Not Really Jewish?

By Rachel Sarah


Originally published May 9, 2006. Republished October 5, 2012.

When I wrote a column for a San Francisco newspaper last year about my complex Jewish identity, “I’m a Jewish woman even if my mother wasn’t,” I knew I might upset some readers.

I was raised by my Jewish dad and non-Jewish mom. That alone makes me stand out among many Jews. A decade before having children, however, my mom turned her back on Catholicism and supported raising my sister and me as Jewish. She was considering converting to Judaism, but then my parents divorced.

My sister and I were raised four days a week by my mom, and three days by my dad. Their influence and input — in addition to their genes — were basically equal. I had my Bat Mitzvah at a Reform synagogue, which considers a person to be Jewish if either of her parents was Jewish and the child was raised Jewish.

I never had a clue that I was any different than my friends until I went to Israel at age sixteen. It was here that a Hassidic rabbi explained to our youth group who was a Jew in his book — and who was not. I was crushed. What do you mean, I’m not a Jew? I was also furious at my rabbi. Did he lie to me?

My rabbi told me that among Reform Jews, I was a Jew. Still, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. For the next decade, I stayed clear of all synagogues, Jewish holidays and celebrations. Surely, part of this was typical adolescence as I discovered different cultures around the world. But when I hit my twenties, I was still turning down seder invitations.

My life began to change at age twenty-seven, when I gave birth to my daughter in New York City. I’ve been raising her as a single mom for more than six years.

“Mommy, you turned Jewish when I came out of you,” says my perceptive kindergartner, Mae, today.

No, I didn’t give her a Jewish name or have a baby-naming ceremony. But when she turned two, I enrolled her in a local Jewish preschool. The school was close to our home and highly recommended. But more than that, I was struck by its warm, close-knit community. Mothers were always inviting classmates to different homes to play and posting sign-up sheets to help families in need. Wasn’t it this compassion that had always drawn me to Judaism?

Over the next three years, my daughter learned how to belt out Shabbat (Sabbath) songs, recite the menu of any Jewish holiday, and tell a mean story about King Pharaoh. Mae is very proud of her Jewish identity. When she reminds me to light candles on Fridays, I’m struck by the fact that she knows it’s time to slow down. But more than that, our lives revolve around Jewish values. I’m raising her to be an honest, loving and compassionate human being.

After I “outed” myself in the local newspaper, the letters started pouring in: “I feel sorry for you,” one woman wrote. “You were misled your whole life into thinking you were Jewish, It must be hard to accept that you were lied to. Reform Judaism is basically a fraud.”

At first, I let the criticism slide off me. Jews like to debate, right? I was also enamored by the fact that I’d prompted a good discussion about Jewish identity among local Jews. But a flood of angry, harsh notes continued to deluge my Inbox.

“If you and I were across a table in a café I would have more loyalty to Judaism than to a woman I just met,” wrote one man.

“It seems to me that you’re not accepting what you are: a non-Jewish woman, who was raised as a Jew,” wrote another reader.

“I feel sorry for you,” began yet another letter. “Do you consider keeping Shabbos to be an archaic rule? Keeping kosher? Giving tzedakah [charity]? I mean, what is Judaism to you anyway?”

I was getting defensive. I started to write back to these readers. I wanted them to know, for example, that sixty of my relatives never resurfaced after the Holocaust — this alone has always connected me deeply to Judaism.

But twenty letters were now crowding my Inbox.

How could I possibly respond to everyone? Worse, all of this disapproval wasn’t just sliding off me anymore. I was hurt. Did I really want my daughter to grow up in a community that might lash out harshly at her because she’s not “really” Jewish?

To be fair, not all the letters I got were negative.

“It is absurd for anyone to question Rachel Sarah’s Jewish-ness!” one man wrote to me. “You were Bat Mitzvah and confirmed and it sounds like you’re still involved in the J community. Why should you have to convert?”

“Being Jewish should not be determined solely by one’s lineage,” wrote another reader. “Since you identify yourself as Jewish that makes you Jewish.”

I’m hopeful that my daughter will befriend the children of these sympathetic readers. But I can’t help but wonder if she’ll face the same kind of unfairness I did. Do I want to expose her to the same hurtful comments I’ve received? I know that I can’t protect her from every hurt in the world, but I question whether our community is really as kindhearted as I’d imagined.


About Rachel Sarah

Rachel Sarah is the author of the dating memoir Single Mom Seeking (Seal Press/Avalon, 2006) and the former singles columnist for San Francisco's j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.