What Makes a Jew a Jew? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That question is addressed in the following video alongside the question, “What makes someone Black?”—and it’s a really great complement to our reader thread:

Here’s an overview of that documentary, Little White Lie, which our video team featured last summer:

Lacey Schwartz was raised in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity. Others often remarked on her dark skin, but her family always said that her looks were inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. “I would tell myself, my dad gets really tan in the summertime or my mom’s hair is really curly just like mine,” Schwartz says in this excerpt [embedded above] from her documentary Little White Lie. It wasn’t until Georgetown University admitted her as a black student—based off a picture—that Schwartz started to question the identity that her parents gave her.

The nine-minute video ends on a big cliffhanger, and you can buy the full documentary on iTunes or Amazon, but I discovered it’s also streaming on Netflix. I jumped into the stream and heard the following quote from Schwartz (the irony of her name is just too perfect), remembering a moment at her bat mitzvah when a member of her synagogue told her, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence.” That made me think of an email that just arrived from Alex, the first reader who responded to the story from Abby that started this whole discussion on Jewish identity and conversion. Here’s Alex:

It was good to correspond with you a few days ago. I found a recent Times of Israel article about members of the African Selwi tribe in Ghana converting to Judaism. You can also look up additional information from Kulanu, an organization which helps isolated communities (African and Asian tribes, etc.) to reconnect with Judaism. Also try B’Chol LaShon, with a similar mission: reaching out to people who want  to become Jews by Choice.

There’s a small post I did several years ago on the “Lost Jews” of Zimbabwe that also might be worth checking out if you’re interested in the more complex areas of Jewish identity in Africa.

Abby also emailed a followup:

Thanks again for this opportunity. It’s been enlightening and interesting to follow along with the responses you guys have been posting to my submission. My friends and I have also been laughing all day about how many angry emails you must have received from Jews obsessed over what makes someone a Jew.

Actually there haven’t been any angry emails at all. (Perhaps there’s anger over on Twitter, but I wouldn’t know.) It’s been remarkable how gracious but candid readers have been over this topic. Our latest email comes from Aaron, who doesn’t introduce an especially new angle to the discussion but does an eloquent job of highlighting the best parts:

I want to address a few things that came up in other readers’ responses. First, Alex draws the line on openness to conversion between traditional and liberal forms of Judaism: “The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open.” I don’t disagree with that, but I think it has to be majorly qualified with another line, one that Lekha alludes to: “So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.” This is the line—presumably only present in the liberal forms of Judaism—between religious Judaism and purely secular Judaism.

I’m a Jew who spent his childhood attending High Holy Day services at a Reform temple, and although as a college student I still attend these services sometimes, it’s never been a matter of spirituality. I have no connection whatsoever to the religious side of Judaism; the reason I still attend services, and the reason I consider myself a Jew, is entirely a matter of culture and heritage.

This is true for most of my family, as well. For us, to be Jewish is to connect with a familial history of having been Jewish, and nothing more. I wouldn’t even say we draw on Jewish cultural values in a big way; if we have “Jewish values,” they’re the values inherited from, say, American secular Jewish culture rather than from a millennia-long religious culture.

So, that someone like Evan would find the sentence “I identify as Jewish” bizarre is, to me, extremely bizarre, at least for anybody who recognizes that there is a substantial chunk of the Jewish population whose connection to Judaism is rooted only in heritage. I do firmly believe that it’s not meaningful for someone to identify secularly as a Jew if they don’t have that heritage, in the same way that someone cannot identify racially with a heritage they don’t have; but it’s important to recognize that some of us call ourselves Jewish not by virtue of adherence to religious practice, but rather solely by virtue of identification with cultural heritage.

In fact, I take the significance of this identification to be something externally imposed more than anything else: As Jon wrote, “[having standards for acceptance] is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions.”

My identification as Jewish is most deeply rooted in the fact that throughout most of history I would have been labelled as Jewish no matter what I said; that I would have been sent to a concentration camp if I had lived in Nazi Germany in spite of my secularity; that even today I would fear being beaten for talking about my Jewish heritage if I had grown up in Malmö rather than in a major city in the U.S. For me, and for many of the secular Jews I know, identifying as Jewish is tantamount to publicly recognizing that this past is still very much with us, and to standing up to that past, to saying “There is no accepting us as people without accepting as people with this heritage, with this culture—without accepting us as Jewish people.”

As an aside, I want to address something that’s come up in a few of the more religious Jewish readers’ responses: namely, that one is a Jew only by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or converting. I have no problem with this as a doctrine for religious Jews, but I’m extremely wary of applying it to secular Jews. My mother happens to be my Jewish parent, so it’s never been an issue for me, but I hate seeing this kind of exclusion among other secular Jews. The fact of the matter is that, as I wrote above, secular identification with Judaism is largely the result of external labelling, and since a lot of the people doing the external labelling didn’t care at all which parent was Jewish, neither should we.

To identify as a secular Jew is to have Jewish blood and to choose to embrace the label for yourself as a sign of resistance—and nothing more.

One more story, from Maia:

I was adopted as a baby into a Jewish family and was “converted” at two months old by a Conservative rabbi. We did the mikveh and the baby naming and all that. Same with my older brother.  

I am now basically a reform/secular Jew, in that I enjoy all the rituals/holidays but I’m not particularly drawn to the theology or keeping kosher etc. My brother is more observant, but when studying with ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, he was told that he was not Jewish because his conversion wasn’t done by an Orthodox rabbi. Very upsetting, to say the least.

Even though I am not an observant Jew, when I got married (to a lapsed Catholic), we had a Jewish wedding ceremony and agreed to raise our kids Jewish. His family understands this generally, but I have struggled to explain why I’m uncomfortable celebrating Easter or Christmas with them. Basically, their question is, if I’m not actually concerned about the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, why do I care if we celebrate Christian holidays as well?

The best explanation I can come up with is that it’s helpful to view Jews as you would various Native American groups—that is, as members of a particular tribe. This means that there is both an ethnic/nationalist component to the identity as well as a religious/cultural component.

Now imagine that this tribe is expelled from its homeland and scattered throughout the world. What remains? As the group fractures, the rituals and religion are kept alive but because the tribe is scattered throughout numerous countries, the ethnic identity is muddled (except, of course, when it is used as a point of discrimination).

This means you end up today with ethnic Jews who don’t practice any of the traditions, religious converts who have entered into the “tribe” by agreeing to adopt the belief and ritual system, and everything in between.

For me, it’s fair to say that I don’t adhere to all the laws and rituals of the Jewish tribe, but they are still the framework within which I learned about Judaism and eventually chose how to express myself as a Jew. For me this means that I don't want to celebrate Easter—not because it’s Christian per se, but rather because it is not Jewish and, thus not part of my identity, ethnically, religiously, or culturally.

Finally, I agree that it’s terrible that Jews of any stripe would be unwelcoming to converts, but every religion and ethnic group has their own internal strife about who is “authentic” and who isn’t. The truth is, these discussions don’t have a “real” answer; they just serve to highlight what is important to a particular person about his or her own religious identity.

That’s a good note to end on with this Jewish discussion, unless someone has an exceptionally new experience or angle to share. We’ll post more of your stories on other religious choices soon.