Please Stop Asking Me ‘Are You Even Jewish?’

Spoiler: I am. When I chose to be a practicing member of the Jewish community, I was 7 years old. My parents told me that it was time to attend religious school of some kind and asked me if I wanted to try Sunday school (my mother is Episcopalian) or Hebrew school (my father is Jewish). After years of attending family holidays, I opted for Hebrew school, and thus began my journey into Judaism.

Does that make me Jewish?

I worked hard to become a bat mitzvah, studying, showing up to services at least twice a month, and working with a tutor. After that, I continued on to confirmation, to graduation. I was on the board of my Temple Youth Group, I babysat for my rabbi, I attended services, and I felt like the most involved Jew in my Baltimore neighborhood, which was frankly not so Jewish.

The question remained: Am I even Jewish?

My mother, who was raised in a church-going household, was always the person to take me to synagogue services. She was the person who ordered our High Holiday tickets. She was the one crying right next to me every single time we sang Mi Shebeirach (Jewish prayer for the sick). I would say my mother is actually spiritually Jewish, even though she never officially converted. I don’t think she needed to—she can make a matzah ball just as well as the rest of them, and she is great at ordering Chinese take-out for Christmas dinner. Seems pretty Jew-ish to me.

All of that is to say, yes, I am Jewish. But as I grew older and became more involved, less involved, indifferent towards, and ultimately a professional in, the Jewish community, the same question, or some iteration, would come up each time I excitedly announced that I had chosen Judaism. “Well… are you even Jewish?”

When you work in the Jewish community, in the role that I do, you have the pleasure of meeting other Jews, as well as people of all denominations. When Jews are trying to learn about other Jews, there is a pretty standard set of questions that we ask:

1. What synagogue do you go to?

2. Do you go to services?

3. Do you keep kosher?

4. Do you know anyone to set me up with? (Just kidding, sort of…)

My organization recently participated in the Houston Kosher Chili Cook Off this year. I personally do not keep kosher, but will always jump at an opportunity to participate in a competitive group activity, especially if it involves cooking. Being surrounded by Jews who consider themselves “more” Jewish than me was challenging, however. I was talking with a few other members of the community, some Conservative, some Orthodox, about what brought us to Judaism, and after telling my story about how I chose to be a Jew, their faces changed.

Their smiles kind of turned to a caricature of a blank face with question marks in the center, and I knew it was coming: “Well if your mom isn’t Jewish, you aren’t really Jewish, you know?” Uh, no, I do not know. I have been asked this question since I was a child, always feeling like I had to either avidly defend my choice to be Jewish, or just not talk about my religion or choices at all. I felt like I had to hide. I felt ashamed.

I have often wondered why people allow themselves to ask others questions like that. If I hadn’t told you what my religion was, or any of my background, what would make you question it at all? Do you stop people at Pride and say, “Are you even gay?” Do you question every redhead you see with, “Are you even Irish?” Do you see someone with their kids and say, “Are you even their parent?” Of course not. So why is it that in the Jewish community, we allow this question to go unaddressed? In a word, tradition.

In Judaism, it’s commonly believed that your Jewishness is passed from your mother. My mom passed it onto me, just nontraditionally.

When I chose to be raised in Judaism, I made the same commitment that anyone might make when choosing conversion. I made the decision to learn and understand through a Jewish lens. I made the commitment to contribute to the Jewish community in positive ways, throughout my lifetime. I made the choice to honor the tradition of my people, and for that, I do not believe that I should be considered any less Jewish.

Looking back on my life, I have always been a member of the Jewish community. From my bat mitzvah to confirmation, to graduation, and service, to now, working at a large, renowned, Reform synagogue, it is puzzling, at best, that one could question my Judaism. It is hurtful.

I urge you to let people practice in their own way. We will grow stronger in numbers through acceptance.

So yes, I am Jewish.


Photo via Flickr/zeevveez

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