Why Do So Many Fellow Jews Assume I Don’t Know What My Hebrew Name Means?

I know the answer is because I'm Asian, and the truth is, it hurts.

My name is one of the things I love most about myself. I am Emet, I am my own Truth. It encompasses two aspects that are deeply important to me: my dedication to being my authentic self and my Jewish identity.

And yet so often, other Jews feel the need to tell me that my name is Hebrew for “truth.” I’ve experienced this “Jew-splaining” nearly everywhere I go. It’s happened while I’m at work at the local Jewish Community Center. It happened the first time I met family members of my girlfriend at the time, who is very observant and has always been clear she wants to be with a Jewish partner. It’s even happened to me at my own shul, from other members of my synagogue community.

The reason is clear. They assume I’m not Jewish because I’m Asian.

Any Jew of Color will likely laugh if you ask them if they’ve ever been told they “don’t look Jewish.” We’ve all heard it many, many times. My favorite response to this statement is, “What am I supposed to look like? A challah?” But while I try to approach situations like these with humor, the truth is, it hurts. A lot.

When I was in middle school, my mom would often drop me off at the synagogue for Shabbat services and leave. She’s never felt too strongly about going to shul. I’ve always loved it, though, so it would typically be my little 12-year-old self as the sole representative from my family in a crowded sanctuary. One morning, we reached the part of the service where the rabbi invites you to wish someone near you a “Shabbat shalom.” An older woman sitting in front of me turned around, wished me a “Gut Shabbos,” and asked, “So who brought you here today?” I answered, “My mom,” unaware of the underlying assumption she was making. She asked again, “Are you here with a friend?” to which I simply responded, “Nope, just me.”

It wasn’t until later in the service that I realized she didn’t think I was Jewish and that therefore I must be in a synagogue because a Jewish friend brought me. It was a tough concept for my 12-year-old mind to grasp. It was so evident to me that I’m Jewish.

I’ve always been Jewish. My family is Jewish. I love being Jewish.

From the warm aroma of freshly-baked challah, to the soulful chanting of Torah, to the contagious joy of zealously dancing the hora with loved ones, to the coziness of a Sukkah in the brisk autumn air, Judaism has held me in its nurturing arms and I have embraced it in return.

My love of Judaism goes back as far as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is excitedly reciting the candle blessing on Friday night before my cousin’s bar mitzvah when I was just 5 years old and my love of Jewish traditions has only grown since then. I’ve always loved Shabbat’s weekly reminder to take time to rest. Some of my best memories are from my religious school’s annual Shabbaton. I’m especially grateful for the lifelong friendships I built through religious school and fondly recall reflecting on the good things from each past week with my classmates during Havdalah. I look forward to Passover every year and the conversations my family has around the seder table about today’s injustices and how we can contribute to righting the world’s wrongs. Repeating the same ancient Hebrew words that Jews have recited for eons grounds me with an inexplicable sense of peace. I am constantly in awe of the Jewish resilience, pursuit of justice and reverence for life that has been passed down, l’dor vador, from generation to generation, all the way to me.

The microaggressions (and sometimes macroaggressions) I’ve faced throughout my life as a Jew of Color have always hurt more than I’ve let on. I know folks don’t say these things to me with malicious intent. They simply don’t know I’m Jewish. But that simple assumption has honestly led me to some dark places. I’ve blamed myself for not being observant enough, not being proud enough, not being obvious enough, not being Jewish enough. How can I ever be Jewish enough if even within my own Jewish community, people don’t realize I belong there? And isn’t belonging itself granted by those around us? In assuming I’m not Jewish, aren’t other Jews assuming that their Jewish space is not also my Jewish space? Will my feeling of being othered ever become a sense of true belonging?

I’ve tried to be more obviously Jewish to pre-emptively assert my place in the Jewish community, before anyone can doubt my belonging there. I’ve worn a Star of David necklace and was told by a stranger in an elevator, “Only Jewish people should wear those.” For a time, I wore a kippah daily and was asked by a stranger on the street why I wore one since they are typically only worn by Jews. I’ve tried to casually mention my Jewishness in conversations with new people, to head off any misunderstandings, and been asked, “When did you decide to become Jewish?” as if I certainly could not come from a Jewish family or been raised Jewish. Even when I tell people my name means “truth” in Hebrew, before someone else can “educate” me, I then get asked, “Oh, did your parents know that when they named you?” or, “How did you learn the Hebrew meaning of your name?” or, “Why were you given a Hebrew name?”

It seems no matter where I go, no matter what I do, my Jewishness and my place in the Jewish community will always be scrutinized. Because, who on earth has ever heard of an Asian Jew?!? (Spoiler alert: There are LOTS of us!)

That Shabbat morning, sitting behind that woman in shul, my 12-year-old self began to feel the frustration bubbling up inside me. Why didn’t this woman think I was Jewish? Why did she have to question my reason for being in shul? What about me wasn’t Jewish enough? As these questions clouded my mind, I couldn’t help but notice the woman struggling to keep up with the service, flipping through the siddur, trying to find the right page. I felt a surge of pride because I knew where we were in the siddur, and I knew almost the entire service by heart.

After watching her struggle for a few more moments, I leaned forward and gently tapped her shoulder to help her find her place. I will never forget the surprised look she gave me, followed by a warm, grateful smile. She finally understood. I am Asian, I am Jewish, and I belong in Jewish spaces.

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