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.

Dylan, a young Millennial reader, revives a really interesting subthread on Jewish identity (starting here, here, here, then here) within our overall discussion on religious choice:

I was amazed to read Lekha’s struggle with her Jewish identity because I am in almost exactly the same situation: Both of my parents are Jewish, but my mother is a convert, originally from India (like Lekha’s mother). I grew up in New York and was raised Jewish. I went to Hebrew School, had a Bar Mitzvah, and had Jewish friends. For the most part no one questioned my Jewish identity until I was in my teens.

It’s not easy convincing people you’re Jewish when you look more like one would expect a Muslim to look like. It’s an ongoing battle within myself.

I also don’t agree with your Orthodox Jewish reader, Esther, when she said that someone who converts to Judaism but doesn’t follow Jewish practices will “naturally” be viewed as an “outsider.” I know plenty of Jews who don’t practice the religion or even believe in any of its tenets but who consider themselves and (more importantly) are considered by other Jews to be Jewish.

This standard doesn’t seem to apply to me because of my mixed ethnic background. When talking to other Jewish people, I’m often forced to explain that, yes, my mother converted before marrying my father. Although even this isn’t enough for some people; my grandmother still didn’t want my father to marry my mother because even they she had converted she would “never really be Jewish.”

Here’s an older reader, Irene, who talks about the tension she experienced growing up with Jewish identity in the 1950s:

If there was one subject I thought I wouldn’t have much to add to, it’s religion. But when the subject took a whole different turn, to “who is a Jew and who decides?,” I knew I could relate.

My dad was Jewish; my mom was Christian. They met in Nazi Germany and fell in love there. My dad and his siblings and parents escaped to Britain and the U.S.; my mom survived the war in Germany.

My parents reunited after the war when he came back as an American soldier and joined his family in the U.S. once he was allowed to marry an enemy. During my young childhood, I was immersed in my dad’s family, but his parents had both died by the time I was six and we moved away from the extended family.

Although my mom half-heartedly tried to interest me in religion (mostly because other families sent their kids to Sunday school in the 1950s), it didn’t take for very long. By the time I was 13, I had learned what all the whispering among adults had been during my childhood: the Holocaust—who died, who escaped, their lives before and after. It impacted me very hard.

As I got older and started to date, religion took on a new importance. Jews were concerned that I wasn’t Jewish enough but generally accepted me; Christians considered me a Jew. Culturally I was drawn to Jews, and most of the guys I dated were Jewish. The one Christian I dated seriously dumped me the moment he found out my dad was Jewish. I saw it in his eyes immediately. He just couldn’t tell his family (his dad was an Episcopal priest) that he was dating me. I never dated a Christian again.

I went on to marry a Jewish man whose family was as unreligious as my own. When our children were young I thought about converting for their sake, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it and my husband had zero interest in pushing them toward any religion. I had grown up in a cultural world that was heavily Jewish but religiously pretty agnostic. Those were my own tendencies and still are. It’s just not possible for me to pretend to believe what I don’t believe.

I also am repulsed by the people who believe that there is only one way to be Jewish and that is to be an ultra orthodox Jew. They remind me of those Christians for whom Christianity is limited to the most conservative fundamentalist sects and who want to limit the entire realm of Christianity to their own narrow beliefs.  So I’ll stay agnostic and remember the culture of both of my parents fondly even if I do see myself as more culturally and ethnically Jewish than Christian. Theirs was a very special union and reminds me that love can conquer—if not everything, an awful lot.

Here’s another Boomer reader, Mike, who, like darker-skinned Dylan, doesn’t look like most Jewish people—but in the opposite way:

I was born a Protestant and then my father died of polio. My mother re-married to a Jew and so at the age of 2, I became a Jew too. I got a Jewish-sounding last name. I lived in an increasingly Jewish neighbourhood, so the majority of my friends were Jewish and so I just went along as one. Not to be racist, but I did notice I didn’t seem to have the appearance of a Jew (blonde hair, blue eyes).

I never really did feel 100% acceptance, but I went along playing the role expected of me. I was even Bar Mitzvah’d, and this made my step-dad happy, as he fit in properly with the rest of his chosen Jewish community. My mother went along acting her part, which helped me do the same.

My upbringing always had me question this religious thing, being born into one ideology and then converting to another but never feeling accepted, feeling like an outsider. But I went along and felt I could continue to pull this charade off until one time at Synagogue during Yom Kippur time during yet another Israeli conflict. This rabbi, who was very accepted by the congregation, started talking about how the congregation should come together to support Israel in wartime and they passed the hat around to “buy weapons to kill Syrians.”

This is when I took pause to consider this whole religion thing. Something yet again just didn’t add up for me.

My last confirmation that these feelings of conflict and confusion were confirmed to me when the very Jewish high school and graduating class decided to have a reunion. I will never forget that when I received a letter from an old friend requesting “that we get together for lunch and that he would even call some OUR NON Jewish friends”!

I declined the invitation, and I went back to living a peaceful and fulfilling life in the community of the world around me. I was astounded yet amazingly relieved that I had escaped that world. To this day when I hear John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I still smile, knowing that we can independently find that world.

If you’re interested in more reading on the subject of Jewish identity, Abigail has you covered:

I don’t actually have a very good personal story for you. My own story involves giving up the Reform Judaism in which I was raised and pursuing an orthodox Jewish conversion. (My father is Jewish, not my mother, so only Reform Judaism considers me a Jew.) Dramatic though that choice has felt at times, it has come on so gradually that I cannot place a finger on the beginning or any particular turning point.

What I did want to tell you, though, is Rolling Stone magazine published a really thorough and incredible article by Ellen Willis in April 1977 which talks about this phenomenon of liberal Jews turning orthodox (“Next Year in Jerusalem”). Maybe you already know about it, or maybe it is of no use to you, and at any rate it is a bit dated now, but I just wanted to note it because a lot of what it talks about is still happening among American millennials.

Update from an old compatriot of mine, Max:

Hey Chris, long-time reader from back in the Dish days. I swear this isn’t intended as self-promotion (not least because I didn’t write anything I’m about to link to), but seeing all of the stories from Jews of mixed ethnic background made me feel like I needed to share.

I work for an organization that has been providing material assistance to Jews of Color (“JOCs” in our parlance) who are organizing themselves for greater recognition and leadership in American Jewish communities. They’re also pushing those majority-white communities to invest more heavily in confronting racism against people of color generally.

Last month, a lot of leaders in this growing movement held a national convening in New York. I thought some of your readers might be interested in seeing some of the output from that convening, which was covered in several Jewish media outlets, most thoroughly Jewschool.

I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, although as the son of a convert of German descent, my blond appearance also results in frequent, irritating comments on how I don’t “look” Jewish. (A tip for readers: just never, ever say that. Just don’t.) But although it’s outside my realm of personal experience, forming relationships with Jews of many ethnicities has been eye-opening and drives home for me how much work our communities have if we are going to be welcoming places for everyone who identifies as Jewish. I hope readers who are struggling with this will connect to Jewish Multiracial Network and the other organizations that hosted the national convening.

And if you’d like to connect with Notes to share your own personal struggle, the door is always open.