In his 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer, John de Crèvecur asked the most famous and important question in American history: “What then is the American, this new man?” The authentic American leaves behind him “all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” The American “entertains new ideas, and forms new opinions.” Crèvecur was enthusiastic about this new man whose “labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
Mark Twain, Henry James, and other of our greatest writers have contrasted American innocence, newness, and freedom with European sophistication, corruption, and fatigue. Our most famous folk hero, the cowboy, continually strikes out for the west, rejecting everything to the east, including Europe. Our language values change over tradition. To be a go-getter is better than to be a stick-in-the-mud. While British politicians stand for office, American politicians run for office. Twentieth-century politicians emphasized their break with tradition by naming their programs the New Nationalism, the New Freedom, the New Deal, and the New Frontier.
It is not surprising that some American Jews should reject much of their past and develop new forms of Jewish identity. The issue of identity is more problematic for them than for other Americans, since there is no agreement among Jews as to what is authentically Jewish or even who can be considered a Jew.
Do Jews comprise a religion, a race, an ethnic group, a nationality, or a cultural community with its own values, languages, and customs? Should people with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother be considered Jews, as the Reform movement has declared, or is being Jewish dependent on matrilineal descent, as Conservative and Orthodox Jews believe? And what does Jewishness involve, when, as many have noted, the label “Jewish” is given to people of Jewish descent who have become entirely secular or assimilated or even deny being Jewish?