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Returning to Judaism: Ethnic identity, religiosity, and the sense of self

Miriam Ann DeFant, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This exploratory study examined assimilated American Jews who became more ethnically identified. The goal was to identify social and intrapsychic factors which influenced the return to Judaism. Returning Jews served as a natural laboratory for studying the process of ethnic identification and cultural change. Ten young adults, ranging in age from twenty-five to thirty-nine years old, were interviewed. A case study methodology was used and common themes which related to factors in the return process were identified. The interpretation of the case studies utilized a conceptual framework which integrated psychosocial developmental theory, family systems theory, and psychoanalytic object relations theory. Subjects were influenced by feelings of family loyalty. It was hypothesized that invisible loyalties in Jewish families may regulate self differentiation and impose upon children missions involving continuity and preservation of traditions. Returning to Judaism in the context of a highly assimilated family was found in some cases to be a form of rebellion. It was noted that this avenue for self differentiation also constituted an implicit declaration of family loyalty. Subjects observed religious rituals but did not adhere to orthodox theology. Their religiosity emphasized ritual practice over belief. Religious observance was found to be used both as transitional objects, for the purposes of self-soothing and fantasy play, and as ritualizations to facilitate adult identity formation. The findings suggested that ritual structure is both psychologically and developmentally useful. Like many neo-orthodox Jews, the returning Jews in this sample were alienated young adults with counter-cultural leanings. These subjects, however, had not made dramatic life changes and they associated their increased ethnic identity with maturation and the need to make adult commitments. This study suggested that ethnic identity may be a source of transitional objects and ritualizations in our society. It was conjectured that ethnic identity will be more likely to be used in these ways if the ethnic culture provides concrete rituals and symbols which can be incorporated into daily living. Directions for future research include investigating the return to Judaism on a larger scale and extending this study to cross-cultural research on emergent ethnicity.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

DeFant, Miriam Ann, "Returning to Judaism: Ethnic identity, religiosity, and the sense of self" (1989). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9001496.