Late last summer, amidst a tearful fit of my Jewish imposter syndrome, a friend comforted me by telling me that, because I go to synagogue, read an embarrassingly small amount of Hebrew and light Shabbat candles, it didn’t matter that I was patrilineal and insisted I counted as a “real Jew.” Stroking my arm, she had told me it was my active participation in religious Jewish spaces and my personal beliefs that made my imposter syndrome untrue, as if my temple attendance and hesitation to eat pork were things that had to make up for the fact that my Judaism was handed down to me from my father and not my mother.
I appreciated what she was trying to do, but her words stung. If I hadn’t been religiously practicing enough, would she think of me differently? If I had still been Jewish through only one part of my family, but were instead secular — just as she is, though it’s her mother’s family that happens to be her Jewish side — would our conversation have soured. Would she have told me that, unfortunately, no, I don’t count and I’m not real?
I was reminded of the time during high school when, on the second night of Hanukkah, I had gone over to my then-partner’s home for menorah lighting and latke eating. Over the chanukiah at their dining table, their mother turned to face me and asked me about my last name after I had made an offhand comment about the menorah in my house and Christmas — something they knew I was celebrating, as my partner had bought me a Christmas present.
I remember chewing slower, trying to discern if she was really asking what I thought she was asking. I remember feeling embarrassed and violated at the question and at the hanging air after I had smiled, telling her my father’s family was Jewish. She asked me to clarify — oh, only your father? — and when I did, she shrugged unceremoniously and, in the same breath as asking her husband to pass a plate, said, “Oh, then you’re not really Jewish.”
This idea of really Jewish and not really Jewish is always on my mind as a patrilineal Jew, something I can never evade. In my ex-partner’s dining room at 15 years old I couldn’t evade that idea, and four years later, in the office of my local rabbi, nervously explaining that I am simultaneously patrilineal, earnest in the millennia-old beliefs and culture of my ancestors and aware of the traditional halachic view on Jewish descent, asking her timidly what that made me, that idea could not evade me either.
In my life, I’ve found that as a patrilineal Jew, I don’t always seem to have the right to just be Jewish. To some, my identity is the butt of a joke about what would happen if their sons marry a shiksa. To others, it is an example of what some call radical “Reformnik” nonsense. In certain spaces, being too religious, not religious enough, or being too quick to claim your Jewish background without justifying it behind being only “culturally” or “ethnically Jewish,” is proof enough of how un-Jewish patrilineal Jews are, and this is a painful experience.
I constantly feel like I have to justify my knowledge and lived experience and, with that, my existence as a member of the Jewish community. I must always know where I am and am not welcome, and I must always shrug it off when I get the two confused. There can be no room for disappointment, because I must always know better. And as a white person with a clearly Ashkenazic surname that has the privilege of not being immediately quizzed on my identity the moment I enter Jewish spaces, I know that these experiences are infinitely multiplied for patrilineal Jews of color.
It seems like, at times, we must always know that the conditions of our participation in these spaces are a gift. It was a gift that my friend validated me in my moment of sadness, and it was a gift that, after Hanukkah dinner, my in-the-moment-silent partner told me to ignore their mother, wishing me “chag Chanukah sameach.”
But it’s not fair — and it’s become painful to pretend it is. So I am declaring that in this new year of 2024, we must fight it.
Each year I tell myself some version of this. Two years ago, my therapist told me to surround myself with other patrilineal Jews following a hurtful exchange I had with a friend’s mother about my identity. My therapist had told me to surround myself with those who understand me — those who understand first-hand what it feels like to constantly adjust yourself or fight to feel part of something that is an integral part of your being.
Though an invaluable piece of advice, it still meant that I sauntered away from discussing this in college Jewish groups, or with new people I met. In this new year, I won’t and can’t let myself shrink away again. In 2024, it is the year of radical joy and pride for patrilineal Jews. We have every right to the joy and pride that our matrilineal Jewish siblings have, and I feel the need to treat 2024 as an opportunity to discuss the ways in which we are innately, really Jewish.
Like all groups, one’s identity being affirmed and celebrated is what indicates future commitment to it, and being excluded will, regardless of one’s parentage, ultimately lead to feeling the need to leave. This is not exclusive to patrilineal Jews: queer and trans Jews, Jews of color, disabled Jews and Jews by choice and their children must be validated by their communities if the community wants them and their families to stay and pass their beliefs to the next generation. If half of all children of Jewish interfaith marriages are uncontestedly written off and excluded, what then is really causing an alleged decline of Jews? As we delightedly enter the most diverse generation of Jews in history, we must acknowledge our common struggle for unapologetic recognition and inclusion in our communities.
Patrilineal Jews, like all Jews, are the product of radical Jewish joy — they are loved by their Jewish families and congregations; they hold generations of history and culture; and, most importantly, they could and should cherish themselves fully. I feel this in the room with my Jewish friends with whom, in the face of celebration and in tragedy, we hold and are held. We encompass in all forms the best hopes of our Jewish ancestors, and the pride and meaning I find in my background is something I keep within me, given to me by all who came before me, and it is non-negotiable. Patrilineal Jews didn’t spring into existence following the Reform movement’s 1983 declaration on patrilineal recognition or the earlier affirmation of this by Reconstructionist Judaism. We have existed forever, and we will exist forever.
In 2024, an unknown number of patrilineal Jews will be born or come of age. They deserve the innate, unquestioned right to be accepted, loved and held by their communities — especially in the face of rising antisemitism, which has sharply trended upwards in the past decade.
As we celebrate living in the new year 2024, it’s time for patrilineal Jews to loudly celebrate themselves and make themselves known. In 2024, we must know we are loved and we are valued — and that, if we can’t have this recognition from mainstream Jewish thought, then we must carve it out for ourselves, by ourselves.