“Who is Jewish?”

I spent the day with a good friend yesterday who is also interested in navigating the strange terrain that is Jewish history/culture/identity and all the ways that “Jewishness” has been defined, debated, and debased. Both of our family histories contain something “Jewish.” Her relationship to her Jewishness has been very much affected by growing up in Europe and spending the majority of her life so far in Germany. It contrasts starkly to my life, which has – up until my moving to Germany – taken place in very Jewish spaces. We approach our family histories from these differing lenses and have found a point of common frustration in the continuing insensitivity or general ignorance on the part of mainstream white, Christian Germans towards Jewish life in their country before and after the Second World War. Many Germans today seem to locate their knowledge of anything to do with “the Jews” within the constrained space of the Holocaust. Or else they are Israelis. Either way you look at it, what falls under “Jewish” – regardless of who is making the definition – can be painful, political, sacred, ant-Semitic, personal, and so on…

Therefore who is or who is not “Jewish” is not straightforward. And if one begins to explore Jewish-anything one quickly learns that it has never been straightforward. The simple Halachic definition of a Jewish person is an individual with a Jewish mother. Or someone who has converted (but even that is contested). But you will never just hear just this one answer. The simple presence of a Jewish mother cannot begin to contain the complexities of possible Jewish identities. For even to be a Jew as per Halachic rule often contradicts one’s self-identity, trapping an individual into a Jewishness they don’t at all want. Regardless of whether one wants to claim ownership of Jewishness or not, there are so many reasons – theological, historical, cultural, and political – why “Are you Jewish” is not an easy question to answer.

And for people like my friend and me, our Jewishness has come to us with so much silence, shame, fear, pain, and confusion. We are not alone. There are so many individuals with similar stories. So many stories and histories that are determined by silence, by their not having been spoken.

In the last couple of months I have been confronted – very bluntly – on two occasions with this question “Who is Jewish?” 

The first of these two incidences was in Warsaw. I was on a tour of Jewish sites in Warsaw and the guide asked the group who amongst us was Jewish. I was baffled and offended by his question. It did not help of course that we were in Poland where this exact same question was asked not too long ago, but for much different purposes. For some – particularly the Israelis in attendance – the question is irrelevant. Their very language conveys to group who they are. But is that even fair to assume of them? What is that question trying to ascertain? Is he checking to see if he has the green-light to make anti-Semitic jokes? If he wants to know who is familiar with Judaism or not, wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate question?

The second incident was in New York. My mother and I were on a tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum that dealt with poor Jewish immigrants at the turn of last century, many of whom worked in the garment industry. This tour was particularly profound for us as some of our Jewish ancestors found themselves in the same exact setting upon their arrival to America. The tour guide at a certain point at the start of the tour asked the group the same question as the guide in Warsaw: “Who is Jewish?” It being New York, more people raised their hands. Her quick explanation for the question was that she wanted to know if she needed to explain things like Shabbat or challah. But does that question really answer it? Isn’t the real question we should be asking based on familiarity. A “Jew” might not know the first thing about Jewish religious practices or cuisine. A practicing Catholic taking classes on Judaism might know a lot. If the question had to be an identity-based one, why not ask: “Who is not Jewish?” Why, as my friend puts it, must the Jew always be the one who is “outed”?

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