Jews Without God
Ginormous decision in a London Court of Appeals on a discrimination suit filed against a Jewish school, which had denied admission to a boy with a Jewish father and Jewish-convert mother.
“This is potentially the biggest case in the British Jewish community’s modern history,” said Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper here. “It speaks directly to the right of the state to intervene in how a religion operates.”
What the case says is that Jewish matrilineality–the law holding that the only way to get it is to get it from mom–constitutes discrimination. Schools can legally select by religion, but not by ethnicity, so for the purposes of admissions, ethnicity can’t be an arbiter of Jewishness. If a person is practicing–whether he’s a convert or born to Jews–he’s a Jew. So what does this mean for nonreligious Jews like yrs truly?
My mother is Jewish and my father was Dutch-Irish, and growing up I always called myself a half-Jew. Some years back my mother sent me and my sister copies of The Half-Jewish Book: A CELEBRATION, which has a picture of half an onion bagel on the cover. Although the book quotes a rabbi who argues that “saying you’re half-Jewish is like saying you’re half-pregnant,” the authors suggests there’s a separate cultural compartment for half-Jews. Cozy company in there, too, with the likes of Paul Newman, Bill Maher, and Paula Abdul.
Anyway, calling myself straight-up Jewish seemed like a weird denial of my dad’s side, and moreover I dimly agreed with what the London Court of Appeals decided–that to declare myself Jewish would have indicated religion, which–I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but for me believing in God coincides exactly with the way Mary Karr described it on Fresh Air last week: it’s like trying to “fall in love with a tree stump” (although Karr is herself a believer).
When we were kids my mother took my sister and me to synagogue a handful of times, and though it was pretty clear that the graft wasn’t going to take, every December we’d light the menorah in the pantry as our vague, resilient gesture at maintaining Jewishness.
Nevertheless my Jewishness only diminished as I got older and started comparing myself to other Jews. My Jewish friends in high school were like Hebrew-School and trips-to-Israel Jewish, and in college, I had a roommate who was Orthodox. She sang prayers out loud every morning, and when I forgot to leave the light on for her, I would come home Friday night to find her sitting on the futon in darkness. She observed holidays I’d never heard of and sometimes shook some leafy twigs in the air as she prayed. She was in a Jewish singing group called Magevet, meaning “towel” in Hebrew, rumored to have been named in response to the campus Christian singing group, Living Water.
Listen, it’s shameful to admit it, but I felt alienated by her religion, and I took that alienation as proof I didn’t really have a right to call myself a Jew at all.
I also felt alienated by the Chabad-Lubavitchers standing in the middle of the busy walkways on campus, trying to intercept kids rushing to class with an eager, “Are you Jewish?” I usually put my head down and pretended not to hear; sometimes, ugh, I’d just say I wasn’t.*
Then I lived in Europe for a little while. On my way to study in Italy, I stayed in Ireland with the family of a friend, who had informed her relatives I was a Jew. So when I told them I couldn’t have dairy, they asked if it was because I was Jewish. When I’d go for a run, they asked if all Jews liked exercise. Are all Jews tall? Do all Jews drink coffee in the mornings? They meant well, but they made me feel as exotic as I’d probably made my roommate feel.
Italians had plenty of curiosity about my Jewishness, too, and in other parts of Europe (especially Poland, where I was chilled by Krakow’s ghostly Jewish quarter, shocked to find that the exhibits at Auschwitz describe prisoners solely by their countries of origin), I found myself identifying more and more as a Jew.
And when I came back I had an opinion about why: the tissue connecting modern Jews isn’t religion per se, it’s that non-Jews have always lumped us together, the godless and the godly alike, which has given us a shared history and a shared culture.
Supporting experiences have calcified this opinion over time. Early this summer, I went on a date with a guy from Utah, Robert Redfordy in his seersucker shorts and freckled tan. He asked me about my book on Evangelicals, and by way of explaining my religious orientation, I mentioned in a dependent-clause kind of way that I was technically Jewish, though I’d never been religious. Hours later, as we cruised down the National Mall on bikes, the guy–the very picture of summer ease, helmetless on his silver fixed gear–was making fun of me for wearing a helmet crunched down on my head.
“I only have one brain, and I use it a lot,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, “you’re just a nerdy jew.”
I didn’t get mad when he said that. I just felt embarrassed and ungainly, like it was only by some studied, mechanical effort that I manufactured any womanly grace at all.
Just last week I took a tour of the White House with some friends of a friend, one of whom had been told by our mutual pal that there’d be a “nice Jewish girl” on the tour.
“Where is she?” I asked.
This kind of thing happens more often than you’d think, and it’s why I’m inclined to side with Orthodox Jews here–that “observance is no test of Jewishness.”
So little does observance matter, in fact, that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said recently.
But it isn’t the Orthodox definition of matrilineality that makes me identify as Jewish either. It’s the phantom pull of the whole history of anti-Semitism, knowing that no matter what I believe there are lots of people who will always see me first as a Jew–whether or not they’re even aware they do it.
Still, I respect the claim to Jewishness of people who go to the trouble of conversion, and I find this compelling:
“How dare they question our beliefs and our Jewishness?” David Lightman, an observant Jewish father whose daughter was also denied a place at the school because it did not recognize her mother’s conversion, told reporters recently. “I find it offensive and very upsetting.”
It is offensive. But I’m not sure what the solution should be, since denying the Jewishness of the nonreligious seems just as ugly.
*I never understood why I was so uncomfortable with the way Chabad-Lubavitch Jews recruit until this past September, when a friend and I were approached in Prospect Park about a dozen times by canvassers scanning the park for Jews. “The technique is a little tone deaf,” he pointed out. “Because what other groups can you think of that have gone around looking for Jews?”