- PublicAffairs. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00.
- Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Who gets to decide what it means to be a Jew?
In The Jewish American Paradox, Robert Mnookin puts effective lawyerly reasoning and compelling personal experience to work in service of sketching the situation of 21st-century American Jews. He plays and wrestles with large questions regarding the elements of Jewish identity and how the power of these elements has changed over time.
The author launches his discussion with an attention-getting overview of “identity” illustrated by the life and work of identity’s master theorist, Jewish-born Erik Erikson. This strategy proves to be intellectually stimulating and colorful. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Mnookin holds onto it with an accessible presentation about how to make both the “American Jewish community” and the various American Jewish communities thrive.
Among the many traditional components of Jewish identity probed by Mnookin are identification through matriarchal lineage, religious commitment, and the racial — or “Jewish blood” — concept. He probes deeply into each, testing its utility for a vibrant Jewish future.
The context here is the declining Jewish population. Can changes in the dynamics of Jewish identity stabilize or reverse the downward trend in the identified Jewish population?
Mnookin finds most of the identity elements restrictive and therefore limiting. Can one have a Jewish life without Jewish knowledge? Without Jewish DNA (if there is such a thing)? Without ascribing to behaviors (both does and don’ts) provided in holy scripture and authoritative commentaries?
Mnookin argues for inclusiveness, and his arguments are well shaped and compelling. He is more comfortable with notions like nationhood or peoplehood, in part because such concepts have malleable borders. . . .
To see the full review as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Jewish American Paradox