Beyond the Synagogue Walls

Lynn Davidman
Brown University

Date: April 11, 2002

Event Recap

Wherein consists the self-identity of secular "unsynagogued" American Jews? Lynn Davidman, Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University and former Visiting Scholar at the Boisi Center, addressed this and other questions related to her current sociological work on Jews "outside the synagogue." Davidman has concluded that the self-identity of secular Jews consists more in viewing themselves as "other" in opposition to the prevailing cultural identities in modern America than in viewing themselves as united in support of a specific cultural trait. Her research, based on in-depth interviews with 30 unsynagogued Jews, focuses on their lived religion in everyday life by analyzing the ways that Jewish identities, practices and meanings are established outside of institutional settings.

Professor Davidman found that the religious traditions of unsynagogued Jews were relatively thin: she recounted the stories of Jews who had returned home for quasi-traditional seders that featured pasta and other non-kosher dishes. If such traditions were thin with respect to religious content, she reasoned, then perhaps there were other traits around which secular Jews had preserved their identities.

Oddly enough, her interviews suggested that many Jews located their cultural identity in concepts such as "race," which in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the "Final Solution" seemed paradoxical. But upon further probing, she learned that in fact secular Jews were the "first post-modern" people who denied any sort of essence but instead defined themselves by what they were not. Thus whereas Orthodox Jews (whom Davidman had previously studied and documented in her1991 book Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism) did not identify themselves primarily in opposition to the prevalent American mainstream culture, unsynagogued Jews did. Davidman suggested that they sought to embrace Jewish identity—with its proud heritage and history—but wished to reject the authority of rabbis or religious officials.