What Kind of Jew are You?

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

8 thoughts on “What Kind of Jew are You?”

  1. I’m – an ethnic Jew, a cultural Jew, and a non-exclusive religious Reform (UK) Jew. My children are being brought up Jewish… but I am married to a Pagan, and I don’t believe that any one way is the only right way. Paganism is the right way for The Husband, and he’s tried a few paths in his time. I’ve veered away from Judaism at times and looked at other religious paths – but I miss Judaism desperately if I don’t observe to my comfort level. I don’t so much feel proud to be Jewish, as lucky to have been born into Judaism.

    1. Thank you for speaking up, Eleanor! I am so glad that you and your husband have found a path of mutual respect for addressing your traditions.

      Jewish tradition is emphatic that ours is not the One Right Way, or even the Best Way – we view other traditions as valid approaches to life.

      Sounds like you have a rich and full Jewish life and home life. Thank you so much for joining the conversation!

  2. I am all the above. I will be starting my conversion classes this October. I do feel I belong, already. Thank you Rabbi for that much needed push.

  3. Love this! I’m at least three out of four, and as for the fourth I would say it depends what you mean by “religious.” I’m an atheist and a secular humanist, but I attend Shabbat services and Torah study classes regularly, and I believe in the human-centred portions of Jewish tradition and teaching–things such as the Golden Rule. I recently became affiliated with Humanistic Judaism and it seems like a good home for me.

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