How to Build a Jewish Identity From Scratch

I didn’t go to Jewish summer camp or have a bat mitzvah.

I didn’t grow up with a bubbe who baked kugel and muttered Yiddish under her breath.

I am an incessant worrier by nature, but I didn’t pick it up from a loving Jewish mother.

I didn’t even meet a Jew until I was 19, and I didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish until much, much later.

But today I am a Jew — one who had to build an entire Jewish identity from scratch.

Raised a relaxed Lutheran, my first real glimpse into Judaism was when I met my partner, David, when I was 29. David is a Jewish dad of two who grew up on the north side of Chicago. He was the first of many Jews I would come to meet who were not religious, per se, but firmly grounded in their Jewish cultural identity and dedicated to raising their kids Jewishly. Hebrew school, Jewish camps, bar/bat mitzvahs, tzedakah boxes — with David I got my first taste of the Jewish holiday cycle and an intimate look into what it’s like to run a Jewish home.

When people ask, and they ask often, if I converted for David, my answer is a resounding no, but it’s because David opened his life and his heart to me that I was able to experience Judaism first hand. The deeper our connection got, the more I knew his cultural home matched my lifelong desire to find a spiritual home. I found a rabbi and began the conversion process. The rest is history.

For two years, in between meetings with the rabbi, I started wading slowly into the Jewish waters, so to speak. I googled the hell out of Shabbat until I felt confident enough to start doing a makeshift dinner at home. I hung a mezuzah outside my front door. My friends started giving me their discarded books on Judaism, which slowly built into my own little Jewish library. I started attending the High Holiday services, sometimes with David and sometimes alone. I fasted on Yom Kippur and kept kosher for Passover. I taught myself the aleph-bet so I could read along in services and downloaded a Hebrew keyboard so I could impress my friends with an occasional “Shabbat Shalom.” I jumped at the opportunity to share my conversion story with every Jewish person I met and to learn as much as I could from them. For two years I lived as Jewishly as possible. And then there I was: sitting in front of the beit din to officially become a Jew.

As intimidating as it was to work with the spiritual leaders and go through the conversion process, building a Jewish life outside that process is even harder. There isn’t this big physical change that happens after you’ve immersed in the mikveh. I was still the same. I left that morning equipped with a certificate and a Hebrew name, but no real direction on what to do once I walked out the door.

Since converting, I’ve built and strengthened my identity upon things that make me feel Jewish. I feel Jewish wearing a hamsa around my neck every day and a Star of David on special occasions. I feel Jewish when I’m in a deli, stuffing my face with corned beef, potato pancakes, and pickles. I feel Jewish drinking wine with my Jewish mom friends while plotting our kids’ way through the 7th grade, knowing that they see me as another Jewish mom like them. I feel Jewish when I watch shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Curb your Enthusiasm, and I get them — like, really get them! I feel Jewish when I cook Jewish food, like brisket or kugel, especially when the born-Jews I’m feeding actually like it and want seconds. I feel Jewish when Jewish news stories show up in my news app and they feel personal. I feel Jewish doing things that many of my born-Jewish friends haven’t done, like make tzitzit and study Talmud. Most importantly, I feel Jewish when I see another Jew and feel connected to them, deeply, in a way I have never felt with another group of people.

Without the history and cultural identity that comes with being a born Jew, my Jewish identity is built up of everyday actions, moments of understanding and recognition, and a growing sense of solidarity. I seek out ways to make me feel Jewish as a way to strengthen my identity, knowing that soon enough, I will not need anything to feel Jewish. Because truth be told, whether I’m doing something Jewish or not, I immersed in the mikveh and I am a Jew, through and through.

Header image via Nadia Bormotova/Stock/Getty Images Plus

Brittany Southworth

Brittany Southworth is a small town girl who’s spent the last decade pretending to be a big city girl in Chicago. When she’s not running her tiny Airbnb empire, painting, writing or knitting, she’s obsessively studying how to be the best human, mother and partner possible."

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