What Is a “Jewish American”?

Chatterbox, who grew up Jewish in America, has always thought of himself as an American Jew. So did all the Jews he grew up with during the 1960s and 1970s. Since Joseph Lieberman got named Al Gore’s running mate, however, Chatterbox has learned a new term that describes Americans who are Jewish: Jewish American. Sometimes it even comes with a hyphen: Jewish-American.

“I cannot express with words the gratitude that I feel in my heart today as the first Jewish American to be honored to be a major party candidate for the vice presidency of this blessed United States of America of ours,” Lieberman told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 8. Why the “American”? Isn’t it a given that someone running for vice president of the United States would be American? Shouldn’t Lieberman have said, “first Jew to be honored”?

Others seem to be going out of their way to avoid saying “Jew” as well. “I think the American voters have shown time and time again they’re willing–the vast majority of them are willing to consider a Jewish American candidate on the merits,” Paula Zahn opined Aug. 7 on Fox’s The Edge. “You’re a Jewish American,” Chris Matthews told Sen. Frank Lautenberg that same day on Hardball. “How do you feel? You must feel pretty up about this one.” (Lautenberg replied: “Yeah, I feel very good about this one, but not because Joe’s a Jewish American.”) On ABC’s Good Morning America Aug. 8, Elizabeth Vargas told George Stephanopoulos: “There had been much talk yesterday about the history being made putting the first Jewish American on a presidential ticket like this.” On CNN’s Newsstand that evening, Perri Peltz called Lieberman “the first Jewish American on a major-party presidential ticket.” And so on.

Use of the phrase “Jewish American” in connection with Lieberman seems to crop up much more often on televison than in print. That’s probably because there’s more anxiety that the word “Jew” might be interpreted as an ethnic slur when it’s spoken out loud. Saying “Jew” is particularly dicey, Chatterbox imagines, for southerners, since they’re liable (through no prejudice on their part) to have it come out Jeeeeew. Which certainly doesn’t sound friendly.

But surely Lieberman need not worry that anyone will think he’s hurling an ethnic slur at himself. Why does he call himself a Jewish American? What is a Jewish American?

According to Deborah Dash Moore, professor of religion at Vassar, “Jewish American” came into vogue about 20 years ago. It was a reaction against “American Jew,” which had been in favor since World War II; prior to that, during the 1930s, “Jewish American” had been the favored term. According to Moore, the pendulum swings back and forth, reflecting indecision about whether Jews constitute a religious group or an ethnic group. “American Jew,” she says, tends to denote a person’s religion. “Jewish American” or “Jewish-American,” she says, tends to denote a person’s ethnic heritage. “Jewish American” came back in the 1980s to reflect the Roots-inspired boom in ethnic consciousness.

As a term of political correctness, though, “Jewish American” has serious shortcomings. For some people, Moore points out, ” ‘Jewish’ is softer than the noun, which sounds a little harsh.” I’m an American Jew is a little more in-your face, what-ya-gonna-do-about-it-buddy than I’m a Jewish American. If the point is to flaunt your ethnicity, why do so in a way that sounds apologetic? Then again, when uttered in a way that makes it clear one is hyphenating Jewish-American, it can sound like a strident qualification of one’s Americanness: I don’t go for this “American” thing whole hog. The term “African-American” stirred similar anxieties (and similar uncertainties about whether it should include a hyphen at all) when introduced in the mid-1980s.

Arthur Goren, professor of American Jewish history at Columbia, wrote the entry for Jews in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, published in 1980. That entry is called, simply, “Jews.” Goren reworked the same material slightly in a book he titled American Jews. “I would say I prefer ‘American Jews,’ ” Goren told Chatterbox. Unlike Moore, Goren, sees “Jews” as “more inclusive,” not less. To Goren, you can be a Jew without being religious; you can even be a Jew without believing in God. If Goren’s view is correct, Lieberman calls himself a “Jewish American” to underscore that he is no mere member of an ethnic group, but a believer in God. He says it to make himself seem more Jewish, not less. Though the “American” would still be superfluous.