(This article originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly on June 7, 2019)
Dear Dawn: My father is 100 percent Jewish and my mother is Christian. They tried to have an interfaith wedding in the ’70s and the Jews wouldn’t accept them. Unfortunately, my father turned his back on Judaism and never looked back. I have always been incredibly proud to be Jewish, but my father wouldn’t have anything to do with it.
Now I find myself looking every day at a synagogue near my child’s school, too scared to go in, even though I’ve always wanted to. I am pretty certain they won’t accept me, and I would be, at best, clumsy with the customs. I’ve already seen my father reject his faith and now I am scared this faith I love from afar will tell me I’m not “Jewish enough” to be in it, even though I don’t believe that to be true. How can someone with half their bloodline being Ashkenazi Jewish not be Jewish enough?
I know I won’t ever truly be accepted, but I think it’s crazy converted Jews are deemed more true to the faith than me, and I suppose that’s why I will continue to drive by the building never to go in.
— Driving By
Dear Driving: I am sorry you have been so hurt, both by feeling rejected and by your dad not giving you a hand into Jewish life. Have you told him you are proud to be Jewish? Does he accept you as a Jew? Do you know who these “Jews who wouldn’t accept them” were? His parents? The rabbi?
Also, you say you are proud to be a Jew. On what do you base your identity? Your father’s bloodline?
Ideas are bouncing around your head: You are sure that you will be rejected yet are certain that you are a Jew. This shows both your pain and a lack of information about your status in the Jewish community. I’m sorry that it is difficult to get this kind of critical information.
Jews have been guided by Jewish law (halachah) for centuries. It states that the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew and a person who converts is a Jew. There are lots of teachings behind this, but what really matters isn’t the scholarship but how you will deal with this reality.
Much has changed in the last 50 years. The Reform movement, as well as the Renewal, Humanist and Reconstructionist movements, determined in the 1980s that the child of a any Jewish parent would be considered Jewish if they were raised with Jewish rituals, lifecycle events, holidays and community (plus no other religion besides Judaism).
Reform Jews represent a significant percentage of affiliated Jews in the U.S. However, the greatest number of Jews, the unaffiliated, frequently base their own Jewish identity on being the child of a Jewish mother — and with that they tend not to see patrilineal Jews as “real.” Additionally, the Orthodox, Conservative and all non-American movements still accept the traditional route to Jewish identity.
This is the world into which you were born. But! You are an American, and you have choices. You get to decide what you think about this and what to do with it. I urge you to not waste time being sad or angry. Instead, you need to learn enough about Judaism as a practice and a theology to determine whether you really want to be Jewish.
I suggest you take a basic Judaism class. You are “clumsy with the customs,” but that’s murky. Can you say the blessings on Shabbat? How about Hanukkah? Do you know what these are: the Torah, Talmud, Mishnah, midrash? Are any holidays familiar to you?
An introductory class will give you the foundation you need to decide if you want to be a Jew. If you decide no, then no harm, no foul. You walk away knowing about Judaism and you have peace of mind.
If you decide yes, what next? Explore the three primary branches of Judaism to determine which one fits your belief system. If you decide to be Reform, you will approach a Reform rabbi and discuss your options. Some rabbis (and patrilineal Jews) suggest a ceremony that divides your life without practice from your life as a committed Jew. Others will say just hop right into the synagogue and join in.
If you decide that you hold a more traditional view and want to formally convert, then you’ll approach a rabbi from the Conservative or Orthodox streams of Judaism to learn what is required.
Remember, this is your decision. You are in charge.
(This article originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly on 6/7/19)