Sometimes I get inspiration from the search terms people use to find this blog. And sometimes I get angry.
I hope that the child who searched Google with this string found some comfort from a real live human being, but just in case anyone ever Googles it again, I’m writing this blog post and titling it “my teacher said im not jewish.”
To anyone who has Googled this: There’s another blog post here that will explain why some Jews get excited about who is “in” and who is “out.” That is theoretical stuff. You are dealing with real stuff, not theory. If someone says to you, “You are not Jewish” or “You are not really Jewish” here is what you can do:
1. First of all, ask yourself, “Do I feel a part of the Jewish People?” or “Do I love Judaism?” If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then:
2. Go to a rabbi and say, “My teacher said I am not Jewish. But I feel a part of the Jewish people!” or “I love Judaism!” then ask:
3. In our community, how do we fix this situation?
The reason that you ask it that way is that different Jewish communities will approach this in different ways depending on the specifics. Maybe the teacher was just wrong and out of line. Maybe the teacher was correct about some technical matter of halakhah [Jewish Law] but forgot he was talking to a real human being. Most importantly, if it is a Jewish legal thing, then there’s a way to fix it.
I’m not going to make pronouncements here on a blog about what exactly should happen, because I am not your rabbi.
If you are reading this because this happened to you long ago and you no longer have a rabbi, you need to GET a rabbi. I have a blog post for that.
Do not be discouraged by this “technically, you’re not” business. Your rabbi (once you get one) has tools for making things right. You may have to work with him or her to make everything kosher. That is just how Judaism works – we are a religion, and a people, of doing.
To anyone who has made a pronouncement about someone else’s Jewishness:
1. Are you a rabbi? My colleague, I understand that you were conveying necessary information. I pray that you always consider the Jewish values of chesed and rachamim when you choose your words. Hurtful words have consequences for all of Am Yisrael.
2. Oh, you aren’t a rabbi? You are just a helpful person teaching others about Judaism? Understand this: You are out of your depth. You do not know as much as you think you know. The words you carelessly sling around may make you feel important, but you may have chased away the parent of one who would have been a tzaddik. You may have caused hurt that could someday have terrible consequences for the Jewish people. The correct answer if someone asks you a question as important as “Am I Jewish?” is “Let me give you the phone number of a rabbi.” Even if you are really pretty sure they aren’t Jewish, just say, “Go talk to a rabbi.” If they are your student in Hebrew school, do not injure a child’s budding Jewish identity with your cruel self-importance, talk to the rabbi yourself.
I work at the edges of the Jewish community with people who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Usually they are not affiliated because they have a story to tell: a story about hurt feelings, a story about someone who rejected them or neglected them. Often what they were told was wrong, or it was delivered in such a way that they misunderstood, or it was delivered with cruelty so that they ran away in pain.
Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Judaism should be concerned about this matter. After the events of the 20th century we cannot afford to throw away Jews or potential Jews. Even without the terrible events of the Shoah, we still have the fact that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. When the great rabbi Hillel was asked by an impertinent questioner to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. Go and study.” Kindness, chesed, is at the very heart of Torah!
May the person who made the original Google search “my teacher said im not jewish” find kind and knowledgable help in pursuing his or her Jewish destiny. And may all of us be part of the building of Klal Yisrael [all of Israel] and not part of tearing her down.
9 thoughts on ““my teacher said im not jewish””
This struck a real chord with me, Rabbi. Thank you for posting it. If I’m not wearing out my welcome, I’d like to tell you why I can relate.
I was born Reform, but didn’t know this until later in life. By then, I had realized my views were Conservative, more “Conservadox,” as the term goes. I found a shul, spoke with the rabbi, explained to him my views had always been Jewish because of things my father taught me. He said I could attend a Reform shul or take conversion — which would be best if I ever wanted to visit Israel. I converted to Conservative Judaism and have always been thrilled I did, despite the anti-Semitism and bigotry I’ve been subjected to from time to time. (When you join The Tribe, it’s for the good and the not-so-good.)
The worst words ever said to me were by another Jew, during High Holiday services at the shul. It was time on Yom Kippur for the Kaddish in which a blessing is said by those who have lost both parents. I stood to recite the prayer. The woman next to me, in a voice that could not be ignored, said sharply, “Why are YOU standing up?! You’re too young to have lost BOTH your parents! Sit back down!” I gave her a withering glare as I continued to stand and recite the prayer, with everyone within earshot gawking at me as if I’d just landed from another planet. Even the rabbi looked up, startled for a moment. This was in a huge synagogue, so the embarrassment was nearly unbearable.
When I sat down, in a harsh whisper and loud enough for others to hear, I said, “Since you’re so very concerned, I’ll have you know my father died two days before I turned eight years old. My mother died three months ago from cancer. I’m 22 and yes, BOTH my parents are DEAD. Satisfied NOW?” It wasn’t long before I stopped attending shul. The people there were just too rude and it was, sadly, a reflection of the rabbi’s attitude.
A year later, as I was preparing to move out of state, I was talking about what happened with a woman in the grocery store parking lot. Another lady heard me and said warmly, “I wish you would have come to the Orthodox synagogue about two miles up the road. We would have been DELIGHTED to have you!” It was too late by then, but I wish I would have known. Her words were the kindest balm ever for the sting of having been so deeply insulted.
You never know the background of a stranger, what they’ve been through or the emotional and spiritual issues they carry. As you said, we should ALWAYS exhibit kindness, because not only can we not afford to alienate those who are drawn to our religion and culture, but we have a responsibility to encourage and educate those who may want to join us — or simply better understand us. <3
Thank you for listening, Rabbi. I always find your posts insightful and helpful, both on a practical and spiritual level.
I am so very sorry that happened to you. It was wrong for her to say it. It’s hard to imagine why anyone might say such a thing to a stranger.
I hope that you have been able to find a happy home in the Jewish community, and if not yet, then very soon.
I am coming to this discussion very late, but I wanted to share that this problem of people making assumptions and issuing judgments isn’t confined only to Judaism. In my former life (before I realized that I am Jewish at my core and began exploring conversion) I was part of my father’s Catholic church choir (he was the director). Catholicism has pretty strict rules about whether you can go up for communion during the mass, and on this particular Sunday (I think I was about fifteen or so) I decided not to go up for communion because In my estimation, I had not met the standard. An older lady in the alto section of my dad’s choir said to me (in a stage whisper that was neither stage nor whisper), “Shame on you!” without knowing any of the specifics for why I remained kneeling at my seat rather than going up for communion like everyone else in the choir was doing.
Naturally, I couldn’t explain the specific reasons why I did not feel like I should go up, and moreover it was none of her business, but her attitude drove me away from participating in my dad’s choir shortly thereafter. I never could explain to him why I had to leave, but that episode in the choir loft was a big part of it.
So I sympathize, and I think that the woman who said that to you was totally out of line. And finally, for the loss of your parents: baruch dayan emet.
That’s beyond awful. I’m so sorry you had to deal with someone so appallingly and bewilderingly rude and vicious, when you most needed the support and strength of your community.
One of the things I like the most about Judaism: there’s no Pope, and no-one has the authority or right to speak for all of Judaism. (Even Maimonides was shouted down when he tried)
One of the bad things about Judaism: how many people think that all the authority they need to speak for all of Judaism is a mouth.
It can be frustrating. People can be ignorant… and it seems like the less they know, the more certain they are that they are right.
Gosh what a terrible story. I hope that the ignorant rude remarks of that person doesn’t put you off the entire religion. Most of us are quite nice 🙂
That’s a beautiful way of looking at things, rabbi. Feel Jewish? Go talk about it with a rabbi!
Thank you, Brendan. I see the work of a rabbi as helping people figure out how to lead a life of Torah in whatever circumstances they find themselves.