Don’t Tell Me I’m Not Really Jewish Just Because I’m Adopted

One part of my identity has always been clear to me — being adopted. My parents told me this from an early age, reading me children’s books on the topic every night. There has never been any shame or confusion about this part of me.

But I can’t say the same for the Jewish part of my identity.

My mother is a non-practicing Jew, so growing up, I didn’t have a lot of experience with the culture. This is because my grandmother escaped Germany during the Holocaust, and she dropped her Jewish traditions when she arrived in the United States.

My parents sent me to a local Catholic elementary school when I was younger. The choice had nothing to do with religion; they just thought I’d receive a good education there.

I got bullied by almost everyone, partially because my mother was Jewish. At the time, culture and ethnicity were foreign concepts to me. However, these things seemed important to everyone else there. I only lasted at that school about a year. But ironically, it’s sort of what encouraged me to look deeper into my Jewish culture.

Every year my mother still put out a gold menorah during Hanukkah, and every year I was more intrigued. When I was in high school, I decided to become more involved and educated in what I considered to be my family’s culture and history. Non-Jews saw me as Jewish already, so why not embrace it?

But I didn’t expect that some in the Jewish community would not be as receptive to me. I didn’t think that being adopted would have much to do with it, but some did not see my mother as my “real” mother, therefore they didn’t see me as a “real” Jew.

When people talk about adoption, they throw around the word “real” a lot. When I went on Birthright, a few other kids who knew I was adopted would jokingly say that I wasn’t “really” Jewish because my “real” mother wasn’t.

But being Jewish felt “real” to me when I was standing in the Holy City of Safed during Birthright, declaring my Hebrew name during my bat mitzvah.

It feels “real” when I’m listening to my Jewish grandmother talk about leaving Germany with her father, having almost no money to her name.

And it should go without saying: My adoptive parents are my only real parents. Beyond blood, I have zero connection to the woman who birthed me. Even if she herself was Jewish, the only lived experiences I have are with my adoptive parents.

To me, the feeling that comes along with being Jewish is real in every sense of the word. In fact, I’ve only ever doubted my love for Judaism when others implied it wasn’t a part of me.

During high school, I even tried to get involved in the only local Reform congregation, but they never answered my emails or phone calls. I had told them I had questions about being adopted and Jewish, because blog posts on the topic seemed to be mixed in opinion. Perhaps they somehow missed the messages, but at the time, it felt like rejection.

It wasn’t until after Birthright, when I spent the rest of my summer completing an internship in Tel Aviv, that I became more confident in my Judaism. My roommate didn’t care that I was adopted, and we had so much fun cooking Shabbat dinners together.

During my time there, I was able to travel to the West Bank for a weekend and attend a series of lectures. There, a man spoke about what it meant to be Jewish.

What I remember most from that lecture was when he told the crowd his children were adopted. He stressed to the crowd that having adopted children taught him something important — never tell a convert or adopted Jew that they aren’t truly Jewish.

I overheard some other attendees question that statement, which didn’t come as a surprise to me. Nonetheless, I couldn’t believe I heard someone say something in my defense so confidently.

At the end of the day, I know who I am and where I came from. But it’s still hard to explain my love for Judaism to those who would argue I’m not really Jewish.

So instead of trying to convince people otherwise, I’ll just keep doing my Shabbat dinners and trips to Israel with love instead of shame. Nowadays, I say I’m both adopted and Jewish with confidence, not confusion, in my voice.

Header via giphy by Motion Wanderer

Danielle James

Danielle James is a Senior at Penn State University, double majoring in Political Science & Digital/Print Journalism. Her interests include politics, cooking, and cute dogs.

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