I remember feeling a great sense of pride when, as a college student, I first heard the expression Member of the Tribe. “That’s me,” I thought, “M.O.T., Red Sea Pedestrian, not just ‘Jew-ish,’ but a proud Jew through and through.” My reaction, as reactions tend to be, was informed by a number of prior life experiences. Though my parents certainly raised me to be proud of my Judaism, I had still grown up with a good deal of ambivalence about my Jewish identity.
I attended a high school which was the very definition of “diverse,” with students from 60-70 different countries, speaking 30-40 different languages. My friends were Korean, Indian, Polish, Greek, Taiwanese… and Jewish. I had learned from an early age to value the diversity I experienced every day in school. And yet, I also learned that, unlike many ethnic/racial differences, Jews (like white gays) were an identity within an identity. We could “pass,” and many of my Jewish classmates were inclined to do exactly that. It took college, Hillel, Israel trips and a good deal of spiritual and cultural exploration to find my true Jewish pride.
My experience, I suspect, is not all that dissimilar from that of many other Jewish Gen X’ers and Y’ers growing up in an era of shifting metaphors. The “melting pot” was becoming a “tossed salad” and we, those of us who happened to live in places where we encountered the other “ingredients” of that salad (in person and not just on TV) were all trying to figure out how to preserve our own particular flavor without dominating (or being dominated by) others.
The conventional wisdom about today’s younger Jews is that they shun tribalism, but this is not entirely the truth. Jews today experience an openness to Judaism and Jewish people unparalleled in previous generations, including my own. (I still remember the utter confusion I felt in the 4th Grade when Mrs. Christiansen informed me that the word “Jewish” was fine, but the word “Jew” was a slur). Jews in their teens and twenties have matured in a world of Adam Sandler’s Hannukah Song and The Hebrew Hammer, of JVibe and Heeb Magazines, of comedy shows like Glee where central characters are Jewish and flawed but where Judaism is not a punchline.
Once, Jewish families looked to settle in comfortably contained neighborhoods, to seek refuge in kosher markets, synagogues and organizational structures transplanted from the Old Country. Later, Jews trended toward assimilation, eager to move beyond the provincial neighborhoods of their immigrant parents. These days, Jews are looking to reclaim a place not of difference, but of distinctiveness within the whole. This is why public-space Judaism works so well, why so many are drawn to services in Druid Hill Park or bar-parties in Fells Point or Jewish story time at Barnes and Noble. “Fitting in” no longer means “blending in.”
The New Jewish Neighborhood is a place of Jewish pride, where being a Member of the Tribe means belonging without compromising other important Jewish values like pluralism, service or sustainability. Today’s Jews (no longer a slur) are increasingly comfortable with who they are. And who they are is people who are increasingly comfortable walking in a world that is bigger than their own.