Reclaiming My Jewish Identity as a Patrilineal Jew

I never felt like Judaism belonged to me — until now.

I have never spoken about my relationship with my Jewishness — until now. I think that’s because it’s never been something that I’ve felt ownership over. It’s never felt like it belonged to me.

Let’s start at the beginning: My dad met my mum and they fell in love. Dad was the first member of his family (that I know of) who married a non-Jew. Some of the first memories I have relating to my Jewishness are being told that my grandpa had to be begged to attend my parents’ wedding. Understandably, my mum held onto that feeling and carried it with her, passing down a general uneasiness with being Jewish to me. The memories I have of Jewish celebrations and holidays growing up are overshadowed by feelings of discomfort and isolation. I think my mum felt jealous of the sense of community my dad’s family had, something she wasn’t able to feel part of. I held on to her anger and became very dismissive about my own Jewishness.

But as non-Jewish as I tried to convince myself I was, people around me disagreed. They latched onto two things that have caused me (an embarrassing amount of) grief, thinking that these were what made me Jewish: my hair and my nose. Growing up, my hair was wild. I was laughed out of hair salons. I am haunted by the image of young trainees giggling and whispering behind my back as they watched my hair expand after thinking it was a good idea to brush it bone-dry. I dyed it blonder and blonder and had it relaxed for years to try to fit in with the pretty aesthetic of my secondary school. I would spend hours straightening it and was told on multiple occasions how good it looked straight — which only reinforced my insecurities about its natural state.

And then there was my nose. My strong and capable nose. I pierced it, hoping that by putting something shiny there I would convince myself I actually liked it. After my parents split, my dad’s Jewish girlfriend at the time told me I was pretty, but it was such a shame I’d inherited the “Jewish nose.” Her internalized antisemitism only deepened my own.

When I was 23, my grandpa died and my perceptions about Judaism started to shift. At his shiva, I listened to people share stories about his dedication to, and generosity within, his community. I felt the pride he had in his Jewishness. The stern and strict man I had grown up fearing suddenly felt more accessible.

I dug into my paternal family history. I learnt about my Russian Jewish immigrant great-grandparents. I learnt about the pogroms. I pictured my grandpa growing up in Glasgow as a first-generation Jewish immigrant. I imagined them watching the horrors of the Holocaust unfold and felt the weight of my own privilege in having chosen to “drop” this part of my story.

At 24, I dated someone who was also a Glaswegian Jew on his dad’s side. He’d studied Jewish history at university and the depth of his knowledge encouraged my own curiosity.

During this time I started to speak more openly and freely about my Jewish heritage. It felt a little like I was testing the reactions of the people I was with. I was often met with comments about being “only half” or “a patrilineal Jew” and therefore fake. These comments tended to come from non-Jews more than the Jewish community, and I again found it interesting how often our identity can feel dependent on the perception of others. Judaism was the predominant culture and religion I had grown up surrounded by, but to others it was deemed irrelevant due to being passed down by only one parent.

While dating my now ex-boyfriend, we spoke about our shared experience of being perceived as too Jewish or not Jewish enough, the occasional awkwardness of being a left-wing Jew in Britain, noticing the engrained tropes of associating Jews with money and ugliness — and all of this allowed me to finally start to embrace my Jewish identity.

But when our relationship ended, I was once again left feeling like Judaism belonged to someone else. For a while, it felt too painful to continue my exploration, and I postponed my plans to have a (very belated) bat mitzvah.

At the beginning of last year, before the pandemic took hold, I performed in a production of Dr Korczack’s Example at Leeds Playhouse. It was the first time in my career as an actress where I was playing a Jewish character and telling a specifically Jewish story.

The play is set in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942, and although I had previously studied the Third Reich during my education, I connected to the history in a deeply emotional way. That was in part thanks to the incredible creative team that built the world of the play and most importantly, meeting Arek Hersh, a Holocaust survivor who has since dedicated his life to sharing his story in an effort to educate against prejudice. Performing in front of him was one of the greatest honors of my professional life.

Following that show, I was then cast in a short comedy film called Miss that explores the horror of a secular Jewish girl finding out her new flatmate is entering the “Miss Hitler” beauty pageant (an actual real life thing, by the way). It was such a fun project to be involved in, and I was surrounded by Jewish creatives who spoke with an inspiring ease and confidence about their Jewish pride.

I am not a religious person. To me, reclaiming my Jewishness has been about self-acceptance, cultural belonging, and understanding my family and their history. It is quiet and comforting and personal.

I am slowly learning that my Jewishness does not belong to my grandpa, to my mum, or my dad. It does not belong to any Jews or non-Jews who believe I’m not Jewish. It most definitely does not belong to my ex-boyfriend. It belongs to me, and that is how I’ll take pride in it.

Gemma Barnett

Gemma Barnett (she/her) is an actor and writer (and many other jobs) living in London. In March 2020 she won the Off- Westend Award for Best Female Performance in a Play for her role of Rory in “A Hundred Words for Snow.” She is currently writing and developing a show that is being supported by Arts Council England.

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