The Myth of the Cultural Jew

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp November 5, 2019


Ah yes, the American holidays are soon to be upon us. No, I don’t think that the average American Jew struggles with their American versus Jewish identity during this season like we used to. And no, this article is not going to be a guilt trip that people should feel any kind of tension.

Most Jews these days see nothing problematic, from a Jewish perspective, in celebrating Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s. Even those individuals who have taken the time to research the pagan foundations of the day, and the historical anti-Semitic components of the holidays (I hear you now, “oh come on, such a Debbie Downer! Always with the anti-Semitism!”) probably reason, ‘well, times are different now and who cares about the past?’

And maybe that’s true–we don’t care about the past. While I’ve never had a problem driving a German car, many of the older generation I know do. In response to that, I would smugly note (to myself, not to them of course) that the Japanese were just as brutal during WWII as the Germans were, and that Henry Ford was a noted anti-Semite. And no matter what kind of historically harmless car company we would choose to patronize (GMC maybe? Volvo?) likely these companies and the countries from which they are from has had some history of unfair labor practices, oppression, or something else, and even if they didn’t, ALL cars utilize gas and oil from our neighbors in the Middle East who waged war on Israel on many-an-occasion. So what, we shouldn’t drive based on the sins of the past?

Let’s look at the present. Perhaps one could say that the “Christian” holidays or American national holidays, which once were religious, are today stripped of their religious roots. Instead, they are simply a commercial opportunity for us to get that fancy Keurig we can’t afford from Costco, or to recognize Mom with a nice sweater under the tree. The trees are now just a part of the American winter scene (and certainly not a pagan or Christian practice).

What about Thanksgiving? What about celebrating that quintessential American holiday? It’s sad when you consider that even this day has been stripped of its intrinsic historical significance. Instead of a day with friends and family and thanking the Lord, most of us spend it watching three back-to-back NFL games, eating two months’ worth of food, and then standing in line for Black Friday at Nordstrom’s starting at one in the afternoon.

Is this American culture?

Most Jews that I speak to today identify as ‘culturally’ Jewish. I’m not sure what culture means to them, but culture according to the dictionary is “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” But most so-defined ‘cultural’ Jews likely identify with the ‘customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements’ of America than they do of the Jews.

For example, do most ‘cultural Jews’ today find themselves identifying more with Taylor Swift and “Game of Thrones” than Mordechai Ben David and “Shtisel” (oooh “Shtisel” I love that show–the one or two Jewish/Israeli Netflix shows you stream compared to the million other programs you watch). Modern Jews feel more comfortable in a Lululemon top than tzitzis, and at a football game than in Hebrew school. Call it what it is, but being a cultural Jew is somewhat of a misnomer.

So, when I pose this to the self-identifying cultural Jew, the response is usually “well, I guess I mean I am not religious.” I push it–what is it about Judaism that you identify with?

Upon further inquiry, most of the ‘culture’ these ‘cultural Jews’ identify with includes “holidays like Passover, Shabbat, our history, and our values.” Sometimes they even say ‘Israel.’ Ironically, no mention of customs, art, or social institutions. Even more ironic is that Passover, Shabbat, Jewish peoplehood/ history, our value system, and Israel have nothing to do with culture (Jews of every culture identify with these components) and everything to do with our religion!

The Torah speaks extensively of the importance of the Sabbath (it’s in the Ten Commandments after all!), the holidays, settling the land of Israel, recalling our ancient heritage, and our obligations to be an upright and moral individual. These are all religious obligations! Why in the world then would our so-called cultural Jew, with his Birkenstocks (from Germany) and his Prius (from Japan) on his iPhone (questionable labor practices) claim that he’s not religious??

Perhaps it could be that religion is seen as the opiate of the masses. That fundamentalism of any kind is wrong, and that the almighty dollar trumps it all. Perhaps it is that we are all part of the great American melting pot, and that we shouldn’t seek to be different and therefore assume some kind of cultural superiority over anyone else. If that’s the case for why you are only culturally Jewish, then my friend, you are no cultural Jew. You’re a religious Jew completely awash in American culture.

And not that it’s bad. I am a patriot through and through and feel that (at the risk of offending my readers) America has been a beacon of light and freedom in the world. I support the idea that we as Jews are obligated to be profoundly grateful to this country that has afforded us so many freedoms and such amazing protection throughout its short history.

And since Jews have been allowed to flourish in America, perhaps we can offer something to our host country besides Facebook and Hollywood. Perhaps we can offer some of our religious values and ideas; like when Moses says in Deuteronomy that we should gather as one nation, and to pay homage to our glorious past. Perhaps we could share with the Americans Jewish ideas like hakores hatov (being thankful) and chessed (giving). Heck, maybe we can, as religious instead of cultural Jews, attempt to do something like make Thanksgiving actually about giving thanks again.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to wear a red hat to do that.


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