Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Who is a Jew Goes Diaspora מיהו יהודי לא רק שואלים פה

Two recent articles, both from the Forward, bolster my claim that it is impossible to prove an individual’s Jewishness. The first, by David A.M. Wilensky, tells of his rabbi’s reaction when Wilensky, a patrilineal Jew (now converted) stopped accepting aliyot at the congregation he attended in his pre-conversion incarnation: “She asked why I was telling her about my situation: She never would have known, she said.” Precisely. Since anyone can slip in under the radar, ergo, anyone who identifies as a Jew is in practice if not in “fact”, Jewish.

The second article, by Naomi Zeveloff*, tells about non-Jewish inmates requesting kosher food. Now we have a situation wherein Corrections Department officials in 35 US states are “rightly hesitant to set themselves up to say who is Jewish and who is not, … often leav[ing] the decision in the hands of chaplains, Jewish or otherwise.”

When my dad was explaining to me that the local Jewish assisted living facility and JCC “provide for all Jewish cases", I kept asking him, “But how does the institution decide whether the applicant is Jewish?” After all, gone are the days when all the Jews knew each other. He finally had to concede that it’s based on the honor system, i.e., no individual Jew or admissions committee really has a way to prove or disprove a given individual’s claim to Jewish identity.

What it all comes down to is that where for centuries there was no advantage to being Jewish, we now have non-Jewish inmates looking at Jews’ plates and wanting to have what appears to be superior food; and non-Jews from countries as disparate as the former USSR and Eritrea, Sudan, and Nigeria looking to Israel as the nearest place of refuge from hunger and strife, i.e., being Jewish has become not simply fashionable (as in the 1970s) but downright appealing.

Of course our grandparents could not in their wildest dreams have imagined such a scenario, but here it is, our new reality, and it is incumbent upon us not to resist it, but rather to embrace it and let the chips fall where they may.

*Let’s hope she changes her surname if she ever moves to Israel.


  1. It's relatively easy to get "in" . . . learn Hebrew, read the books the rabbi gives you, do the mikveh thing, and you're a Jew. On the other hand, no matter WHAT you do, up to and including joining a monastery, you can't get "out"!! You'll always be Jewish if you were simply born to a Jewish parent of either gender. I understand the distinction between having a Jewish mother and having a Jewish father; but either way, half the genes you carry are JEWISH GENES. I'm personally glad I can't turn my back on it; I wouldn't even want to try. As for non-Jewish prisoners demanding kosher meals, this is lying and cheating and gross dishonor among thieves. Feh.

  2. Mollie, your comment begs the question: A prisoner demands kosher food. Who's to say s/he's not Jewish? And as far as "born to a Jewish parent", that's precisely my point: parent, or mother? Depends on who you talk to.