birthright

For the past few months, I have rather intently felt a struggle between my identity as a Jew and my identity as a citizen of the world.

While the two are not absolutely mutually exclusive, there is no denying that they are not easily reconciled. All groups have mechanisms in place to foster allegiance and ethnic specificity, and I don’t think my struggle is unique only to Jews. My rather common struggle is just manifested in a unique way because I’m Jewish.

Jews are in a unique position because we possess a concept of nationhood that functions without a physical nation. This concept first developed when, in the 500s BCE, the Babylonians kicked us out of the land that, until that point, had been inextricably tied to who we were. We had also simultaneously always had a narrative of ourselves as being separate from other peoples. The Chosen People, in a nutshell. This, coupled with the common occurrence of being intentionally kept separate in many of the places we have lived over the past few millennia, ensured that we had an identity as “Jews” regardless of where we lived. Despite the genocides, expulsions, hate crimes, and the like, we’re still here, in large part because, paradoxically, that separation is de facto existence. And that’s something to be proud of.

Therefore, being Jewish is much more complicated than believing in a certain mythology. This is what I think most non-Jews don’t understand about Jews. It’s not necessarily about what you believe or do. We feel bound to an identity as “Jew” for many reasons, but the most visceral of them is that we have an obligation to the generations before us who clung to our identity even when it meant their deaths.

That’s the guilt comedians like to joke that Jews and Catholics share.

And I feel it. I feel it most when it comes to the family I will create.

While “Jewish” is up there with “female” and “American” in defining core components of my identity, my heart sees the war and hatred that such definitions can foster. I think many people of my generation feel that the world would be a better place if those lines were blurred more. I understand that the blurring would cause a backlash, with a movement towards the opposite, but eventually, if most of us were mixed “races” and religions, the old groups we hated would no longer exist. We’d have to create new groups to hate.

I, of course, don’t endorse hatred, but I do think it’s natural, and philosophically, I don’t believe that humankind is slowly progressing toward a greater good. I believe that we’re changing. Not for the better and not for the worse. And maybe when it comes down to it we’re hardly changing at all.

From this it is hard for me to avoid the logical conclusion that if there will always be some type of division among humans, that, in the long run, it really doesn’t help the world to intermarry. Based on human nature, war is inevitable. But that doesn’t feel like the logical conclusion to me. It feels like war and hatred could be avoided if we knew more about each other, or further, if we were one another.

And as someone who wants to have a family one day, it feels like I would be contributing to the ignorance in the world by limiting my mate to a Jew. Would I not be feeding into the very separation that breeds the ignorance that spurs the hatred in the world?

But then I think of myself as a counterexample. No doubt possessing some prejudices, but I believe that overall I don’t let them interfere with my sense of justice. And I’m a product of two Jews, 12 years of a Jewish education, a kosher home, and weekly Shabbat dinners and synagogue services.

I don’t think it’s enough, though, to not let my prejudices interfere with my sense of justice. I think I also have an obligation to befriend people different than me, and in so doing help dispel their prejudices towards me and vice versa. Perhaps that is all we need for world peace. Not a blurring at all, but an alignment. More of an American model than a French model. We’ll never all be the same; it’s much more pragmatic to focus on learning about one another rather than jump ahead with the goal of marrying one another.

Intellectually, I may resent the separateness and find myself at a loss to rationalize it. Why do I insist on being a Jew and what does it mean to be one? But I cannot avoid the truth of my existence: I am a Jew. And my children must be as well.

So, there really is only 1 unsettled question, a question I ask myself all the time: To raise a child with a Jewish identity, an identity that is important enough to that child to instill it in his own children, does it require 2 Jewish parents?

And I ask because, since I don’t believe the Jewish mythology, it feels archaic, narrow-minded, and wrong to insist on selecting only a Jew. When thinking generally, it doesn’t seem so bad. You want a Jewish child, it makes sense to have a Jewish husband. But when you think about the individual, someone who was born into this world with no choice in the matter, just like you were, too, but you happened to be born a Jew, does it not feel immoral to deem him unworthy of spending your life with you?

This is my struggle.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “birthright

  1. I really like this post. I definitely agree that I think the race issue will go away through intermarrying, although I don’t think one should feel compelled to personally play a part in speeding it up or feel guilty about identifying with an ethnicity or race. I just think, eventually, that identification will take a back seat to exposure to people of different backgrounds, which will mean more people continuing to marry people of other backgrounds for a variety of reasons. I’ll leave it to your Jewish friends to comment on the importance of maintaining a Jewish identity and whether two Jewish parents are required to do so.

  2. Sean

    I can’t pretend to speak with any authority or knowledge to the question of what your selection of life partner says about your Jewishness or citizen-of-the-worldness, but I can certainly offer meaningless speculation from someone with po-mo relativist Greens-voter politics and no strong affiliation to his background and ancestry!

    I would suggest that the very genius of American (and Australian) nationhood is that the concept isn’t exclusive by race, ethnicity, culture, ancestry or religion, and doesn’t make any demands about your identity beyond obedience to the law. Everyone gets to do the identity thing how they want without being told they don’t also belong to a greater whole, and most importantly they can navigate the intersecting components of identity they way they choose. I’d say that by asserting your Jewishness you’re, essentially, doing something very American (or Canadian, or Australian, but you get my point).

    Obviously, if you had kids and they weren’t ONLY Jewish, that wouldn’t negate their Jewishness (both from a “Jewish law” perspective and the fact that people can be two things) . It might, however, make them less likely to identify strongly and carry it on into the future. Which is certainly concerning.

    But on the other hand, that’s their burden, not yours. Seems that what you’re actually concerned about is the future character and identity of your kids. Sure that’s being viewed through the prism of Jewishness, but the thing is, being Americans and free to navigate their own identity path, they might have two Jewish parents and still grow up not feeling much affiliation with Jewishness anyway. Equally, even with a thoroughly goy dad they might be Jewish as fuck.

    In terms of “contributing to ignorance”… I think there’s an important qualification to the idea of peace through intermarrying and cultural erasure and mixing. Ignorance and sharp clear identities are most damaging when they’re held by the hegemonic majority group. Separation is a hell of a lot worse when it’s practised by, and enforced by, the people with all the power.

    Everyone else, the ethnic and religious minorities, they kinda have such questions thrown in their face and have to grapple with it. I mean, as you’ve amply demonstrated, being Jewish seems to carry with it a penchant for self-awareness and introspection, so any all-Jew kids you had would seem hardly likely to grow up taking questions of identity and culture for granted.

    I suppose there’s an argument that intermarrying reduces the exclusivity and thus ignorance of the problematic whitey, but hell man, that ain’t your fight! So um, go with your heart? And don’t let either either Jewishness or non-Jewishness be a dealbreaker?

  3. Benjamin E.

    *Sigh* Lots of Hillels and Jewish voices and friends are unhappy to hear me say this, but…I tend to feel that if you feel like you can marry them, then you can marry them (not to be too tautological). By which I mean – to the extent that Jewishness is actively relevant and important to you and your life, you’re going to have to find someone who can deal with that. And if they can, to a point you’re happy with…well, then there you have it, I tend to think. Just like the other elements of your life you find important.

    As an example, I think I would tend to find it harder to marry someone non-Jewish, but not inherently so. For me, it’s that so much of the rhythms of my life and daily practice is tied in with it that I think I would feel sad if my partner did not, for instance, love having Shabbat like I do, or whatever. But that also means I’m going to have some trouble with a Jewish-born person who is either way to the right or to the left of me as well (and maybe someone who, e.g., only has a Jewish father but is really involved, I might actually identify better with). I guess it’s somewhat less of an abstract identity feel for me than a…well, a really tangible thing. Which is the realm in which I tend to answer your question of, “Why do I insist on being a Jew and what does it mean to be one?” I kind of agree – it’s an important one to think about, however you think about it.

    So I guess what I tend to feel when I know people who have intermarried is, “Well, either that person has an interest in staying connected and will do so despite marrying someone of another religion, in which case wonderful, or they don’t – and who they marry is just a manifestation of that, anyway.” I know people whose parents are intermarried whose kids are strongly Jewishly identified and people whose parents are both strongly Jewish and who don’t care much themselves. Definitely a tough issue.

    P.S. I didn’t really mean to jump in a while ago on a controversial topic and then disappear when challenged. I just lost track of the post. Ah well. Back for now 🙂

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