The Rise of Jewish Late Bloomers
An exploration of why fulfilling one's Jewishness later in life is advantageous to the individual and beneficial to the Jewish People.
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A Jewish late bloomer is someone who fulfills their Judaism and Jewishness — and becomes a “good Jewish ancestor” — later than expected. Often Judaism and doing Jewish (not just being Jewish) are on their back burner, initially.
And what’s more, Jewish late bloomers fulfill their Jewish potential while marching to their own drum. They don’t necessarily try to meet the expectations of their Jewish family and friends, of Jewish communities and organizations, or of previous Jewish generations.
Some people start applying Jewish knowledge, wisdom, and rituals as soon as they’re exposed. Others, like Jewish late bloomers, myself included, apply Jewish knowledge, wisdom, and rituals only after the so-called final piece clicks into place. This moment when something complex finally makes sense often feels like an awakening, but it can skew the process being and doing Jewish.
Though some people have profiles that neatly fit Jewish templates, many others possess profiles that are not well-matched for certain expectations. And no matter how many Jewish early bloomers there are, there are a lot of Jews who are not. All of this hinders the Jewish People’s thriving continuity and devalues Judaism itself, because it disregards far more people than it rewards.
A late bloomer can be the highly assimilated Jew who later finds motivation in a book, a subject, a person, or an experience. This is what happened to me, at age 24, when I visited Israel for my first time, and again at age 32, when I read the book, Why Do Jewish? by Zack Bodner.
Growing up in a Reform Jewish household on the outskirts of Los Angeles, I felt more American than Jewish. I remember one summer, at a Jewish sleep-away camp, they asked each of us if we felt more like Jewish Americans or American Jews, and the 12-year-old me undoubtedly said the latter.
Then, in my late teens and early 20s, I became extremely disconnected from Judaism and Jewishness, because I was taught that Judaism is essentially a religion. Since I didn’t subscribe to the construct of religion, generally speaking, I didn’t see myself, my life, and my future as Jewish. I would date non-Jewish girls and hang out in non-Jewish circles. And I stopped going to synagogue for High Holiday services.
If you “fall behind” in the Jewish world, it can be difficult to catch up. Adult education, while available, is not efficient or comprehensive, and many Jewish institutions and organizations largely “serve” quintessential Jews, making those who fail to fit such a narrow mold feel like outsiders. This is an enormous problem in the Jewish world today, because it affects so many of us Jews and would-be Jews, which has mounting repercussions on Jewish continuity, Jewish unity, antisemitism, and so forth.
The truth is, many factors can slow our Jewish blooming early in life, such as lack of effective education, nonstandard learning styles, socioeconomic status, lack of ongoing Jewish engagement opportunities, lack of accommodations for “atypical” Jews, being fed the “wrong” definition of Judaism and Jewishness, geographical restrictions, and even childhood traumas.
When you are born in Jewish history is also a factor. For example, among Jews who were around immediately after the Holocaust, their Judaism and Jewishness is likely to be a fierce reflection of these unfathomable events. But when these Jews imparted their Judaism and Jewishness to, say, their children, sometimes there was a proverbial leak in the ceiling — because their children are a generation removed from the Holocaust. And for Jews who remember a time when you could wake up on any given day to news that Israel has been wiped out, overthrown, or conquered, the Jewish state was (and still is) an understandably epic part of their Jewish identity.
As a result, interfaith marriage continues to rise amongst non-Orthodox Jews, and institutional affiliations and support for Israel continue to decline. And as a result of these results, we’re told or made to feel like we’re “bad Jews.” Or we’re shamed, implicitly or explicitly, for not falling in line with the rest. Then, as we age, circumstances and responsibilities take away from the time and energy required to submerge ourselves in Deep Judaism and affect our Jewish trajectory, leaving us to experience a culturally induced sense of marginalization.
The critical thing to remember is, we cannot give up on ourselves and on others. Theodor Herzl, who as a young man was an ardent Germanophile, saw the Germans as the best cultured people in Central Europe, and believed Hungarian Jews such as himself could shake off their “shameful Jewish characteristics” caused by long centuries of impoverishment and oppression, and become civilized Central Europeans, a true cultured person along the German lines. Needless to say, Herzl went on to become the father of modern-day Zionism.
Salvador Litvak grew up pretty uninspired by Judaism, before becoming the Accidental Talmudist in his forties. And Jamie Geller became of the Jewish world’s top chefs and foodies “out of necessity” her mother told me — because she had just gotten married and didn’t know how to cook. She used to use the oven in her New York City apartment as an extra closet for her sweaters.
Do you know the joke about Israelis who relocate to other countries and then return to Israel? It goes like this: They leave Israel as Israelis and come back as Jews — because they discover that living in a Jewish state should not be taken for granted. This prompts them to take more pride in Judaism and their Jewishness, and it’s why many Israelis will never wear a Jewish star necklace while living in Israel, yet often wear one while living abroad.
These are just a few of the infinite examples about Jews who have experienced Jewish late blooming. Now, let’s look at how Jewish late blooming takes place.
Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, studies human motivation, spending her days diving into why people succeed (or don’t) and what’s within our control to foster success. Her theory of the two mindsets, and the difference they make in outcomes, is incredibly powerful. As she describes it:
“My work bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology, and examines the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to structure the self and guide their behavior. My research looks at the origins of these mindsets, their role in motivation and self-regulation, and their impact on achievement and interpersonal processes.”1
Dweck’s inquiry into our beliefs is synthesized in her international bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which displays the power of our most basic beliefs. Whether conscious or subconscious, they strongly “affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it.”2 Much of what we think we understand of our personality comes from our “mindset.” This both propels us and prevents us from fulfilling our potential.
Your view of yourself can determine everything. If you believe that your qualities or other aspects of yourself are unchangeable — the fixed mindset — you will indeed remain unchanged.
But there’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, “always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens,” Dweck wrote. In this mindset, “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point of development,” powered by a growth mindset based on the belief that your basic qualities can be cultivated through your efforts.
The growth mindset creates a persistent passion for learning, a hallmark of Jewish late bloomers. Some of us simply need more time, experience, exposure, and experimentation to charter a Jewish path and become better Jewish ancestors. This makes Jewish late bloomers more reflective, more considerate, and more patient. We also tend to have a higher level of empathy, a critical component for creating Jewish unity.
On the contrary, early Jewish bloomers are at risk for developing a fixed mindset about Judaism and Jewishness. Puffed up with overconfidence, they stop learning and growing. We are in danger of losing a valuable narrative about Judaism and Jewishness, as well as valuable groups of people, when we think that we are incapable of Jewish blooming at any age and at any stage of our lives. It is already chipping away at many individuals’ Judaism and Jewishness, as well as at our collective Jewish People.
For some, it may have already narrowed or even eliminated traditional pathways to Jewish blooming. It’s robbed too many of us over a sense of control over our Judaism and Jewishness. The taint of not being a “good enough” Jew on those who are Jewish late bloomers is squandering our Jewish future. A healthy Jewish world needs its people to feel comfortable and empowered with blooming and reblooming throughout their lives. This ought to be obvious, but we’ve made it awfully hard.
Our evaluations of younger Jewish people put needless emotional burdens on them, which has helped to spur an epidemic of “suicide by assimilation” among non-Orthodox Jewish teens and young adults.
The hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars and efforts to forge young Jews into “good Jews” is making them fragile and filling them with self-doubt. The investment of these resources suggests that if we haven’t become quintessentially Jewish while we’re still in our twenties, we’re somehow off-track. But the basic premise is wrong: Early Jewish blooming is not a requirement for lifelong Judaism and Jewishness.
The Science of Late Blooming
Late blooming is usually explored through the lens of dysfunction or as an abnormality. Even in academic research, late bloomers garner little respect.
And, nowadays, we are overwhelmingly obsessed with early achievement. We celebrate those who scorch university entrance exams, earn straight A’s, get accepted into Harvard or Stanford, land a first job at Google or Goldman Sachs, win big with their first startup, and are featured on those ubiquitous 30-under-30 lists. In 2014, Time magazine started an annual list of “Most Influential Teens.” Yes, teens.
But precocious achievement is the exception, not the norm. The fact is, we mature and develop at different rates. All of us will have multiple cognitive peaks throughout our lives, and our talents and passions can emerge across a range of personal circumstances, not just in formal educational settings focused on a few narrow criteria of success.
In fact, recent research suggests that we need to modify our understanding of how people mature from adolescence to adulthood. Between the ages of 18 and 25, most people are still living in a volatile post-adolescence. Among both adolescent and young adult brains, the prefrontal cortex — the processing center of our frontal lobe — is the last part to fully develop, and it is responsible for complex functions such as planning and organizing, problem solving, memory, attention, and inhibition.3
In the human adult, the prefrontal cortex is massive compared with that of other species. It constitutes nearly one-third of the neocortex, the part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions. By comparison, the prefrontal cortex makes up just 17-percent of the neocortex in a chimpanzee, 13-percent in a dog, and four-percent in a cat.4
Many critical changes in our prefrontal cortex occur in our early-to-mid twenties. Myelination, for instance, is a process in which nerve fibers are more extensively covered with myelin, a substance that insulates them so that nerve signals can be more efficiently transmitted. Extensive synaptic pruning also occurs during this period. This may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. It pares back the web of possible connections resulting from explosive nerve growth, allowing the remaining ones to transmit signals more effectively.5
At the same time, the prefrontal cortex develops the ability to better communicate with other parts of the brain, especially those associated with emotions and impulses, so that all areas of the brain can be included in complex processes such as planning and problem solving.6
The term that psychologists use for this sort of neurological maturity is executive function, which has nothing to do with IQ, potential, or talent. It is simply the ability to see ahead and plan effectively, to connect actions to possible consequences, to see the probabilities of risk and reward.
As a teenager and young man, this is exactly what I lacked, and it explains my immaturity and inability to connect with Judaism. Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, calls the phase from 18 to 30 years old “emerging adulthood,” which he says needs to be recognized as a distinct stage of life, partly spurred by social and economic changes.7
Nor is the emergence of mature executive function the end of our cognitive journey. In a 2015 study, neuroscientists Laura Germine and Joshua Hartshorne measured the abilities of nearly 50,000 adult subjects of various ages on online cognitive tests. The speed of information processing appeared to peak early, around 18 or 19 years old. Short-term memory continued to improve until around 25, and then leveled off for another decade. The ability to evaluate complex patterns, including other people’s emotional states, on the other hand, peaked much later, when participants were in their forties or fifties.8
These findings validate what previous cognitive research has revealed: Each of us has two types of intelligence, known as fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is our capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of knowledge from the past, and it peaks earlier in life. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience — showing swelling levels of performance well into middle age and beyond.9
Finding Your Jewish Way Later in Life
Jewish late bloomers are no different than Judaism, a late bloomer in and of itself. We Jews love to brag about Judaism being 4,000 years old, which seems like an eternity, until you realize that modern humans originated some 200,000 years ago, most likely evolving from Homo erectus, whose beginnings emerged some two million years prior.
And Judaism is still blooming. We have ways to go on interfaith marriages and families, on our Jewish state, on embracing social issues like same-sex marriage, on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and on living peacefully in the Middle East (albeit the latter two are not fully dependent on Jews).
As individual Jews, we can tap into the growing knowledge of late blooming and late reblooming to better navigate our Jewish ways later in life. Consider the following: