1 The Puzzling Nature of Jewish Identity 11
2 The Matrilineal Principle 31
3 Must a Jew Practice Judaism? 45
4 The Puzzle of “Jewish Blood” 57
5 Peoplehood 79
6 Who Is a Jew in Israel? 97
7 Who Is a Jew in America? A Twenty-
First-Century Standard 115
8 Can We Survive Acceptance? 129
9 The Challenge of Israel 165
10 The Challenge of Intermarriage 189
1 1 Raising a Jewish Child 203
TO BEGIN INVESTIGATING the question of modern American Jewish identity, I start with the paradoxical life story of one of the world’s most influential theorists on the subject of identity, Erik Erikson. I first met Erikson in 1975. At the time he had recently retired as a Harvard professor and, with his wife, Joan, had moved to Tiburon, California. Erikson’s dear friends Bob and Judy Wallerstein had organized an informal faculty seminar of sorts to give him a friendly forum for trying out new ideas. I was fortunate to be invited to join the small interdisciplinary group of about twelve professionals who met with Erikson about half a dozen times.
Most of the other members of the seminar were prominent Bay Area mental health professionals—psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and psychologists—who were considerably older than me. I was in my early thirties, a law professor at Berkeley with interdisciplinary interests, focusing primarily on child custody and children and the law. I leapt at the opportunity to join this distinguished group and to learn more about identity and human development from Erikson.
When I had been a student at Harvard in the 1960s Erikson had been a faculty celebrity. I didn’t meet him in Cambridge, nor did I take any courses from him, but many of my friends did. Trained in Vienna as a child psychoanalyst by the Freuds themselves—primarily Anna, but also
her father, Sigmund—Erikson was a professor of human development and a lecturer in psychiatry. His perpetually oversubscribed undergraduate course at Harvard, Social Sciences 139, “The Human Life Cycle,” was popular, known for being very interesting and not terribly demanding. My friends who took the class reported that a high point came when Erikson screened and discussed Ingmar Bergman’s movie Wild Strawberries, about an old man looking back on how he had negotiated various stages of his life.
Erikson’s worldwide influence sprang from his developmental model of identity, which posited that we work through particular challenges over eight life stages. (Freud’s original theory of development had not extended past the years of early childhood.) He coined the concept of an “identity crisis,” which related to an adolescent’s struggle to develop a strong and cohesive sense of self. Erikson also championed the idea that a person’s cultural context influenced identity development. He wrote best- selling biographies of Martin Luther and Gandhi, establishing the genre of psychobiography. In Young Man Luther he suggested that a series of identity crises for Luther, including a rebellion against his domineering father, had made it possible for Luther to rebel against the Catholic Church and launch the Reformation. Gandhi’s Truth won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, rare feats for a book by a mental health professional.
Although I cannot claim to have gotten to know Erikson at all well over the course of the faculty seminars in Marin, I immediately took a liking to him. At seventy- two, he was a handsome man with blue eyes; a light, ruddyish complexion; and a striking mane of beautiful white hair. Although courtly, he dressed informally; like my grandfather George, he wore a western string tie with a striking piece of jewelry as a clasp. He was soft- spoken, with an accent that sounded German to me. From his name and appearance, however, I assumed he was Scandinavian.
Of our six or so sessions, I recall only one in which Erikson touched upon Jewish identity. He was talking about the challenges that a successful revolutionary regime faces in creating a new identity for its youth, and he used Israel and China as examples. In Israel, he said, Zionists had faced the challenge of creating a new kind of Jew— a native- born Israeli Jew (sabra) with a character different from that of the Diaspora Jew from Europe. The new Israeli Jew would devote his or her physical labor to cultivating the land; speak Hebrew, not Yiddish; and be a brave warrior, prepared to fight to protect the new Jewish homeland. This heroic image sharply contrasted with that of the stereotypical ghetto Jew, perhaps a peddler and a weakling, who was unwilling to fight even in his own self-defense. In China after the Revolution of 1949, Erikson said, the Communist regime had faced a similar challenge as it strived to create a new identity distinct from the old kowtowing “Chinaman” dominated by European colonialists.
I recall one other time when Erikson discussed Jewish identity in my presence. Dale and I had been invited to a dinner party at the Wallersteins’ that the Eriksons attended. Dale was seated next to Erikson, and early in the evening he asked her what kind of name Mnookin was. When she told him that the name came from a Hebrew word meaning “at rest” or “peaceful,” he asked Dale whether she was Jewish. When she replied that she was, he said, “You don’t look Jewish.” Then, as if to explain his questions, he said, with apparent modesty, “I write about identity, you know.”
What neither of us knew at the time was the importance Erikson himself attached to not “looking Jewish” and not having a Jewish name. We found that out by chance, shortly after this dinner party, when Erikson suffered a crisis relating to his own complicated and confused identity.
The crisis was triggered by a book review in the New York Times with the provocative title “Erik Erikson, the Man Who Invented Himself.” The review, written by Marshall Berman, a City College professor and Harvard PhD who had studied with Erikson, appeared on the front page of the March 30, 1975, Sunday Book Review section and included a beautiful photograph of Erikson with his magnificent head of white hair. It addressed Erikson’s most recent book, Life History and the Historical Moment, a collection of essays, most of which had been published before.
The first paragraph of the review gave no hint of what was to come. It could not have been more complimentary:
Erik Erikson is probably the closest thing to an intellectual hero in American culture today. He has added striking new phrases to our language—“life cycle,” “identity crisis,” “inner space,” “psychohistory”— words that signify new ways to interpret and confront our lives. As a psychoanalyst he has played with children and unraveled marvelous hidden depths and resonances in their play. He has evoked the joy and dread of adolescence with a rare vividness and sympathy, and disclosed new dimensions of meaning in experiences we thought we knew all too well. In his many case histories he has shown us people in their full actuality, neither horribly grotesque nor transcendently holy, with needs and fears and longings in which we could recognize as our own.
Several paragraphs later Berman revealed what, for me, was a complete surprise: “Like many of the outstanding intellectuals of our time, Erikson grew up as a Jew in Imperial and Weimar Germany, and crossed the water [to America] during the Hitler years . . . [to fulfill] a vital inner need.” Berman argued that Erikson’s “inner need” was to abandon his Jewish and German refugee status and reinvent himself as a man of Danish gentile ancestry.
Berman’s harshest criticisms focused on what Erikson had omitted from an autobiographical essay, included in the book, titled, “‘Identity Crisis’ in Autobiographic Perspective.” The “immediately troubling thing” about this essay, Berman wrote, was that the “crises are wholly left out.” Reading “between the lines” of Erikson’s essay, Berman detected an unwillingness “to be found out.” According to Berman, “once we start to look, Erikson’s bad faith is not hard to find.”
As evidence of Erikson’s “bad faith,” Berman mentioned four things: First, that Erikson “cannot bear to say: that he is a Jew.” In the essay Erikson had acknowledged that his stepfather, Dr. Theodor Homburger, was Jewish and that Erikson had been raised as a Jew. But Erikson had failed to state that his mother, née Karla Abrahamsen, was Jewish too.
Second, that Erikson had changed his surname as an adult after having grown up with Homburger’s name and having been raised in his household. This name change, according to Berman, represented Erikson’s “repudiation of his stepfather, whose Jewish name he should normally bear (though he has kept his stepfather in the background, as a vestigial ‘H.’).”
Third, that the new surname Erikson had chosen was not his birth father’s name but rather a name he’d made up, drawing on his own first name. Berman noted “the cosmic chutzpah of his claim to be ‘Erik Erikson,’ his own father, in the most literal sense a self-made man.”
Fourth, that Erikson didn’t admit he’d been a refugee. “By refusing to confront himself as a Jew, Erikson represses at least one experience of dreadful suffering that we know he went through: He was a victim of Nazism.” In the essay Erikson had asserted that he came to America voluntarily, not because “as a Jew, he had to go,” wrote Berman.
The review did more than accuse Erikson of dishonesty about his Jewish heritage; it suggested that, in evading or denying his Jewishness, Erikson was inauthentic and had lived his life inconsistently with his own developmental theories, which emphasized “wholeness,” a concept that, according to Berman, “means we should strive to accept our pasts, our parents, our diverse and disparate impulses and needs and yearnings” instead of “rejecting and repressing the parts of ourselves we fear.”
Shortly after the review appeared, the seminar met for what I think was the last time. Erikson himself was not present. I suspected he was embarrassed and shaken by the review. (His biographer suggests that the review delivered a very upsetting blow.) The rest of us, many of whom were Jewish, were stunned by the intensity of Berman’s attack. We discussed what, if anything, members of the group might do individually or collectively to show support for Erikson. The consensus was that, whatever the underlying facts, Berman had unfairly attacked Erikson’s character. Should a letter be sent to the Times in defense? If so, what might it say?
To my knowledge, no one in the group ultimately wrote a letter attempting to rebut Berman. None of us was confident we had all the facts about Erikson’s background, although several members said they’d known that his stepfather was Jewish and that Erikson had been raised in a Jewish home. Someone pointed out that in his professional writings Erikson had not avoided the use of the Homburger name entirely; he had published some very early papers in the 1930s under the name of Erik Homburger. He had also kept the name Homburger as his middle name after changing his last name. Some of his better- known later works had been published under the name “Erik H. Erikson”— hardly a complete repudiation of his stepfather. Indeed, in a 1970 book on Erikson’s work by Robert Coles, when asked about the Jewish part of his background, Erikson was quoted as saying, “I have kept my stepfather’s name as my middle name out of gratitude (there is a pediatrician in me, too) but also to avoid the semblance of evasion.” This remark, made at least five years before the Berman review was published, suggests that Erikson was fully aware that his name change might be viewed as an attempt to conceal his Jewish heritage.
What we in the seminar group did not discuss were the issues relating to Jewish identity that arose, at least for me, from Berman’s review. Berman seemed to assume that the way to determine whether someone was Jewish was to apply the matrilineal principle of Jewish law: Erikson’s mother was Jewish; therefore, Erikson was Jewish. But did that mean he had to be forever Jewish? Was his biological father’s background of no relevance? Was Erikson not allowed to forge his own identity? Moreover, I wondered, had Erikson converted to Christianity, and if so, shouldn’t that be relevant to his identity as a Jew?
Like the others in our group, I was unwilling to criticize Erikson. I wished I had more facts. My guess was that Erikson no longer thought of himself as Jewish and, because of anti- Semitism, was reluctant to be identified publicly as a Jew. But no one in our group posed the most troubling question raised by the Berman review: Was this man we liked and admired, this man dedicated to identity and wholeness, a self- hating Jew?
I was raised to believe it was wrong to try to “pass” as a gentile. But when I think about Erikson, I wonder: Is it always wrong? What if a person feels no connection to Judaism as a religion or to the Jewish community? What if the burdens of anti- Semitism become unbearable, as they may have for Erikson growing up in Europe? Why should it be wrong to stop identifying yourself to others as Jewish under such circumstances? In other words: Why shouldn’t you be allowed to opt out?
Questions like these lead me now— some forty years after my encounters with Erikson— to study in more detail his story and the various strands of his identity as an entry point into my own grappling with what it means to be Jewish. I believe many Americans of Jewish heritage will be able to relate to Erikson’s complicated relationship to Judaism, whether they identify as Jewish or not. By untangling Erikson’s story, I hope to reveal the complex questions of identity that arise when we consider the many different ways in which someone might be said to be Jewish— or not. And in doing so, I wish to expose the unsatisfying way in which American Jews today often categorize and pigeonhole each other as either “Jewish” or “not.”
Copyright © 2019 The Jewish American Paradox - All Rights Reserved.