I am bit behind in my podcasts.

I only got to last week’s This American Life this week.  Forgive me.

Ira Rabbeinu

Ira Rabbeinu

I would imagine that listening to the opener of Episode #491 entitied “Tribes” might have given all the bubbes and zeides and folks at Federations everywhere some pause and need for an antacid.

In the introductory segment, Ira Glass describes how David, a Chicago friend, who is concerned that Jews are increasingly less inclined to join Jewish organizations, tried to get him involved/lend his star power to a local effort to engage disengaged Jews.

When Ira explained that such an endeavour was not his thing, further citing his marriage to a non-Jew and culinary choices during Passover as examples of his disaffiliation, his interlocutor retorted that despite all of this, Ira was a Jew!  It’s in his DNA!! And, in fact, This American Life was “profoundly Jewish” because of its tendency to tell meaningful stories! [Press “play” here for Klezmer track… ]

You can listen to the podcast over at This American Life, or download the episode here and have a listen.  I’ll wait…

What struck me about this interlude was NOT Ira’s professed lack of connection to Judaism – there are countless thousands of Jews who would not blanche at his self-identification (or lack thereof).  NOR the clichéd klezmer bit…

What gave me pause was the line of reasoning Ira’s friend David used to try and convince him to get involved… and one does not have to be a self-professed “bad Jew” like Ira Glass to raise an eyebrow (or enlist Jared Diamond) in challenge to his friend’s essentialist plea.

Really?  A Jew in his DNA?  If you buy into that, I have a bridge in Nuremberg I’d like to sell you.

Seriously?  Part of his DNA?  And what about the individual who chooses to embrace Judaism as an adult?  Was her Jew-gene buried and suppressed by a pack of gentile-genes somewhere on the 23rd strand until its fateful liberation and expression during a screening of “Yentl”?  Do tell.  I am all ears.

This extremely convincing (and when I say “extremely convincing” I mean the exact opposite) form of gene-based Jewish identification is one of the big guns in the “engagement” arsenal, often deployed with “Assimilation BAD!” and “Intermarriage BAD!” … as if haranguing Jews “on the margins” will motivate them to be less marginal.  This piece from the New York Times excoriating mixed marriages is yet another iteration of this failed cri-de-coeur.  …But it is so well-written!

If one deploys a traditional model for engagement, whereby you are either “in” or “out” of Judaism (and by “in” you employ a pretty limited set of criteria to determine “in” including parentage, ritual observance, AFFILIATION WITH JEWISH INSTITUTIONS etc etc – or be prepared for a fight with the folks over at the American Jewish Yearbook…), then Ira’s friend probably chalked up the encounter with Ira as one for the loss column.  One could imagine him hanging up the phone and sighing heavily as he intoned “Ira is lost to us.”


Had the pitch been framed differently or had the whole nature of the endeavour for which Ira Glass’ presence would have added value and attractiveness been conceived in a different manner – Ira might have said YES.

What I mean is this:

Identifying as a Jew and affiliating with a Jewish organization who values membership in the organization are not the same thing.

More importantly, lacking a desire to affiliate does not imply or guarantee a lack of desire to identify.

For those that think identification and affiliation are the same thing, this is an age of crisis and disaster.  It is the end of the Jews – and Ira Glass is one of its hasteners.

But for those that understand identification differently, it is not a win or lose, with-us-or-against-us proposition.  Who a Jew is and what a Jew does is a lot more complicated.  Like the stories on This American Life, it takes time to unfold, understand and appreciate.

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