(This article originally appeared in my J-weekly column, Mixed and Matched on September 28, 2021)
Dear Dawn: My mom was raised noncommittal Christian and my dad was raised noncommittal Jewish. Around the time I was born, my dad was exploring Judaism and he wanted to raise me, and later my little brother, as Jews. My parents joined a Reform synagogue and my dad got involved. They sent me and my brother to Hebrew school. When I grew up and went to college, I found out that many Jews don’t recognize me as Jewish. I was hurt and angry. When I told my parents, my mom was really sweet. She apologized for not knowing what would be the result of their choices. But my dad just stubbornly countered everything I said. I love them both, but I’m mad at my father and at Jews who don’t acknowledge my identity. I’ve even met Jewish guys who don’t want to get involved with me because our kids “won’t be Jewish.” I’m still angry and upset. Should I just give up on Judaism? Is there any solution? Can I make my dad understand? — My Father’s Daughter
Dear Daughter: I am very sorry for the rejection you have felt and the ongoing pain you are experiencing. You have two issues here: your father and your relationship with him, and your relationship with Judaism.
I’m going to make a leap and suggest that if your father were able to acknowledge how his choices have impacted you, you might feel supported enough to forge your Jewish path. I suspect he is upset that you are distressed, and accepting responsibility for that is just too hard to face.
You say that he began learning about Judaism as an adult and parent. It is very hard for adults to be “ignorant.” As your Jewish parent, he may be uncomfortable with his own lack of knowledge, while your mother has no sense that she “should have known.” He probably wants you to embrace Judaism as he has and is unsure of how to address that.
I suggest you take a walk with him, get away from any distractions, then tell him that you want his support and need him, as your Jewish parent, to partner with you as you determine your relationship with Judaism.
You might say to him, “You didn’t know the impact of your choices on me, but you know now. I don’t blame you for what you didn’t know then, but I need you to fully understand my predicament now.” If he is receptive, discuss the challenges you are facing and the options you have in dealing with them. Maybe all you need is for him to be a good listener. The choices are now yours, but you deserve his expressed concern and support.
Now, what about your relationship to Judaism? What choices do you have there? In a Reform environment, you are accepted as Jewish. You were raised a Jew and have a Jewish father, and that meets the “requirement” for Jewish identity in the Reform movement.
The problem arises when you go into a secular space or a more traditional Jewish environment.
What you need is a clear sense of your Jewish self. Do you believe yourself to be Jewish? If you don’t, then you need to change that. What would make you feel authentic? Do you need greater Jewish knowledge? More experience in services? A better grasp of Hebrew? More participation in Jewish community? Do you want to go to the mikvah?
Ask yourself what would satisfy you. Once you know what that is, you can secure it for yourself.
Please remember, you don’t need to volunteer your mother’s status, as that is no business of strangers or new acquaintances. Then, when you have developed confidence in yourself as a Jew, you can respond to the doubters with calm self-assurance. You can say any of the following depending on the question/statement:
Why do you ask?
Why is my identity so important to you?
Isn’t that a bit personal?
Is something worrying you? That’s such an odd comment.
You should ask my mother.
Remember, their question does not require that you answer them.
Finally, there is my personal favorite, which was spoken by an Italian Jewish professor when an adult student, noting his Italian accent, asked, “I have a question. Are you Jewish?” He replied, “Sometimes you just have to take your parents’ word for it. My mother says I am.”
One last thing about Jewish guys you consider dating. A guy who is traditional in his personal practice may indeed not want to get involved with a woman he does not see as Jewish. So be it. He has his viewpoint and you have yours. He’s not the guy for you.