San Fran prof aims to disrupt our understanding of Judaism(s)

Dismayed by the college textbooks he found on shelves, Aaron Hahn Tapper looks at 21st century Jewish identity through lenses of diversity and inclusivity

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'Judaisms' author Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (Barbara Ries © 2013)
'Judaisms' author Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (Barbara Ries © 2013)

When Aaron J. Hahn Tapper arrived at the University of San Francisco in 2007 to found the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, he ran into a problem. When teaching introductory courses on Jews and Judaism, he found none of the 30 or so relevant textbooks worked for him and his students.

These books didn’t speak to the young people of diverse backgrounds sitting in his classes. They also didn’t reflect the complex diversity of the historical Jewish experience, and today’s Jewish world.

In response, the 43-year-old professor decided to write his own textbook and tailor it to what he perceived to be the needs of the current generation of college students. Using a social psychology approach, Hahn Tapper also had in mind high school students, adult learners and individuals studying for conversion as other potential audiences.

Hahn Tapper put himself into the narrative, recounting personal experiences as an American Jew fortunate to have had opportunities to study at Jewish day school, attend Jewish summer camp, learn at Israeli yeshivot and universities, and visit Jewish communities in different countries. Hahn Tapper also invited readers to see their own identities reflected through the lens of what they were reading and discovering about Judaism and the Jewish experience.

The inclusion of stories from the author’s own life may be unusual, but it is not nearly as unorthodox as the book’s title: “Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities.”

Obviously, the use of the plural “Judaisms” was highly deliberate on Hahn Tapper’s part. The plural applies to the names of the book’s chapters, as well. Readers used to Sinai and Zion, for instance, as single nouns will be surprised to see an “s” attached to them.

Hahn Tapper recently spoke to The Times of Israel about his new book, his preference for raising questions instead of providing answers, and why he likes to be thought of as “disruptive” rather than provocative.

'Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities' by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (University of California Press)
‘Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities’ by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (University of California Press)

What motivated you to write this book? What did you feel was missing in terms of available resources for teaching today’s college students about Jews and Judaism?

The genesis was an outgrowth of my starting to teach at USF. I more or less bought every single introduction to Judaism book out there and tried all different ones with my students. I don’t think there was a book that really resonated with the students (90 percent or more of them who are not Jewish) because none helped them to make the connections to their own identities, or to the Jewish community. On the one hand, you want to teach about the uniqueness of the Jews, but on the other hand you don’t want to completely exceptionalize Jews because we’re people, and in many ways we are just like everyone else.

I wanted a book that was more rooted in social psychology in so far as looking at Judaism through the lens of social identities. You also have all the data out there of younger Jews today identifying more culturally, or vis-à-vis heritage, instead of religiously, and that is also an entry point into the conversation — through social identities instead of a set of beliefs and practices.

Are you concerned about oversimplification of Jewish history?

Jewish history is incredibly complicated and the story line is commonly expressed as if it’s relatively straight forward, a connect-the-dots narrative. Just this week I read something referring to Abraham as the first Jew. Yes, retroactively he was the first Jew, but even in the context of the Torah he wasn’t Jewish. Even that type of simplicity I think can be damaging in the sense of history is complicated, it’s messy, and I think it is okay to put that out on the table.

Clockwise from top left: Sarah Nabaggala, Yonatan Loukato, Samuel Matiya Kigondere, Yoash Mayende and Shoshana Nambi were among 13 Ugandan Jews who worked as staff members at Reform Jewish summer camps in the United States. (Jill Peltzman for the URJ/via JTA)
Clockwise from top left: Sarah Nabaggala, Yonatan Loukato, Samuel Matiya Kigondere, Yoash Mayende and Shoshana Nambi were among 13 Ugandan Jews who worked as staff members at Reform Jewish summer camps in the United States. (Jill Peltzman for the URJ/via JTA)

“Judaisms” clearly makes an effort to present various narratives within the Jewish community and throughout Jewish history. Why is this so important?

I haven’t seen another introduction to Judaism book that lays out how a community creates a narrative, how it develops, and how it works. I’ve also not seen any other such textbook put front and center that at this point in time the dominant Jewish narratives are Ashkenazi.

You have people like me who went to 13 years of Jewish day school who came out thinking you are either Ashkenazi or Sephardi. And I have met many Jewish students who are coming out of Jewish day schools now, and the binary that I learned in the ‘80s is still being taught. It’s not accurate for starters from an academic standpoint, and from a social justice point of view it is incredibly problematic because it marginalizes Jewish identities that don’t fall into the simplistic binary. That can be distressing to someone who identifies as Jewish, such as African American Jews or Arabic-speaking Jews who have people come up to them and say, “How can you be Jewish? I don’t get it.”

Your book goes beyond including perspectives of geographically marginalized Jewish communities to include other marginalized groups.

There’s also the notion of male hegemony or heteronormative hegemony. Non-males — females and gender queer folk — are a huge piece of the puzzle and have been marginalized historically, and even to this day. That needs to be more than just a chapter. That needs to be infused in the whole story.

That’s not to say that I’ve succeeded at this. I’d like to think that I am playing a small role in moving the ball in the direction it needs to go in terms of inclusivity.

Rabbi Tsipi Gabai blesses Tom Chai Sosnik, a transgender teenage boy, as his parents and sister look on at Tehiyah Day School, El Cerrito, California, March 13. 2015. (Misha Bruk,
Rabbi Tsipi Gabai blesses Tom Chai Sosnik, a transgender teenage boy, as his parents and sister look on at Tehiyah Day School, El Cerrito, California, March 13. 2015. (Misha Bruk,

Some people might find your use of the plural form of key terms like “Judaisms,” “Zions,” and “Sinais” as provocative. How do you respond to this?

I wouldn’t say I am trying to provocative. I think adding the “s” is somewhat disruptive, to use a trendy term at the moment. I think it’s okay. I think you could do the same with Islams, Christianities, Hinduisms, Sikhisms and Buddhisms. I don’t think its specific to the Jewish community, whatsoever.

But I think in an subtle way — which for some people might be provocative — it really raises the issue of the Jewish people being really complicated, ages-old, ever-changing, and multifaceted. We might be the only group thought to be a culture, ethnicity, nation, nationality, race and religion.

There are so many different perspectives that it’s worth the question of what is the commonality between you, me, an African-American Jew in Chicago, and an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Mea Shearim. What is the thread? Is it simply that we all claim to be Jews? I’m not entirely sure. That’s a much more of a postmodern angle to the whole thing.

It is intentionally disruptive, but to point to the differences, nuance, diversity and multifaceted nature of this community as an attempt to complicate things, to raise questions rather than to offer definitive answers.

One of your chapters is titled “Powers” and is about Jews and power. This seems like a very political statement, especially for an introduction to Judaism textbook.

I think it’s all political. The recent Pew study tells us that 30%, 40% — whatever the stat is — of Jews of a certain age identify in terms of ethnicity, culture or heritage, and not religion. I think that’s political. I come at it more from a social identities perspective. Our social identities are constantly performing and playing a role in everything such that any conversation can be seen as a political conversation.

In terms of “Powers,” clearly I had to touch on the State of Israel. In terms of the timeline of the Jewish people, we commonly forget how much we are living in an anomalous time with 80% of Jews living in two countries, and one of those being a self-identified Jewish country. Historically speaking, that’s radical.

Putting this in terms of powers is important. The goal was to make certain linkages between Jewish America and Jewish Israel in terms of how these communities came to be and where they are now. What it means to be a Jew in Israel and in the US plays into the notion of power and identity. The reason Jews have been able to thrive in America is because of these shifts in power, and the creation of an entire country is clearly a shift of power, something radical and amazing.

View of a special plenum session marking the 50th anniversary of the Knesset's current building, January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of a special plenum session marking the 50th anniversary of the Knesset’s current building, January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Do you think that Jewish leaders understand the diversity of the global Jewry and its potential?

I don’t think it’s understood entirely by any of us. I would include me in that. I’ve learned so many new things in writing this book. I have trouble faulting the leaders if I didn’t know these things.

I do think Jewish institutional leaders have more of a responsibility to be aware of these things than the average layperson. One of the only ways to learn is through reading and talking to people and widening one’s spectrum.

I think marginalized Jewish groups have been much more aware of these things. If you are a marginalized person you know the dominant narratives, and the dominant groups don’t know your narratives. If 80% of American Jews identify as Ashkenazi, then we need to be much more mindful of the 20% who are not. And we need to be careful not to homogenize all Jews of color together.

Peruvian Jewish children attend Limud Peru 2013 in Lima, on Sunday (Limud Peru via Facebook)
Peruvian Jewish children attend Limud Peru 2013 in Lima, on Sunday (Limud Peru via Facebook)

The final chapter of your book is titled, “Futures.” Are you hopeful about the future of Jews and Judaisms?

I think the notion of adaptability, or to use Frederic Brenner’s language, this “portable identity,” is one of the primary reasons Jews have been able to succeed and exist and thrive over the centuries. Of course, I don’t have the DNA genome, culturally speaking, of how it works.

Obviously in 20th and 21st century the number of Jews marrying non-Jews has skyrocketed, but that is going to lead to new amalgams of Jewish identity and new things that we haven’t even thought of going forward. I don’t subscribe to the doom and gloom scenarios. We don’t know what the next chapters will be, but if the last millennia have been any indicator, they will be interesting and the Jews will continue to thrive.

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