’akov recite Shema at this specific time? And if it was the appropriate time, why didn’t Yosef recite Shema?

R. Chaim Soloveitchik reportedly answered that Yosef had recited Shema earlier in the morning but Ya’akov was unable because he was busy with the mitzvah of migrating to Egypt. As we say in the Passover haggadah, Ya’akov was compelled by divine command (anus al pi ha-dibur) to descend from Israel to Egypt. Once the mitzvah was complete, he could perform the mitzvah of reciting Shema, which Yosef, lacking a competing obligation, had performed earlier.

Residents and Members

If so, we can understand why Ya’akov sent Yehudah in advance to purchase for him a house. The Mishnah (Bava Basra 7b) states that a newcomer to a town becomes a resident after thirty days. The Gemara (8a) quotes a Baraisa saying that you become a resident (yoshev or toshav( after thirty days but a person of the town (ben ha-ir) only after a year.

However, the Turei Even asks a question from another Gemara (Megillah 19a) which explains the redundancy in Esther (9:19) — “Therefore the Jews of the villages, that lived in the villages.” The latter phrase teaches us that even those who live in a village for one day are consider Jews who live in a village. Doesn’t the Mishnah say it takes thirty days to become a resident? R. Matisyahu Strashun, in his glosses to Bava Basra answers by distinguishing between three stages of dwelling — living in a city, becoming a resident, and acquiring status as a member of the place.

You live in a city the moment you move there. That is the equivalent of the Jew in America. You technically live there but that is nothing more than a geographical fact. After thirty days you become a resident, you join your fortune with that of the place. You are an American Jew. And after a year you become a full-fledged member of the community, a Jewish American.


The Mishnah mentions a single exception to this progression. If you purchase a house, rather than rent, you immediately become a member of the city. You skip the status of someone living there and then resident. You are automatically a Jewish American (decided some 1700 years before the American dream was defined as home ownership).

With this, we can understand why Ya’akov sent Yehudah to buy him a house. Even though Ya’akov did not enter Egypt intending to stay — as the haggadah continues: “‘And sojourned there’: this teaches that Ya’akov did not go down to settle in Egypt.” However, he knew that he must reside there for a time and in his zeal to fulfill God’s commandments, wished to become a member of the new society as soon as possible. Therefore, he wished to purchase his own house and even sent Yehudah to buy one immediately, as the elderly patriarch made his way slowly to Egypt.

Even a resident with intent to leave can become a citizen, a full member of society for the time he is there. Ya’akov became a Jewish Egyptian, in fulfillment of the divine command to descend to Egypt. Today, Orthodox Jews who remain committed to their religion but participate fully in American politics, business or other areas of culture are Jewish Americans. Full members of society but still fully Jewish in attitude and action.

(Reposted from Nov ’11)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

One comment

  1. Nachum Klafter

    You say, “…I prefer to look at how American society sees us” (as opposed to considering our hybrid or conflictual identity from the perspective of our experiences and priorities).

    Yet, the sources you quote are about when, from a halakhic perspective, a Jew earns citizenship in a municipality.

    I would suggest that we are seen by Americans as full members of American society to extent that we, ourselves, act that way. The degree to which we participate as full citizens is the degree to which we are perceived as such.

    I also think that the celebration of ethnic identity (including ethinic names, styles of dress, food, and being multilingual) which has now been in vogue in our society for the last few decades, has also helped the host society tolerate our ‘otherness’ while accepting us as full citizens.

    But basically, I think that this mediated by social and historical factors which are not accounted for in the sources you quote, which reflect the attitudes of the Jewish people about citizenship and not our fellow, Gentile citizens.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: