(This originally appeared in the J-weekly in my Mixed and Match column, April 13, 2020)
Dear Dawn: I keep being told that my kids aren’t Jewish because I am not Jewish. I am sick of hearing this! Any ideas how I can shut people down? I’ve tried a whole range. I’ve been angry: “Oh go to hell!” I’ve tried being rational: “Hitler would think so, so I guess they are.” I’ve tried explaining reality: “They have Hebrew names, went to Hebrew school, celebrate all Jewish holidays and have been to Jewish summer camp for years. They do more Jewish stuff than most Jews at our synagogue!” I’ve pointed to Jewish history: “None of the matriarchs were born of Jewish mothers and yet they are never questioned.” What can I say? This statement always upsets me. Don’t tell me to go to a Reform shul. I already do! — Mom of Jewish kids
Dear Mom: Yes, it is quite painful to be confronted in this way. I’m sorry that you continue to be stuck in the ribs with this emotional knife.
The problem is not you, your kids or even your tormentors. It is that identity in Judaism is not a fixed truth, and some feel they must “educate” others.
Your arguments come from you hoping to win over the speakers to your thinking. Chances are that won’t work. An angry outburst probably will make people think they are all the more right. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get mad, only that it may not advance your position.
Let’s look at your other “arguments.” Hitler would consider your kids Jewish. While using “Hitler” no doubt grabs someone’s attention, it also brings a very negative feeling to the conversation. How Hitler would have viewed your children is not a valid argument in a Jewish context. Halachah (Jewish law) is the traditional determiner of identity, not Hitler. Moreover, I wouldn’t reference Hitler for many reasons.
True, your kids have all the “Jewish markers” required by the Reform movement to be considered Jewish. But remember: This recent change was not accepted by the Reform movements outside the U.S, nor the Conservative or Orthodox movements in the U.S.
And, perhaps more surprising, many unaffiliated Jews rely heavily on their born-Jewish status and do not recognize people who claim Judaism in any other manner (including formal conversion).
Also, non-Jews often know a smidgen about Judaism, and that wee bit includes the idea that Jews are born of a Jewish mother. They may be quite proud to announce what they know. Jewish identity is not dependent on actions. I urge you to not rely on this answer, as it will hold no water with many Jews. You can’t stop being Jewish by not practicing Judaism, nor can you acquire Jewish identity by practicing it.
Citing the matriarchs also doesn’t work with Jews steeped in Jewish learning. This is a subject that was raised thousands of years ago and answered by the ancient rabbis.
So what can you say?
First, I empower you to simply roll your eyes and walk away. You don’t owe them a response at all. If you want to react, I suggest you skip over what they said and address the fact they said it at all.
Some replies could be:
– Are you under the impression that you are educating me?
– That was an unkind thing to say. Why did you choose to say it?
– Presumably you think you are the first person to ever say that to me. Nope. You’ve just entered a well-populated club of other thoughtless people.
– Are you trying to hurt my feelings? Because it’s working.
– Our rabbi says they are. You should talk to him/her.
If the situation allows it, call your rabbi over immediately and bring them into the conversation. You can simply repeat what was said to you and add, “The person you need to discuss this with is the rabbi.” Walk away if you want.
If you are in a more traditional environment, say a Conservative or Orthodox shul, you can reply, “Surely you know it’s forbidden to speak lashon hara (evil tongue). I am surprised to hear it here. Maybe you should speak with your rabbi.”
An observant Jew should know exactly what you are telling them and should apologize for committing a sin. A note: Lashon hara is a truth spoken for an evil reason. In other words, yes, they do believe your children are not Jewish, and in their interpretation of halachah they are speaking the truth. But they are not permitted to say something that is hurtful just because they believe it to be true.