Jewish Family: Identify and Self-Formation at Home
By Alex Pomson and Randall F. Schnoor
Indiana University Press
Much has been written about the groundbreaking 2013 “Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews: A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that examined the changing nature of Jewish identity through the use of one of the largest samples of American Jews ever collected. That study collected data based on the point of view of the individual and the unit of measure.
In contrast, in Jewish Family: Identify and Self-Formation at Home, Alex Pomson and Randall F. Schnoor take us on a journey of 16 Jewish families in Toronto over the 10 year period starting in 2003. At the commencement of the study, all 16 families had at least one child at the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School (DJDS). Although this was a very small subset of affiliated families to base research findings, their conclusions still provide fascinating insights on how, over the course of time, children form their Jewish identities, value systems and practices within the context of their family unit.
Pomson and Schnoor explain how DJDS is not a typical Jewish day school. This particular school was committed to diversity, pluralism and liberal values. In fact, at least one-quarter of the school’s families are intermarried, with large percentages of single-parent and same-sex couple families. Despite the fact that no such day school exists in Ottawa, their research findings still present an opportunity to enrich our understanding of the interplay between a day school experience and Jewish family practice at home.
A key aspect of Jewish family life can be explained by Jewish social and cultural capital. Jewish social capital is the degree to which an individual has large Jewish family, friends and other associations. Jewish cultural capital refers to the degree of Jewish knowledge, skills and education. Pomson and Schnoor track over time the families at DJDS to see how their original assessment of cultural and social capital change. Some of their families left DDJS, some stayed. Some experienced divorce or other family changes. Overall, it appeared that without high levels of Jewish social capital, cultural capital tends to erode over time. It is clear that belonging to a Jewish day school provides Jewish connections, friends, and other institutions seamlessly. Day schools, and to a certain extent supplementary schools, can impart Jewish meaning, both in terms of Jewish religious practice but also through the child and parents’ Jewish social connections. In other words, schools act as supportive environments for parents with limited cultural and/or social capital.
Because Pomson and Schnoor use the family as the unit of analysis, their qualitative research offers much insight and rich interview conversations of important life cycle events such as the bar/bat mitzvah. In this sample of families, 98 per cent celebrated a bar/bat mitzvah. However, these families personalized the celebrations. Some families did not want the event in a traditional synagogue and created personalized services with no rabbi or clergy. “This phenomenon is a fascinating indicator of the personalizing trend in Jewish religious life,” write Pomson and Schnoor.
What happens to the teens when they leave day school? In most cases, the Jewish teens in the study were very proud of their identity. But if their parents held a particular negative view of Judaism or did not participate in much Jewish ritual practice at home, the children picked up on this despite having high Jewish cultural capital. As one father noted about his teen son, “He is uncomfortable participating in Jewish life as a member of a group. He prefers to do his own thing.” The paradox of having had generally positive and intense Jewish education while, at the same time, being less committed to traditional Jewish rituals and norms is quite telling among this small sample.
Pomson and Schnoor provide a refreshing approach to studying Jewish identity using not only the family as the basis of their analysis, but also the longitudinal approach to examining change as it happens, rather than relying on recollection of past experiences. Professionals that work in schools and synagogues with young families will find diverse narratives that present an appreciation of the structural and relational forces that impact a family’s Jewish journey.