Who’s the Most Jewish?

October 6, 2013
René Molho

René Molho

If you’ve been around the Jewish community for a while, you’ve probably seem some version of the game, “Who’s the Most Jewish?” also known as “More Jewish Than You.” It’s one of our less attractive things.

For example, if you are a convert to Judaism, sooner or later someone is going to try to tell you that you’ll never be really Jewish. (My standard answer: “Take that up with my rabbi.”) Others may try to tell you that you’re more Jewish because you had to study and learn.  Either way, it’s unpleasant.

This used to bother me a lot more before I heard the story of René Molho (of blessed memory.) René was a survivor of Auschwitz and one of my teachers. He devoted his last years to retelling his story to combat the rising tide of Holocaust denial. René and his brother grew to young manhood in Salonica, a Greek island with a famous Sephardic community.  Just as Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a language closely related to Spanish. When René and his brother arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews there refused to believe the two young men were Jewish because they didn’t speak Yiddish. It was quite a while before they stopped treating the Molhos with suspicion.

René was in Auschwitz with a yellow star on his chest, and there were Jews who thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.

This sad, stupid business has many roots. The Jews René met in Auschwitz had been terrorized. Many of them had never met Sephardic Jews, and it must have seemed like some new and horrible trick. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, it was often illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, so a ger tzedek [convert] could bring huge fines or violence down upon the community. Jews are obligated by Jewish law to welcome and assist fellow Jews, so frauds were not welcome.

But in my experience, most of the “More Jewish than You” game in modern times comes from insecurity. Jews who worry about their own legitimacy salve that insecurity by finding someone to look down upon. It’s not just converts to Judaism, either: I have heard people say that someone is less Jewish than so-and-so because:

  • he doesn’t “look Jewish.”
  • her last name is Smith.
  • he goes to a Reform synagogue.
  • she doesn’t keep kosher, or doesn’t keep kosher enough.
  • so-and-so is a decendant of the Baal Shem Tov.
  • so-and-so looks SO Jewish.
  • so-and-so goes to such-and-such a synagogue.
  • so-and-so speaks Yiddish.

If something about your status as a Jew worries you, talk to a rabbi and figure out what you need in order to feel legitimately Jewish. If only an Orthodox conversion will do, go for it! If in your heart of hearts you feel you really ought to be keeping kosher, do it! If you need to do more mitzvot in order to feel legitimate, run to do those mitzvot! If you feel sorta-kinda-Jewish and wish you had papers to prove you are really, absolutely Jewish, talk to a rabbi about conversion or some other way to ritualize your identity.  Learn Hebrew, learn Yiddish, learn Ladino. If general insecurity is the problem, get some therapy. But don’t let stupid words from insecure people make you miserable.

But whatever you do, don’t find someone to label “Less Jewish than Me” so that you have someone to look down on, too. We can all be tempted by this at times – to say that well, so-and-so is Orthodox and all that, but she’s really a hypocrite (thus not as Jewish as Me.) We might be tempted to throw around some Hebrew when we know that some of the people at the table don’t speak Hebrew, because hey, it may make them feel bad but Can You See How Jewish I Am? You’ve seen the game played – just make sure you are never the player.

And may the day come soon when we are all kind and wise, and there is no more insecurity, and no temptation to cruel games or defenses against them! Amen.


I say “Shabbat,” You say “Shabbos…” But Let’s Not Call Anything Off!

January 28, 2013
an arrangement of kippahs embroidered with pop...

Kippot or Yarmulkes? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever wondered why so many Hebrew words are pronounced differently, and why so many Jewish things have two names?

One Jew wears a yarmulke, and another a kippah.    [Little hat.]

One keeps Shabbos, another keeps Shabbat.  [Sabbath]

One reads from the TOYrah, another reveres the ToRAH. [Torah]

One prays to AdonOI and the other to AdoNYE. [Adonai, substitute for the Name we don’t speak, sometimes pronounced HaSHEM.]

One goes to synagogue at Bays SHOlom, the other at Bayt ShaLOM. [name of a synagogue, meaning “House of Peace”]

One celebrates the Yuntiff, the other a Yom Tov. [holiday]

What’s a newcomer to do?

  • Get used to it.  Just as there are many answers to most questions, there is more than one way to say many words.
  • Know that most of these come from the two pronunciations of Hebrew.  The first word in each pair above is pronounced according to the Ashkenazi or Yiddish form from Eastern Europe.  (Yarmulke is actually a Yiddish word.) The second word is pronounced according to the Sephardic pronunciation, as Hebrew is pronounced on the street in Israel today. Both are correct.
  • While both are correct, it is a little mishuggeh [Yiddish for crazy] to mix the two (although trust me, you’ll hear it.  “Shabbat Shalom! Will you be in town for the Yuntiff?” is mixed-up but you might hear it at synagogue.  However, it is good manners and somewhat less mishuggeh to pick one language form and stick with it.
  • In general, in the US you will hear the Ashkenazi pronunciation from older Jews.  The Sephardic pronunciation has been on the rise in America since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
  • For help with Jewish words new to you, check out the Jewish English Lexicon online.

Jewish culture and language are a rich amalgam of Torah plus three millennia of survival. Enjoy!

 


Jewish English Lexicon – an internet treasure!

October 23, 2012

I want to let my readers know about a wonderful new online resource, the Jewish English Lexicon.

One of the trickier things about the worldwide Jewish community (or even the Israeli and American Jewish communities) is that we use words from many different sources: Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic, to name just the most common ones. A person born Jewish tends to learn the vocabulary used in his or her community of origin, which might be anything from “Brooklyn-Askhenazi-Lubavich” to “Louisville-Classical-Reform” to “Pico-Robertson-LA-Persian.”  All are as authentically Jewish as Moses himself, just different.

If there’s a word you hear that you don’t understand, type it into the Jewish English Lexicon and get a translation into American Standard English.  You can also browse the lexicon for new Jewish-isms to expand your vocabulary.

The Lexicon is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.


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