This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Interfaithfamily.com, Encouraging Jewish Choices & a Welcoming Jewish Community. Reprinted by permission.
My father is Japanese. My mother’s father was Russian Jewish, her mother Irish. My wife is an Ashkenazi Jew of Polish and Hungarian descent. My son has Japanese, Irish, Russian, Polish and Hungarian blood coursing through his veins. He’s Jewish no matter whose version of Jewish law you follow. My wife is Jewish, so he’s Jewish.
But I was not born Jewish. Am I Jewish? Answer: yes, I converted with a Conservative rabbi. But Orthodox Jews don’t accept Conservative conversions. Answer: I converted Orthodox. But Israel doesn’t acknowledge Orthodox conversions from the United States. Answer … I cannot continue to define my Jewishness for judgmental Judaism. Two conversion ceremonies will have to do it.
I am Jewish. But what if an Orthodox rabbi decides to invalidate my conversion? Then I am not Jewish–to some people. Not to Conservative Jews … unless I become less “Conservative.”
Who is the arbiter of measuring the single experience of a “Jew” in feeling Jewish, of a Jew’s relationship with God?
Judgmental Judaism reinforces the comfort of belonging by using language. Language forms the experiences we choose to inhabit. And judgmental Judaism continues to fragment -Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Conservadox, Modern Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, “Ultra,” Chassidism, Haredi, Post-Denominational, Interfaith, LGBT, Un-affiliated, Secular. I don’t mind that Jewish people inhabit religious and spiritual spaces of their choosing with like-minded Jews or non-Jews, but I do have an issue with the root cause of all this fragmentation–that Jews are denying the existence of a diverse Judaism.
I can already hear the accusatory pleas of all the fragments of Judaism. “They” are too religious and out-of-touch with the modern world. Unless “they” are observant Jews who observe kashrut, halacha and the 613 mitzvot, “they” are not real Jews. This is about acknowledging the subjective in order to get to the objective. There are religious hypocrites and those that are ideologically spiritual (which really isn’t spiritual). Woody Allen once said, “I’m a bigot, but for the left.” That’s how I feel about the fragments of Judaism. What happened to “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) and kabbalist Isaac Luria’s mystical story of returning the fragmented sparks of light to the divine vessels of wholeness and unity?
What does this infighting and fragmentation say to converts, the Jewish LGBT community and non-Jews of interfaith families? What kind of message do we send to the world?
I converted to Judaism because I felt and wanted to be Jewish. I’m now Jewish and proud of it. An Orthodox rabbi once said, “It’s in your blood. You have a Yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul).” But becoming Jewish to that rabbi required that I adhere to a certain Judaism. If I didn’t, does that mean I still have a Yiddishe neshama? Some accepted me only after an Orthodox conversion. Reform Jewish friends judged me for converting to a restrictive and out-dated Judaism. I see this gasp of horror with Jews towards other Jews. “Look at those clothes they are wearing, aren’t they hot?” “Oy, he’s not shomer shabbos” (observes the Sabbath). In some ways, I feel the most Jewish around non-Jews because they see me as a “Jew.” Jews don’t always see me as a Jew.
When I was studying for conversion, my mother gave me a silver kiddush cup that was my great-grandfather’s. I didn’t know I had Jews in the family, but he was a Latvian Jew who left Riga to avoid anti-Semitism and czarist pogroms. He came to the United States, made a name for himself in the shipping business and never spoke about being Jewish. He married a Catholic woman and renounced his Judaism to protect his family. Fragments, sparks of light.
Those sparks of light were manifest in a dusty kiddush cup in a Brooklyn basement and then into questions from some members of his family. Catholic members of the family heard rumors of rabbis in the family and gasped with horror.
As a person of mixed race, I have always struggled with being different, as an American, not only as a Jew. I was proud of my culture but always felt acutely aware of having a dual identity. It was hard to be both without the repercussion of exclusion. For all our freedoms in the United States, many Americans are marginalized and isolated for trying to be American. Perhaps this alienation as a child has fueled my passion to help people, specifically those who are deemed “different,” whether because of the majority society’s racism, sexism, ageism–or insistence on the right brand of Judaism.
I have a 2-year-old son named Boaz Jules and we are expecting our second son in May, God willing. Boaz is named after the husband of Ruth, the first convert. Jules was the name of his great-great-grandfather. This little miracle, a person we brought into this world, is a combination of everything that came before him, Everything about parenting is amazing to witness and experience. I thought converting to Judaism was the most important and influential choice in my life. I learned that having a child is.
Judaism has survived over the millennia because we turned to each other, observed and honored tradition and passed on our Jewish faith and ideals to our children. It was necessary at those times to stick together, hunker down and consolidate in order to survive. Now it is time to reach out, open our arms and expand in order to survive. From the personal exchanges on the street to the world-stage politics of the Middle East, a paradigm shift is needed where we accept ourselves in order that the world may accept us. Our children are the only investment for Jewish survival. Figuring out what “Jewish” means is our greatest challenge.