What a doctor’s visit revealed about my Jewish identity

The other day I went to a brand new doctor to renew a prescription. If you’ve ever moved out of your home state, you know what a royal pain it is to find brand new doctors, and having to fill out family history forms all over again. I’m sure these questionnaires are more or less the same at most doctor’s offices, but this one had one question I wasn’t expecting, and have rarely seen before:

Does your family have any Ashkenazi Jewish background?

I hesitated, but I’m not sure why; my beliefs are irrelevant as far as family history is concerned, and I’m already aware that the Jewish community is more at risk for certain cancers and other medical conditions than others. So I checked ‘yes.’

Funny how I was there to discuss a completely unrelated medication, yet for most of the visit, I sat at the mercy of the doctor who handed me pamphlet after pamphlet about genetic testing, and seemed horrified that I had never been tested for these cancer genes before. I tried to laugh it off by saying, “Well, I didn’t see a point if I’m not having kids, I’m fine with having cats as kids for now,” but he failed to understand or acknowledge my humor. What I really felt like saying was, Yes doctor, I am already aware that my family is genetically fucked. The mood continued to go south when the doctor asked about the deaths of my paternal grandparents – both from cancer – and then about my father’s health. As you can imagine, I tensed up rather quickly before responding, “He died of cancer too.”

All that just to renew my birth control. Geez Louise. Should have inquired about Xanax while I was at it.

What is the point of writing about this? Because it all started by checking off “Jewish” on the medical intake form, reminding me that regardless of what I believe spiritually, one cannot take the biological Judaism out of a person.

I always found it strange that my family religion has both spiritual and ethnic components, and most Jews (in America, at least) identify with Judaism on more of a cultural level. I’d say that’s definitely true in my case – cultural Judaism remains a strong and critical part of my identity as a person, if not my spiritual identity. Jewish-isms were the language of my mother and maternal grandmother growing up, and it always makes my heart sink a little when I have to explain the meaning of “chutzpah” or “schlepping” to a gentile, or why my “Jewish Penicillin” soup bowl is so funny.

But more than that, it’s telling how I had to embark on this roundabout journey through Christianity in order to understand that the things that bothered me most about Judaism are the same things I miss most about it today. It used to frustrate me that Judaism couldn’t seem to make up its mind on issues such as whether there’s an afterlife (and who gets to go where), and even social issues such as abortion and premarital sex. The continuum of liberal and conservative Judaism is quite long and diverse; there are, quite frankly, as many answers to those questions as there are Jews.

But it’s hard not to respect a faith that has learned to embrace mystery and uncertainty. You would be hard-pressed to find people like that in evangelical Christianity, and if they are out there, they are likely in the closet for fear of being outed as heretics.

I’ll come out and say it for added emphasis: I miss Judaism. I miss being Jewish. I don’t know what this means for me, though, as I doubt I’ll ever walk away from Jesus, even if I walk away from church and other Christians. The people I know who identify as “both” are from interfaith families whose parents compromised by having a Christmas tree and a menorah coexist in the same living room. The other “both” group is Messianic Judaism, a movement that simply isn’t for me. Spiritually speaking, it is impossible for one to be “both,” as these two religions teach very different things. But as far as the culture is concerned; the history, the medical aspects…those are my last and only straws.

I don’t mean to imply that Judaism is a back-up plan if Christianity doesn’t work out. Still, it is comforting to know that while I may feel like a spiritual orphan at times, I’ll never be spiritually homeless. I will always belong somewhere.


14 thoughts on “What a doctor’s visit revealed about my Jewish identity

  1. Pingback: Ethnic hair and the Great Identity Complex | Sarahbeth Caplin | Author, Blogger, and Editor

  2. I had a similar experience, except opposite (again with us and the opposites). At my OB-GYN’s office, she assumed I was genetically Jewish, so I had to tell her that I had converted, which felt really weird because it was so unrelated to the visit.

    It is a curious thing, the combination of ethnicity and religion. And like you mentioned in your post, being Jewish will always be a part of you, and the traditions aren’t going anywhere.

    Did you ever look into those questions you mentioned, about the afterlife, abortion and pre-marital sex? You mentioned that since the continuum of Jewish thought is very diverse (which, even just within the Orthodox branch is true), if you group all Jewish opinions from the liberal to the conservative, there would certainly be major disagreements on fundamental issues like those. But couldn’t that dilemma be applied to any major religion?


    • It’s actually a relief to hear another Jew say that 🙂 I understand that I can’t formally identify as Jewish anymore, as far as which religion I practice. But no matter what I believe, no one can take away my childhood or family traditions. I will hang on to those for the rest of my life.

      I’ve looked into the Jewish answers for the afterlife, since I came to my own conclusions about abortion and premarital sex. The only consistent thing about all Jewish perspectives on that is this life on earth is the one we should focus on most. I respect that.

      On the outside looking in, it seemed like Christianity was pretty solid on the issues of sex and the afterlife. Now, from an insider’s perspective, it seems that Christianity affirms heaven and hell, but is fuzzy on what those places are like, and still believes sex is best saved for marriage, but disagrees about how far is too far if you’re single.


      • Ha, glad to provide relief. Anytime. What I meant about the perspectives was that it makes more sense – to me, at least – to choose one branch and stick with their perspective. Less fuzzy, more focused. Of course, I’m strongly biased toward Orthodoxy (not a shocker).

        Something that surprised me, actually, was how a lot of Jews who were raised Reform had a very vague idea of the Jewish concept of the afterlife, or believed their was none at all. There’s a pretty strong belief in the World to Come, and how apparently awesome it is, that somehow didn’t filter down from Orthodoxy. But it is pretty tied into to doing mitzvos, so I can see how that gets complicated.


        • I certainly had no clue about it growing up. It wasn’t a priority at all. I was ingrained with an obligation for social justice and tikkun olam (how awesome it is to dust off that vocab!). Neither of my parents are particularly religious, so it was strictly a family tradition. I had very little exposure to any kind of Judaism outside of Reform, but I grew up in a town where all the Jewish families could be counted on one hand. For a long time we went to synagogue in a church, and I had my bat mitzvah there…Irony? Prophetic? Who knows 😉

          Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t completely failed my mother though…I married a man with a very Jewish-sounding name, and he’s a DOCTOR :-p

          (Yeah that means my initials are SS, but no one’s perfect!)


  3. Beth

    I’ve been trying to write something since you put up this post without upsetting you. This is the best I can think of :

    As far as Judaism is concerned (at least my version of) you are a Jew always as will your children be. Unfortunately worshipping Jesus also makes you an “apostate” from the Jewish faith (but not family). Messianic Judaism is evangelical Christianity disguised as Judaism for conversion purposes . As said before I wish you well in your spiritual quest and questions. But, because of what I believe, as a Jew, whose not the most observant dude, I cannot help but wish you’d return to the faith of our people or at least observe Shabbat. A candle lit dinner with your husband, intimacy, worshipping God and a chance to rest from the week…

    Enough said. I don’t appreciate evangelists telling me what to believe or do, so you go and be whatever you want to be …. 🙂


    • “Unfortunately worshipping Jesus also makes you an “apostate” from the Jewish faith.”

      You do realize this includes most Jews in America, right? They may not believe in Jesus, but I don’t understand how non-belief in the Jewish God (and failure to uphold Jewish law, for that matter) makes one less of an apostate. On that note, since I never kept kosher or the Sabbath, I was never a very good Jew to begin with.

      “Messianic Judaism is evangelical Christianity disguised as Judaism for conversion purposes.”

      Agree with you there.

      “But, because of what I believe, as a Jew, whose not the most observant dude, I cannot help but wish you’d return to the faith of our people or at least observe Shabbat.”

      There’s no telling what the future holds. That’s the best I can offer for now.

      As always, your input is very much appreciated 🙂


      • Hello Beth

        I’m glad I’m allowed to write here. Good questions and I simply don’t know is the reply: I’m not a walking Talmud, so I can’t give a halanic answer, (although my bro probably would) and I’m not into dishing out answers for everything, because I can’t. The questions you ask are perfectly logical, but as you’ve pointed out a lot of Judaism doesn’t work like that .But whatever the party line of our faiths, at the end of the day the religious beliefs you have are up to you to explore, reflect and decide upon . You see people can tell you all sorts of stuff, but you’ve got to do what will help you have a reasonably fulfilling and happy life. It’s between you and God . Well that’s my gut feeling anyway.

        Blessings to you and your husband, Sam.


  4. Don’t forget that Jesus was a Jew. There is a certain wisdom in Judaism. I’m Christian and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Christian thoughts on after life were off the mark. We shall see soon enough. God Bless.


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