Joseph Nathan Cohen

Department of Sociology, CUNY Queens College, New York, NY

Modern Jewish American Cultural Practices

Common ways that American Jews enact their Jewish culture and identity.

Happy Rosh Hashanah!  The Jewish New Year is a time of year in which issues related to religion and ethnicity become highly salient to many Jewish Americans.  It is a time in which they meditate on, and enact traditions and rituals related to, Judaism.  They have holiday meals and go to synagogue, two longstanding ways that American Jews connect with Jewish culture

In addition to traditional forms of cultural observance, what are the most common ways that contemporary American Jews enact their culture in their personal lives?  According to a recent Pew survey, it’s (in order): (1) Jewish meals, (2) visiting Jewish places when traveling, (3) marking the sabbath in some personal way, (4) sharing culture with non-Jewish friends, and (5) reading Jewish newspapers or other Jewish audience-directed informational outlets.  

Data here comes from the Pew Research Center’s Jewish Americans in 2020 report. The full report can be downloaded here. The figure below summarizes the survey’s findings on American Jews’ ethnicity- or religion-related activities:

Unsurprisingly, most Jews who do connect with their cultures do so through food. About one-quarter of American Jews cook or eat Jewish foods often, and about two-thirds do so at least “sometimes.” These answers are probably bound up with Jewish holidays that include serving traditional festive meals, like a Shabbat challah or the traditional Passover seder menu. Family traditions can be an important part of ethnic identity, and families often transmit that tradition through food recipes.

The second most common enactment of Jewish culture comes from visiting Jewish-associated sites when traveling. This means visiting the synagogue, Jewish museum, or some other place connected with their ethnicity.  About one-fifth of Jewish respondents described themselves at doing so often, and a majority do so at least sometimes.

About one-fifth of US Jews celebrate the Sabbath in some way, and about two-of-five do so at least sometimes. Other commonplace ways of enacting Jewish culture involved sharing cultural traditions with friends or consuming Jewish-themed media content (like music, books, movies, news).

A breakdown of these activities by religiosity is given below:

Highly observant Jews will visit Jewish-focused destinations, follow Jewish and Israeli news and culture, and of course celebrate the sabbath. 

Non-observant Jews widely retain connection through traditional meals, and through sharing Jewish culture with non-Jews. 

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