Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
50th Reunion Brief Talks

Negotiating Jewish Identity in Contemporary America
Robert H. Mnookin

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© Robert H. Mnookin, 2014

Last night one of my classmates expressed surprise that I was going to talk about this subject. He had every reason to be surprised. Being Jewish was something I never much talked about with my friends while here at Harvard as an undergraduate. I’ve never been an observant Jew. During college and law school, I never set foot in Hillel and didn’t even know where it was located. In my 40 year academic career, I have never written about being Jewish. I hope you will indulge me. In a sense, with this talk I’m coming out of my Jewish closet for you, my classmates.

Let me begin with a story that set me on the path to think about these issues of negotiating Jewish identity. In 1978 my family spent our first academic sabbatical in Oxford England. Dale and I had rented a marvelous home in North Oxford, and I was a “Fellow” at Wolfson College’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. Our daughters, Jennifer (then 11) and Allison (age 8), were both enrolled in private girls schools.

At dinner during the first week of the term, in response to my usual question about what was going on in school, Jennifer reported that she had her first “RE” class—i.e. a class in religious education taught by the formidable Miss Kay, the head mistress of the Oxford High School for Girls.

Jennifer reported that Miss K began the class by asking “who here is of the Anglican faith?” Nearly all the girls, according to Jennifer, raised their hands. Miss Kay then asked who was Presbyterian? Catholic? Even Baptist? A few more hands went up for each. Finally she turned to the class and asked, “Is anyone here not of the Christian faith?”

Jennifer said that after she raised her hand, Miss. Kay asked, “What are you, my dear?”

Jennifer reported that she said, “I’m Jewish.” Ms. Kay then asked whether her parents would object if in RE the class read parts of the New Testament. Jennifer said she was sure we wouldn’t object.

We told Jennifer that she had responded entirely appropriately. Trying to be psychologically sensitive, I then asked, “How did you feel about all of this?”

Jennifer looked hard at Dale and me and responded: “WHEN ARE WE GOING TO BECOME JEWISH?”

I responded a bit defensively. “Our family has always identified ourselves as Jewish. We’re just not very religious.”

Jennifer, obviously not satisfied, shot back: “You know what I mean!”

“No, I don’t.” I responded.

Jennifer then said, out of the blue, “I want to have a Bat Mitzvah.”

Allison, then 8, had sat silently during all of this. Finally she piped up. “I’m the only American kid in my class. And I’m probably the only Jewish kid. But no one has asked, and I haven’t said anything.”

The responses of my two daughters perfectly triangulated my growing up in Kansas City in an assimilated, upper-middle-class, Reform Jewish family.

I understood Allison’s response. But where had Jennifer’s sudden interest in having a Bat Mitzvah come from? We had never discussed this possibility with Jennifer. Neither Dale nor I had ever had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Our parents were Reform Jews who belonged to Reform Congregations during the highly assimilationist “Classical Reform” era. Reform Judaism emphasized the need to modernize Jewish traditions to make them more compatible with mainstream American culture. There was hardly any Hebrew in the services, and learning Hebrew was not emphasized in Religious School. Instead, Judaism was seen as a religious faith premised on universal, progressive values, especially the duty to pursue social justice. In lieu of Bar Mitzvahs at age 13, after about ten years of Sunday School, we were both “confirmed” during our sophomore year in high school. Bar Mitzvahs were for Jews who belonged to Conservative or Orthodox Synagogues—not for Reform Jews.

By the time Jennifer confronted us, Reform congregations did offer Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. But to that point—during our first 15 years of marriage—we had not bothered to join any congregation, even after the children were born. Neither of us had felt any urge to become observant. We were aware that since our youth a good deal more Hebrew had been introduced into the Reform liturgy. Because neither Dale nor I had ever learned Hebrew, we were not confident we could follow what was going on. We had lived in Cambridge, Washington, and the Bay Area. There was no external pressure to join a synagogue or temple. Indeed, I discovered that our behavior in this respect reflects one of three profound trends with respect to religion in America that have particular impact on Jews.

The first trend has to do with religious observance. When asked about their religion, today many more Americans respond “None.” More than ever before, it is okay in America today to be non-observant. This is even truer of people with a Jewish background. At least if measured in terms of attending religious services or belonging to a temple or synagogue, Jews are less observant than our Christian neighbors.

(Note: It is true, of course, that America is more religious than most of Western Europe. It is also true that there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of Americans who belong to Evangelical or Fundamentalist Protestant sects. Nonetheless, in America generally, there is an increasing non-observant sector. And this has become socially much more acceptable.)

Things were different in the 1950s. My parents were essentially non-observant, but we belonged to a Reform Temple and attended services on the High Holy Days only. Growing up in Kansas City then it was obligatory to belong to some kind of church or synagogue. The spirit of that age was well captured by Will Herberg in his book Protestant-Catholic-Jew. It didn’t matter what team you belonged to, but for purposes of social organization, everyone had to belong to one of them.

Jennifer’s response also posed a deep question about what it means to be Jewish. Can Judaism be sustained if those of us with a Jewish background are not observant and do not pass any knowledge about the religion on to our children and grandchildren? Instead, can a commitment to Jewish values—to justice and to Tikun Olam (repairing the world)—be enough?

When we returned to California from England, we joined a Reform congregation and enrolled both kids in its religious school. Daughter Allison initially objected. “This was Jennifer’s thing.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah. But since we had joined a congregation, and I was paying the dues, I decided that Allison should go too. We ultimately negotiated a deal. Or perhaps I should say I offered a bribe. At the time, Allison was passionate about horseback riding. We would not make her go to religious school. But if she went—and ultimately celebrated a Bat Mitzvah—we would buy her a horse when she was 13. Lucky for us, by the time she was 13 Allison had given up her equestrian pursuits, and we satisfied our promise by allowing her to redecorate her bedroom.

I can report that both girls celebrated Bat Mitzvahs. Indeed, Allison during her middle school years, became president of the Temple’s youth group, and for a brief period she even taught kindergarteners in the religious school.


My next story is about Allison and illustrates the second great trend affecting Jewish identity: intermarriage.

About 15 years ago Allison, married Cory Olcott, whose real name is Cornelious Olcott V. Needless to say, Cory was not raised in the Jewish faith. This was not a big deal to Dale or me; nor were the Olcotts concerned that Allison was Jewish.

In my grandparents’ generation intermarriage for Jews was exceedingly rare. Indeed, among observant Jews, they would “sit shiva,” i.e., say the prayer for the dead, for someone who married outside the faith. In my parents’ generation intermarriage was unusual. In our generation it was becoming more common but was till the exception. For our children, and even more now, intermarriage is now the norm. Among non-Orthodox American Jews, the most recent surveys suggest that 70% intermarry. For Orthodox Jews, who represent only 10% of American Jews, the rate of intermarriage remains very low.

While increasingly common, intermarriage does sometime pose challenges for the couple themselves and their families, and is seen as posing a profound threat to various Jewish institutions.

For Allison and Cory, like all intermarried couples, negotiation became relevant. Allison had explained to Cory that when they had children she wanted them to be raised as Jewish—in other words she hoped they would develop a Jewish identity. She also wanted a Jewish wedding.

Cory had no objection. Neither he nor his family was especially religious—I’d characterized them as lapsed Episcopalians. But Cory had no interest in converting to Judaism.

In 1999 a majority of Reform rabbis would not perform a Jewish wedding unless the non-Jewish spouse first converted. This is still the policy for Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.

The rabbi of our congregation in Palo Alto was a friend—indeed he was a Yale Law School graduate before he went to Hebrew Union College. As a matter of principle, he wouldn’t perform such a wedding, but he reported that a younger rabbi (who happened to be a recent graduate of Harvard) might do so, but he would first want to interview the couple.

In this interview, unfortunately, Allison flunked what I came to call the “Christmas tree test.” She explained that she wanted to raise the children as Jews, and that Cory had agreed. She also indicated that she expected to celebrate Passover and Hanukah and take the kids to the High Holy Day services. But the younger rabbi asked what about Christmas? Allison responded honestly that her mother had a Christmas tree when she was growing up and it meant a great deal to Cory and that they might have a Christmas tree in the house, but it would not be in any way a religious symbol. At that point the rabbi simply cut them off and said he would not officiate.

Allison was humiliated and devastated. I was furious—that the rabbi didn’t use Allison’s response as an opportunity for a further conversation, to explain why he considered Christmas a religious, not an American secular, holiday, and why he thought it sent inappropriate signals to children who were Jewish. Instead, he simply ended the interview, indicating he would not officiate. It still angers me to think about how he handled it. In all events, we hired an itinerant rabbi.


The third trend in America is the extraordinary decline in anti-Semitism within the last two or three decades. Indeed, I believe that for my children and grandchildren’s generation, and for my students as well, they would suffer no material, social, educational, professional, or cultural disadvantage by identifying themselves as Jews. In America, Jews today are widely admired and incredibly successful. America is exceptional in this regard in ways that I’m going to develop in my book.

I must also emphasize that this has not always been the case in America, especially for my grandparent’s generation. In the 1920’s, my grandfather George Sittenfeld, already a successful business man, wanted to buy a house in the fancy country-club district in Kansas City. He was able to do so but only through a “straw purchase” because deed restrictions prohibited sales to Jews. In my parents’ generation, Jews were not hired by some law firms, Jewish doctors could not acquire privileges at many hospitals, and many private colleges had quotas.

When I was growing up in Kansas City, I went to Camp Thunderbird in Bemidji, Minnesota. Nearby Camp Lincoln would not take Jewish kids. My family belonged to Oakwood Country Club. The Kansas City Country Club and Mission Hills Club took no Jews. I went to a country day school that I’m sure had a quota. As it turned out, there were never any more than five Jewish kids out of a class of forty-five. Indeed, in our era at Harvard, I suspect that the Porcillian Club, the Spee, and the AD Club had no Jews. Nor when we were undergraduates had there ever been a Jewish dean of the law schools at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford or a Jewish president of any Ivy League university. All of that has radically changed.

I’m not claiming that there are not anti-Semites in America today. Of course there are. But institutionalized anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.


For my grandchildren’s generation, what are the implications of these three trends? Identities are multi-faceted and contain many strands. The salience of a particular strand may change and evolve over one’s lifetime. If my children and grandchildren are to value a Jewish strand in their identity, it will be because they choose to do so. In this sense they will be “Jews by choice.” By this I mean they will be free to decide what salience, if any, they attach to the Jewish strand. In America they will face no disadvantage to asserting their Jewish identity. But if they choose to ignore their Jewish heritage, society will not force them to assume a Jewish identity. It will be up to them.

What role, if any, might I play, to influence their choice? A modest but important role. I owe it to my grandchildren and those that follow to think through and articulate why I value my heritage and hope that they too will take pride in it.

My grandchildren are, of course, works in progress. Where do things stand now? All four go to religious school. My oldest grandchild, Sophia, who is now 14, has had a Bat Mitzvah. Indeed, she continues to go to the Temple one evening a week. There she meets with half a dozen other 14-year-old girls and a supportive young woman who facilitates something that is more akin to a teen-girls support group than formal religious education. Together they discuss the social and ethical problems they face growing up as young teens in contemporary Los Angeles. Daughter Jennifer reports that one of the other mothers complains that that this activity is not religious enough. But daughter Jennifer has succeeded in protecting this activity. She and I are delighted that Sophia continues to be involved with her Temple and is forming relationships with other Jewish girls there that are meaningful to her.

Sophia’s younger brother Isaac is now 11. He complains that religious school is boring, but he is hanging in there.

What about my Olcott grandchildren? Little Eli—Cornelius Olcott VI—is 9. He says he believes in science, not God. I assured him that you could be Jewish even if you didn’t believe—that good behavior is what counts. He also complains that there are too many girls and not enough boys in his religious school class, which meets every Sunday morning. About two weeks ago, when we were on a walk together, he told me, “On Sundays, I’m Jewish; but the rest of the week I’m not.”

Hailey Olcott also goes to her Temple’s religious school, not once a week but twice, because she is now 12 and has a Bat Mitzvah scheduled for March 7, 2015. She is sharing the podium with Charlie Dixon, who’s having a Bar Mitzvah on the same day. (This says a lot about the changing face of American Judaism.) About a year ago, when Hailey was riding with Dale and me in the car, out of blue she said, “I’m so glad I’m Jewish.” We found that very promising.

That’s a good note to close on. At 72, I, too, “am so glad I’m Jewish.” Who knows? Perhaps someday I, too will have a Bar Mitzvah, although I doubt it. But it’s never too late. My brother Jim, Harvard '67, and his wife Wendy, Harvard class of '68, did so when they were 60. Stay tuned.

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