For a magazine whose demographic is liberal Jewish women, I was rather surprised by the responses to the article “Please Stop Asking Me ‘Are You Even Jewish’?” that was recently shared on Lilith’s Facebook page. The author, Alyssa Weinstein, was raised by interfaith parents: an Episcopalian mother, and a Reform Jewish father. Though Weinstein’s mother never officially converted, she was nonetheless raised as a typical Jew: going to synagogue, studying for a Bat Mitzvah, observing the High Holidays.
The responses to the article on Lilith’s Facebook page were surprising. While more conservative strands of Judaism trace the lineage through the mother only, the Reform tradition recognizes patrilineal descent. Instead of encouraging this young woman to be whomever she feels called to be, many comments said something to the effect of, “You’re doing yourself a disservice by not formally converting. What if you have a child who wants to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel)? The state would not recognize your children as biologically or ethnically Jewish.”
To be fair, the state of Israel likely wouldn’t recognize most American Jews as being Jewish “enough” for citizenship. But that’s going by religious observance.
The idea that one is born into Judaism always comforted and disturbed me. It comforts me because I realize that no matter what direction my spirituality goes, I always have a community that’s mine. At the same time, the notion that only those lucky enough to be born into this club can “count” seems…well, a little bit racist.
I find myself biting my tongue a lot during debates like these, understanding both sides but never feeling certain enough to pick a camp and stay in it. There’s a “Mean Girls” effect to this dilemma, and there has to be a more nuanced solution than just “You can’t sit with us.”
I was talking with a few other members of the community, some Conservative, some Orthodox, about what brought us to Judaism, and after telling my story about how I chose to be a Jew, their faces changed.Their smiles kind of turned to a caricature of a blank face with question marks in the center, and I knew it was coming: “Well if your mom isn’t Jewish, you aren’t really Jewish, you know?” Uh, no, I do not know. I have been asked this question since I was a child, always feeling like I had to either avidly defend my choice to be Jewish, or just not talk about my religion or choices at all. I felt like I had to hide. I felt ashamed.
I have often wondered why people allow themselves to ask others questions like that. If I hadn’t told you what my religion was, or any of my background, what would make you question it at all? Do you stop people at Pride and say, “Are you even gay?” Do you question every redhead you see with, “Are you even Irish?” Do you see someone with their kids and say, “Are you even their parent?” Of course not. So why is it that in the Jewish community, we allow this question to go unaddressed? In a word, tradition.
It’s funny, because growing up I had the opposite problem. I had the correct genetics to call myself Jewish, but I hated going to synagogue, didn’t keep kosher, didn’t attend the right summer camps or schools to fully blend in with the youth groups just beyond my small, conservative Christian town. I wasn’t culturally Jewish enough for them, and it stung.
Not feeling “enough” for the tribe I was born into, I sought refuge in church, where it turns out I’m still not “enough,” depending on the group. I’m not conservative enough, don’t read the bible literally enough, don’t have enough general certainty.
I kind of want to reach through the screen and say to Weinstein, “Just be who you want to be. Screw everybody else.”
At the same time, I also get a little prickly when full-blooded gentiles, with no Jewish upbringing whatsoever, claim they “feel Jewish” because Jesus was Jewish, and Christianity came from Judaism (or they just “love” Jewish people in general, which can sometimes come across as fetishized).
At one point does the search for a personal identity cross over into cultural or spiritual appropriation? I’m not sure, but to tell someone with the passion and conviction that Weinstein has that she doesn’t “count” just feels wrong.