What makes a Jew? I continually mire myself in this question; in fact, I practically bathe in it everyday.
I’m just beginning to understand what it’s not: It’s not commitment to Torah, since there are many more Jews who know very little about our religion than those who know a lot. (Of the 14 or so million Jews in the world, about a million are Orthodox.)
It’s not about culture or cuisine, since American Ashkenazic Jews differ in customs, language and culinary choices than our Sephardic/Israeli/Ugandan tribemembers. (That shakshuka dish might be tasty, but it looks like something might find splattered on the sidewalk outside a punk club.)
It’s not location, though those Upper West Siders are lucky to be able to take a tight Jewish community for granted. I can count on one hand the number of Jews in my neighborhood, and two of them came out my netheregions. But we are indeed everywhere.
It’s not just our DNA, as one reader argued, because our hair color or whether we have detached earlobes do not figure highly into our personal identities. (Or maybe you do feel a personal connection to other people with freckles or outie bellybuttons. But can you play “Detached Earlobe Geography?”)
And finally, two to three generations after WWII, none of us wants to claim that being survivors of a massive genocide is what makes us Jewish. We’ll keep saying “Never again,” but there are plenty who would like everyone to say it more quietly.
Laya at Jewlicious , who lives in Israel, has pointed out in a thoughtful, articulate post that it’s the quality of “otherness” that makes us Jews; that defining ourselves as what we’re not in relation to the rest of the world is today’s Jewish identity.
I have to agree: I feel so “other” not only in relation to non-Jews but to other Jews: Rather than comraderie with other Jewish bloggers more observant than I, I sense my own inferiority. I don’t speak Hebrew, I can name maybe 12 out of 613 mitzvot even after a big dose of ginkgo, and I love lobster. I may be a bad Jew or maybe not bad, just lazy but I’m still a Jew. I work hard at being a good person, a good wife, a good mother, friend and neighbor. So maybe sometimes I confuse my personal neuroses with being Jewish but I know I’m not the only one, yo.
For lack of a better answer, this “otherness” is satisfying for a minute of two, but of course it’s not really an answer at all. Laya continues in the post to question the rise of “Jewish hipsterdom,” this weird trend that has made the smartest, strangest kids in the class the most popular all of the sudden. (Dude, Matisyahu was on “Conan O’ Brian” this week. Who could have predicted haredi chic?):
“The Jewish Pride thats in vogue seems to be taking the form of embracing that otherness. Not that theres anything wrong with that. But does that really tell us much about who we actually are? … I wait with baited breath for a new paradigm of Jewish identity to emerge out of the petri dish of hipsterdom.”
I’m not really that deep, I’m just glad I’m not alone in my alienation.