(My) Jewish Identity Crisis
I am the daughter of Jewish man and a Catholic woman. In both religions, faith is matrilineal. But I was never baptized or confirmed, so I’m not Catholic. I also wasn’t born to a Jewish mother, so I am not Jewish either. But since I was a little girl and started exploring the faiths of both my parents, I was drawn to Judaism. I don’t practice any religion, at least not in the sense that I regularly attend services, participate in structured prayer, or am heavily involved in either the Catholic or Jewish communities. This is mostly because I have a deep-seated mistrust of organized religion. But all my life, I have studied Jewish history and Jewish culture, and I very much identify as a Jew.
But I have been told by Jews and Gentiles alike that I am not Jewish. This struggle with Jewish identity was brought into sharp focus by the experience of one of my close friends (who is not Jewish), as she faced her own struggle with Judaism and Jewish identity as her wedding to her Jewish fiancé approached. Whether or not to have a Jewish wedding was a difficult decision for my friend, as well as the debate as to whether to convert. In the end, my friend and her husband decided to incorporate some aspects of the Jewish wedding ceremony, but that she did not feel comfortable converting at the time. One of the reasons my friend was hesitant to convert was because she did not want to be a member of a religious community that rejected her–and her marriage–as a non-Jewish person of mixed race. In the Jewish community, the issue of interfaith marriages is very contentious. Some Temples and denominations openly accept intermarriage, but the Jewish establishment vehemently rejects intermarriage, claiming it is the leading cause of the dying out of Jewish practice, religiosity, and even the Jewish “race”. Many Rabbis will not perform marriages for interfaith couples. Despite this, intermarriage rates among Jews are high, and so are the numbers of children born to those interfaith couples. There are many adults and children who, like me, are the products of such interfaith marriages.
My friends struggle brought up my own issues with Judaism and Jewish identity because after my friends’ beautiful and joyous wedding, a number of the guests and wedding party went to the hotel bar. While there, I was talking with a mutual friend (who is a Jew of mixed race) about Judaism and Jewish identity. I was telling my friend how tired I was of being told I wasn’t really Jewish when another friend–who is not Jewish–patted me on the arm and said, “But Jackie, you aren’t really Jewish.” I was incredibly hurt by her words. Who was she to tell me what my identity really was? I do not think my friend meant to hurt my feelings, but I still felt her judgment was intrusive. For the first time, I understood what some of my friends must have felt when I told them they weren’t really Catholic, because they did not adhere to the mandates of the Catholic Church (using birth control, having premarital sex, being pro-choice, etc.) I realized how insulting and hurtful my words must have been, because for the first time a friend told me I wasn’t Jewish.
But I reject this. To me, Jewishness–and other religious and cultural identities–are not something that can only be passed from mother to child. Jewishness not just a religious, but a cultural identity. And how does it make any sense for boards of Rabbis to decide who is and is not Jewish, simply based on the faith of ones’ mother?
This has been an issue of contention repeatedly in the UK, where Jewish faith-schools–which are publicly funded–have faced charges of racism and discrimination by denying admission to students whose mothers are not Jewish. Faith schools follow the national curriculum, but also adhere to their own religious traditions, and admit students of their faiths but also students of other faiths. Last summer, the parents of a child who applied to be admitted to the Jewish Free School sued because their son was denied admission on the basis that he was not Jewish. This determination was made on the judgment of the Chief Rabbi, who did not recognize the child’s mother as Jewish because she was was not born Jewish. Even though the child’s mother had converted to Judaism, she wasn’t Jewish enough. The case was taken to the British Court of Appeal, which found that the school had violated British law, stating “the requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or by conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act”. Reactions by the British Jewish Community were not positive
The Board of Deputies is deeply concerned by the potential ramifications of today’s Court of Appeal judgment for Jewish Faith schools,” it said in a statement. “The effect of this judgement is that Jewish schools will not be able to give preference to applicants on the basis of their faith (as permitted by law) applying the criteria that have always been used by Jewish religious authorities.
The Jewish Free School appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, but the Appeals Court decision was upheld. I can understand why the Jewish Community is upset. The British Supreme Court is mandating that the Community base admissions–and essentially who is Jewish–not on the 3,500 years of Jewish law, but on British law, and I can see how the community would view this as a violation of their religious autonomy. But at the same time I am grateful for the rulings of the British Court, because I think ones’ religious or spiritual identity is determined by more than the religion or faith of ones’ parents.
I have friend, she has one parent who is Jewish and one parent who is Catholic, like me. But because her mother is Jewish–according to traditional Jewish law–she is Jewish. But I, with a Jewish father and Catholic mother, am not Jewish. We both have one parent who is Jewish, so doesn’t it seem somewhat arbitrary that because my Jewish parent is my father and not my mother that I am not Jewish?
My friend, the one who told me I wasn’t really Jewish, made the argument that because I am not Jewish based on traditional Jewish law, I am therefore not Jewish at all. But this often depends on how Jewish law is interpreted, and by which denomination of Judaism one is using to make such a judgment. In Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, in order for one to be Jewish, their mother must be Jewish. But in Reform or Reconstructionalist Judaism, one Jewish parent (either paternal or maternal) is enough, and more of an emphasis is placed on being raised religiously Jewish. This struggle over Jewish identity and who is or isn’t Jewish big issue in modern Judaism, but it seems only to be an issue of contention in the Jewish Diaspora, where assimilation and intermarriage is common.
But in Israel (which has the largest population of Jews outside the United States) and where intermarriage is less of an issue and the debate over “who is a Jew” is not as prominent, roughly more than half of the Israeli Jewish population defines itself as secular. Many Israeli Jews do not participate in strict observance of Jewish law, but do attend some Shabbos and go to Temple for the High Holy Days.
My point here is to illustrate that Jewish identity, religion, and culture are complex, and who is a Jew or not a Jew often depends on who you ask and by what set of standards and what denomination one uses to make that determination. In the United States and much of the Western World, if the Jewish establishment refuses to accept mixed marriages and the children that are the products of such marriages, then the Jewish community really will be in danger of dying out. Judaism, and Jewish identity is changing. We aren’t confined to the shtetl anymore, we are no longer a community forced to be insular. Who we marry and how we choose to practice (or not practice) our faith should not bar our partners or children from being a part of the Jewish community if they want. Again, not all Jewish Denominations and communities are so narrow-minded, and there are many Reform, Reconstructionalist, and Progressive communities that welcome mixed marriages and half-Jewish children. In the end, I agree with what Amy Bloom said when using her feelings on Jewishness to discuss her feelings about who gets to be a Feminist in an article for Slate
If you want to call yourself a Jew (God help you), who are we to object? Mazel tov. You’re a Jew; here’s an eggroll.