Who is a Jew? Who Cares?


Julie Wiener, in typically brilliant fashion, has written a great piece on the “Who is a Jew?” debate as seen through the eyes of her 3 1/2-year-old daughter:

At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel — or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.

But newly cognizant of the fact that she is Jewish, and that Jewishness is not universal, she has become fascinated with categorizing everyone she knows, sorting them into “Jewish” and “Christian.”

She is Jewish. Her friends Owen and Stephanie are Christian. The other kids at Tot Shabbat are Jewish. Her babysitter Maria is Christian.

Those simple categories begin to break down, however, when talking about Julie’s husband, her daughter’s father. He’s a lapsed Catholic who’s raising his child Jewish, doesn’t go to church, goes to temple and celebrates Shabbat. Despite his arguments to the contrary, his daughter refuses to believe he’s not Jewish. Eventually Julie responds, “Well, he’s sort of Jewish.”

In her personal and humorous fashion, Julie points out the ridiculousness of the whole Jewish obsession over who is a Jew while also pointing out the difficulties interfaith families face in defining themselves. Just because you’re aware of the ridiculousness of society doesn’t mean you can escape it.

A perhaps even more (unintentionally) comic look at the “Who is a Jew?” debate comes from JTA. This recent story details how the Nicaraguan Jewish community is split after “two people whom some consider non-Jews were elected to the board” of directors of the community. The catch? There are only 50 Jews in Nicaragua.

Beyond the ridiculousness of having an elected board of directors for a Jewish community smaller than an NFL roster–to each their own–can anyone in a community that small afford to question whether another member is Jewish, especially if they’re committed enough to want to serve on a volunteer board? Not that the Orthodox are the ultimate arbiters of all questions of Jewish identity, but witness this quote from a previous board president, Max Najman, who heads one of two Orthodox households in the country:

“If in Israel they have not been able to define who is a Jew, we should not try to here,” he told JTA by phone. “This is not as serious as some would think.”

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