What is an “observant” Jew?

Joshunda Sanders of the American-Statesman in Austin has a fascinating and compelling story about a local man. It begins with a great vignette:

A gray-haired couple held hands beneath a lush plant at Magnolia Cafe on South Congress Avenue, staring at each other with secret smiles as they sang in Hebrew. The woman wore a pixie cut that made her look younger than her silver hair suggested. The man, gripping her delicate hands, made his Texas A&M class ring bulge like a cuff from his ring finger. A pen’s cap shaped like the silver arm of a guitar clutched the pocket of his country-style blue-and-white shirt. They sang a soft song in Hebrew for a few moments before a breakfast of omelets and fruit.

“It’s basically the Jewish version of ‘Thank you for the grub, now let’s eat,’” Brian Turner, 53, explained. Turner is likely the only observant Jew in Austin who is also a well-regarded country music singer. The blend of his guitar playing and singing in bands like WhoDo and his deep Texas roots surprise even those who have played with him a long time.

In July, he became the fourth generation in his family to serve as president of Congregation Beth Israel. Before him, his mother served in that position, as did his grandfather and his great-grandfather.

Now, I loved this story and we’ll look at a few more paragraphs below, but the use of the word “observant” in this context is worth a discussion. In most religion news contexts, observant is a word used to denote someone who is careful in the observing of a law, custom, religious ritual, or the like.

When describing Jews, the word has some deeper meaning reflecting differing ways of being a Jew. Particularly since this story didn’t describe the synagogue’s affiliation, the use of the word observant implies something incorrect here. Turner is president of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue that is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism. When we use “observant” to describe Jewish practice, it suggests a strict keeping of the commandments and laws.

Different types of Jews view the Torah differently, from strict observance or keeping of the laws and traditions to more flexible practices — even to the opposite of observance.

I got the impression that the subject of the article was, well, observant when his position as president of a Reform synagogue would suggest more flexible interpretations. So just a good reminder when writing about Jews to use the term “observant” even more carefully. And since the word is somewhat subjective, perhaps it’s better to describe precisely how someone practices their religion.

OK, back to the story. I thought it was just a charming look at an interesting guy. Sanders did a good job of letting other people describe the man:

Last month, before the High Holy Days, he released “Shabbat on Shoal Creek,” a collection of traditional Jewish songs sung with his trademark country twang. During the past two years, as one of the Friday night cantoral soloists in the congregation, he contributed to one of the most significant elements of Jewish services — the liturgical music. Because Turner has been playing music for 30 years, he put together “Shabbat on Shoal Creek,” which features Floyd Domino on piano, journalist John Burnett on harmonica and some other musicians Turner often sings with. …

“Brian never breaks character,” Domino said. Domino is best known for his work with the band Asleep at the Wheel and has known Turner for about 20 years. As a secular Jewish person from California who moved to Austin to reinvent himself like many others do, Domino said that he was fascinated by Turner being “an amalgam of a bunch of things you usually don’t see in one place — Texas, Jewish country singer and Aggie. That is the real person; that’s not a persona. Brian is who he is, he didn’t become that.” …

Larry Wright, 64, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, author of “The Looming Tower” and keyboardist for WhoDo, said that he met Turner before the band realized they needed the kind of magnetic performer he was. “He had a repertory of songs that were just terrific songs and perfect for our group,” he said. “I didn’t know about BT’s Jewish heritage,” he said, referring to Turner by the band’s nickname for Turner. But it was that Jewish heritage that made Wright realize that he was looking at something of a rare bird. “He’s got all these relatives from New York, the Jewish side of his family. They look at him like he’s something out of a fairy tale, with the chaw in his mouth and the guitar and the hat. That’s when I became acquainted with his Jewish roots, which I had no idea were as profound and deep as they actually are.”

Anyway, a great story but one that could have used a bit more precision when talking about the particularities of his practice. Perhaps some readers could give some guidance as to the best ways to describe differences in Jewish practice and belief.

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  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    “Observant” in Jewish context should include some reference to whether they keep kosher or not.

    But non-attendance of weekly services seems to be much more common for many Jews than Christians. Every synagogue I’ve been to uses a multipurpose room architecture so that you can expand the sanctuary massively for the High Holy Days. I’ve never been in a church designed like that.

  • Matt

    I don’t think I would begrudge the word “observant” for Reform Jews. I would think that “observant” means consistently observing the tenets of one’s religion, and I see no indication that Turner does not have such a stance toward Reform Judaism.

    I agree that just a few words to identify the synagogue as a Reform congregation would have been helpful. On the other hand, the fact that his mother was a previous congregation president is a hint that we’re not dealing with Chabad Lubavitch.

  • Leah

    There is a common notion that observant means Orthodox. That only the Orthodox can really be observant and all other branches of Judaism are simply – Judaism lite.
    In Israel the Orthodox hold sway over the rest of the country through political power – but that does not mean that they have the right to dictate who is or isn’t observant.

  • Jeffrey

    What is the basis of your understanding of “observent” Mollie. Whibare you relying on for your defInition?

  • Joshunda

    Hey, Mollie:
    What I meant by observant in this context is that he attends services and is religiously Jewish as opposed to at least one of the other sources in the story who don’t ever attend synagogue services of any kind and consider themselves culturally Jewish.


  • Bill

    Jewish Texas musicians do exist. Asleep at the Wheel’s main guy, Ray Bensen is Jewish, and you don’t get much more Texan than Asleep at the Wheel. And there’s Kinky Friedman.

    Good story. Good writing.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Bill, you beat me to it. In fact, my first thought was that the writer was using “observant” to distinguish Turner from the Kinkster.

  • Jerry

    My definition of observant in a religious context is “walking the talk”. In other words, following the tenets of one’s doctrinal beliefs, whatever those might be. That is also the dictionary definition :-)

    1. quick to notice or perceive; alert.
    2. looking at, watching, or regarding attentively; watchful.
    3. careful in the observing of a law, custom, religious ritual, or the like.


  • dalea

    Once I worked with a Jewish woman who described herself as ‘somewhat’ observant. In a restaurant she read the menu, found a dish she liked but pointed out it was shrimp and bacon and thus not Kosher. So she choose the shrimp in garlic butter. I said something about that not being Kosher either. She replied: I’m not that religious.

    I have never understood just what observant means, but do see the line of reasoning that leads that leads to totally incompatible conclusions. The ‘is shrimp Kosher if you eat it in a Chinese restaurant but not if you bring it home’ fascinates me. As does the ‘strictly Kosher for Passover Sushi’ signs at my local market.

  • Pamela Zohar

    It is entirely possible and appropriate to describe a Reform Jew as ‘observant’. Reform Judaism has theological and performance standards just like any other group. It would have been clearer if the article had included the word ‘Reform’ somewhere, or an adjectival phrase other than simply ‘observant’ – for instance, one might describe a Jew as ‘Shabbat observant’ or ‘traditionally observant’ or ‘prays daily’ or ‘maintains a kosher home’ or ‘minimally observant’ or any number of other phrases that parse the minutiae of Jewish ‘observance’.

    We non-orthodox Jews are a bit leery of allowing the ‘orthodox’ to take over the term ‘observant’ as if they have the corner on what that means. Analogously – suppose you were, say, Lutheran. Would you be willing to let the local Roman Catholic priest describe you as a ‘non-observant Christian’ merely because you weren’t ‘observant’ exactly as that church defines it?

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald


    “I got the impression that the subject of the article was, well, observant when his position as president of a Reform synagogue would suggest more flexible interpretations.”

    I find it difficult to understand how someone who was explicitly identified as the head of a religious community–someone who, by definition, would be deeply involved in the community and its affairs–could be plausibly seen as “non-observant” without making unwarranted judgements about the worthiness of the community in question.

  • Ira Rifkin

    what constitutes being observant? isn’t this by another name what mormon presidential candidates are dealing with?

    in a pluralistic setting – which is what secular journalism presumes to be – who sets the standard given the diversity of religious interpretations?

    very tricky.

  • Judy Harrow

    to dalea (#9)

    There’s no reason why sushi can’t be kosher for passover, if it’s made with finny fish and/or vegetables, but not with shrimp or other shellfish. Keeping kosher does not require limiting yourself to traditional ethnic Jewish cuisine, and many Modern Orthodox enjoy exploring other foodways while keeping kosher.

  • Ira Rifkin

    For the vast majority of American Jews (who tend to be from an Ashkenazi, which means Central and Eastern Europe background) who adhere to all the traditional Passover dietary do’s and don’ts, rice is a big don’t.

    For Sephardic Jews (Mediterranean region and Muslim lands) rice is okay.

    So for those like me, shasimi works but negiri style sushi is out. (do I have these terms correct?)

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Risking Mollie’s ire for digressing…

    Ira, I’ve never heard of rice not being kosher. (Not that I necessarily would have; I’m not Jewish.) Can you explain the reasoning behind that?

  • Ira Rifkin

    I didn’t say rice is not kosher. I said rice is not kosher for Passover in accordance with Ashkenazi tradition because rice can be made into a flour that, when wet, can rise, or leven, in the same manner as wheat, rye, corn or other common grains, thereby becoming chametz, or forbidden on Passover and not eaten by Jews who adhere to Ashkenazi religious standards.

    Its not just Modern Orthodox Jews who enjoy non-traditional Jewish foods/recipes that are prepared in kosher ways. While some more outwardly traditional Jews also enjoy Japanese, Chinese, Mexican or Indian foods (Lexington Avenue in Manhattan has a slew of kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants in the 25th Street area), NON-Orthodox Jews who ALSO keep kosher (and there are more and more of them) also enjoy a change from the usual fare.

    All of this strikes me as yet further proof of how easy it is for journalists to get tripped up when dealing with religious labels, divisions, details and sensitivities. Oy!

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Ah. Gotcha. Thanks, Ira.

  • sari

    Gee, I’m sorry I missed this. Unfortunately, being an observant Jew, I was off-line for the Torah-mandated holidays of Sh’mini Atzeret (sundown 10/19-sundown 10/20) and Shabbat (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Being a Jew living in the Diaspora (outside of Israel), I also observed Simhat Torah (sundown 10/20-sundown 10/21)–rabbinically ordained and also work-prohibited.

    The term “observant” is understood to mean observing the commandments as set forth in the Written Law (Torah) and further elaborated upon in the Divinely-inspired Oral Law (Talmud, Shulhan Arukh, etc), which continues to the present day. Together, written and oral law comprise the Halakhah or entire body of Jewish law. It presumes that G-d gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai, that G-d wrote the Torah, not man, and that it is incumbent upon the Jewish people to keep the commandments.

    Different opinions may come down from different rabbis, people may be more or less stringent in their observance, but some laws are inviolate–e.g., Shabbat (Sabbath), kashrut (kosher), heterosexual marriage. When we moved here, for instance, I realized very quickly that we could not eat in most of the supposedly kosher houses, some through ignorance but most because they saw kashrut as a cultural artifact and not as G-d ordained.

    A little history: the Reform Movement began in Germany at a time when Jews were made citizens, an attempt to make Judaism more palatable to non-Jews and to make it easier to be a Jew in a non-Jewish society. Torah was said to be divinely inspired rather than divinely written (still stated on the URJ website) and the commandments tabled as anachronisms. The Sabbath was moved to Sunday and Hebrew completely removed from the service. At present, Hebrew has been reintroduced to parts of the service and Shabbat moved back to Saturday, but congregants are urged to choose those mitzvot(commandments) that are relevant to them personally. No standard exists to define Reform observance, since observance is whatever one wants it to be.

    That is why using the term observant made no sense in the context of the article. Journalists should either learn to use religious lingo correctly or find some other way of expressing what they mean. Anyone who read this otherwise good article could have figured out that Turner attends Sabbath services a lot–he is *devoted* to his synagogue and to his religion. But someone familiar with the religion in ALL its iterations would have known that Jews are mandated to pray three times a day and that this synagogue, unlike local Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, lacks daily services, and that neither he nor his shul are observant.

    Joel and Ira- Rice falls into a category of foods called Kitniyot, grains or grain-like seeds which might hide actual chametz (leavened versions of the five grains: wheat, barley, rye, spelt, oats). Most pod seeds (e.g., peas and beans), rice, corn, and mustard, fall into this category and are prohibited for Ashkenazic Jews during the eight days of Pesah (Passover). They’re kosher the rest of the year.

  • John Johnson

    Hi. Can anyone explain in me in simple layman terms what an ‘observant’ Jew is? I mean short and simple. For some reason, when I roam the Internet, I see long elaborate stories. Short and simple, for example Paula Abdul says she’s observant Jew. What does it mean?