|Prof. Michael A. Meyer|
Much of our class last night was devoted to Michael Meyer's seminal essay, "Where Does the Modern Period of Jewish History Begin?" in which he surveys how the great historians of the last two centuries have responded to that question. We did not have time to discuss a quotation I brought from one of Meyer's earlier works, in which he gives his own description of the "Jew in the modern world."
For the Jew in the modern world Jewishness forms only a portion of his total identity. By calling himself a Jew he expresses only one of multiple loyalties. And yet external pressures and internal attachments combine to make him often more aware of this identification than of any other. Conscious of an influence which Jewishness has upon his character and mode of life, he tries to define its sphere and harmonize it with the other components of self.
Such Jewish self-consciousness—while not entirely without precedent in Jewish history—has been especially characteristic of the last two centuries. In the considerable isolation of the ghetto, Jewish existence possessed an all-encompassing and unquestioned character which it lost to a significant extent only after the middle of the eighteenth century. It is with the age of Enlightenment that Jewish identity becomes segmental and hence problematic.
In this description, Meyer returns again and again to expressions of fragmentation ("portion of his total identity," "multiple loyalties," "components of self," "Jewish identity becomes segmental").Michael A. Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (1967)
How does this observation square with our experience? Do we feel that our identities are "segmental" or divided? Are we aware of our Jewishness as a "component of self," sometimes in tension with other aspects of our identity? Do you think this experience of complex/multiple identities is part of what makes us modern?
Feel free to comment on those questions or anything else that interested you from the class or readings. I look forward to your comments, and see you next week!