We Were Wrong to Assume Ella Emhoff Is Jewish

A note from our editor on the Second Gentleman's daughter, Jewish identity, and radical inclusion.

After months (and quite frankly, years) of horrifying news compounded by horrifying news, last week felt like a gift. For the first time in a long time, the national discourse did not revolve around white supremacist violence, neo-Nazis marching in the streets, or people’s rights being taken away. With the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, we started to have a bit of hope.

Here at Alma, covering the inauguration was a much-welcomed break from publishing yet another explainer on antisemitism. Switching out posts about QAnon for ridiculous Bernie Sanders memes offered the catharsis we absolutely needed. Gushing over Jon Ossoff’s wink was a hell of a lot more fun than parsing out hate symbols present at the Capitol insurrection. And then there was Ella Emhoff, daughter of our first (Jewish) Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, who, in an embellished Miu Miu coat and excellent curls, made an impression during a day of fashion statements. Last Wednesday, we published an article titled “Ella Emhoff Stole the Show on Inauguration Day,” making the case that “Vice President Kamala Harris’ Jewish stepdaughter is our new national style icon.”

Except there’s one problem: She’s not Jewish.

In an article published last Friday, Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren reported that when reached out to participate in an event for the Jewish newspaper, a spokesperson for Ella declined, saying, “Ella is not Jewish.” In subsequent emails, the spokesperson clarified that while Doug Emhoff had started celebrating Judaism “out of an independent search” over the last few years, Ella was not living with him at the time and Judaism is “not something she grew up with.” For that reason, “Ella truly has no qualms with the faith, but she does not want to speak on behalf of Judaism, as she does not celebrate herself.” 

Well isn’t that a pickle. Here we were, celebrating what felt like a truly momentous occasion representing what Judaism today actually looks like for so many — interfaith, multicultural, and nontraditional — but we were doing so with someone who doesn’t even identify as Jewish.

The question of “who is a Jew?” comes up frequently, and the answer is never simple. There are those who believe in only the strictest sense of halakhic law, who would say that someone needs to be born to a Jewish mother, or go through a formal conversion process, to be Jewish. In more progressive circles, the idea of “patrilineal descent” is totally kosher, meaning if someone’s father is Jewish, they are welcome to consider themself Jewish, too, regardless of their mother’s religion. And then there are about a million little caveats in between that get all the more complicated when you bring in other paths to child-rearing, like surrogacy and adoption

At Alma, we are not the gatekeepers to anyone’s Jewish identity. I have witnessed, too many times, people getting turned away from Jewish communities because they didn’t match their perfect criteria of Jewish identity. I have watched the organized Jewish world wring their hands over the growing rate of intermarriage and what they fear that means for the future of Jewish life, only to turn away folks who wanted to be involved but didn’t have the right DNA. As editor of a Jewish culture site, my job is not to determine who is Jewish enough to write for us — it is to ensure that anybody who wants to be here, who feels a desire to explore their Jewish identity or their Jew-ish identity or their Jewish-adjacent identity, feels comfortable doing so here.

Radical inclusion is a beautiful thing, and there’s nothing I love more than hearing from readers who say that Alma has allowed them to feel more confident in their Jewish identity. But at the same time, inclusion cannot mean including people who do not want to be there. I know this, just as I should have known better: There are people in my life who, despite having a Jewish parent, do not identify as Jewish because it wasn’t something they were raised in. While in my mind, you absolutely don’t have to be familiar with the holidays or the prayers or the rituals to be Jewish (can somebody remind me what Shemini Atzeret is?), many don’t feel like Judaism is something they can or want to claim when it’s never really been a part of their life. And that is totally fine! 

Of course, sometimes we want to claim certain people as Jews when they’re making the news. Beyond her impeccable style and hair, Ella Emhoff seems just very fucking cool. She makes knitwear and has a cow tattoo. Her Instagram account is a burst of joy. How neat would it be to have a young Jewish person like Ella in the extended White House family to look up to? Pretty neat. But you can’t force a square peg in a round hole. (And besides, we have a number of Biden-related Jews to hold us over.) 

I’m excited to watch Ella continue to grow into her own during these next four years, and I’ll eagerly follow along despite the fact that we don’t share a religious identity. But I do want to offer her an apology, and a thank you: 

I am sorry we said you were Jewish when you’re not — it won’t happen again. And thank you for this necessary reminder that the answer to whether someone is a Jew must always come down to the individual themself. By sticking up for your own identity, you’ve given us all — Jewish and not — something important to think about. (Also, say hi to Doug for us.)

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