Defining religion by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Many Jewish professionals believe that contemporary American Jews are uninterested in Judaism, as seen by their lack of engagement with traditional American Jewish organizations such as the synagogue and Jewish Federations. Rachel B. Gross, on the other hand, thinks these professionals are using an incorrect measurement to evaluate Jewish engagement. Rather, Gross, assistant professor in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, posits that Jewish engagement now takes a different form. In her “Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice” (New York University Press), she expands the definition of Jewish practice to feature a wider range of activities, including those that she labels Jewish nostalgia.

Gross sees religion as “best understood as meaningful relationships and practices, narratives, and emotions that create and support these relationships.” That means religion does not have to include specific beliefs about God or the practice of rituals. What others see as Jewish culture, Gross sees as religion. She notes that this more inclusive definition of Judaism is more traditional, that it is only in the modern era that Jews divided activities between those defined as secular and those labeled religious. That means that engaging in Jewish culture activities was once also considered engaging in Judaism as a religion.

“Beyond the Synagogue” looks at four specific activities that Gross believes should be considered Jewish religious practices – practices she calls nostalgic. She defines nostalgia “as a way of finding one’s place in the world and of laying claim to the past. The institutions of American Jewish nostalgia encourage their patrons to claim ancestral heritages in ways that are meaningful beyond simplistic divisions among religion, spirituality, and culture.” These activities are researching Jewish genealogy; visiting historic synagogue sites; using children’s books and dolls as tools to teach about the Jewish past; and taking part in the Jewish culinary revival. 

  • Researching Jewish genealogy: Gross believes Jewish genealogy serves as a way for people to honor and remember their ancestors, something she sees as a very Jewish activity. The fact that many people join genealogy groups that support their members and increase connections between them also makes the practice a religious one. For Gross, the activity is “both broadly expansive and narrowly personal, as genealogists find their own ancestral legacies through which to lay claim to the past... The emotion connecting them to familial and communal histories is a means to claim ownership over the past and make it one’s own."
  • Visiting historic synagogue sites: Restoring old synagogues for use as heritage sites is another part of Gross’ religion of nostalgia. She acknowledges there exists a conflict between a synagogue that is used as a museum and one used for ritual activities. The fact that many of these buildings are treated as symbolic religious artifacts – meaning they are restored with their ritual areas intact – creates a religious experience that allows visitors to imagine themselves standing in the footprints of their ancestors. Gross notes the buildings have that effect because “emotional engagement with the materials of nostalgia provides the basis for sacred relationships that cross spatial and temporal boundaries.”
  • Using children’s books and dolls as teaching tools about the Jewish past: Parents help their children engage in nostalgia when they teach them about late 19th-early 20th century Jewish immigrants’ lives. Gross writes about Jewish dolls that are part of the American Girl collection and the many children’s books published about Jews living on the Lower East Side of New York. An increasing number of these are published in special editions by the PJ Library, which sends free books and music to Jewish children. These children, and their parents, are treating the elders in these books as if they were their grandparents, even though their experiences may have been several generations before their parents were born. 
  • Taking part in the Jewish culinary revival: Gross sees food as an example of shared religion, whether or not the food is kosher. She believes that “preparing and eating certain types of food places American Jews in a nostalgic network of sacred relationships with family members, friends, and coreligionists living and dead, historical and mythical.” Her focus is on the revival of Ashkenazic food since other Jewish ethnic cuisines – Sephardic and Mizrachi – have not received the same treatment. It is the engagement with food and the Jewish past that makes this nostalgic in a religious manner.

According to Gross, the activities create greater connections as those who research Jewish genealogy visit historic synagogues and buy Jewish books to read to their children and grandchildren. Many of them may also visit a Jewish restaurant – not a kosher one, but one that claims to serve Jewish food reminiscent of what their ancestors ate.

“Beyond the Synagogue” expands the definition of religion to include a variety of activities. Based on her definition, the activities Gross describes can be considered religious practice. However, even if they accept her definition, scholars and readers will debate whether these activities are truly Jewish. Another question to consider is whether the children of those who practice nostalgic Judaism will continue to identify as Jewish. But those who support Gross’ theory might suggest that each generation discovers or creates its own Jewish practices. The debate is an interesting one and anyone who thinks seriously about contemporary Judaism may want to read “Beyond the Synagogue.”