The Battle for My Soul

By Nick Zaller


The souls of all Jews were at Mt. Sinai, so we are told. But I am only half-Jewish. This term is only applicable to patrilineal Jews, those of us who are not really Jewish because our mothers are not Jewish. Thus, half of my soul was at Mt. Sinai waiting for the rest of me. The rest of me which was in another age and another world. Both of my parents scorned organized religion and they left my brother, sister and me to embark on our own personal spiritual quests. This is the world in which I spent my childhood. In this world, conflict and tension are seemingly omnipresent. I hear often about the struggle to choose, the conflict in growing up in a religiously schizophrenic family. And most people erroneously assume that once a choice is made, the battle is over.

Even after I chose my spiritual path, my soul remained locked in a battle for its survival. But the battlefield is not within the religious dichotomy of my home where my parents have always given me room to grow and make decisions for myself. The real battle for my soul began the day that I decided that I wanted to be Jewish. The day that I chose Judaism. The day that I started calling myself a Jew and wanted to connect with others who called themselves Jews. No matter how hard I tried to grasp it, the Jewish tradition was a double-edged sword; it cut away the confusion that was obstructing my view of the true beauty in the world while simultaneously cutting into my soul, shredding it into fine pieces, each piece with a rebuke toward my Judaism. Many in the Jewish community alienated me. I was isolated in my struggle to belong, with acceptance conditional on something that made me feel bitter inside. I was made to feel the void, the other half of my soul that was wandering in spiritual limbo. There were friends and peers who accepted me but there were always questions.

“Have you ever thought about converting?” This is the question all of us patrilineal Jews are asked. We are told that a 3,000 year law precludes us from fully participating in the Jewish tradition. We are subjugated to the rigidity of halakhah (Jewish law). Never mind that the children of Moses were not born of a Jewish mother. Never mind that in the Jewish tradition, during the giving of the Torah, the holiday known as Shavuot, the book of Ruth is celebrated. Ruth was not born Jewish. And for that matter, I do not believe that anyone is born Jewish. Judaism is not an ethnicity, it is a belief in a tradition and a people. Judaism is a belief that one is connected and through that connectedness, one can struggle in forging a relationship with God. That is the beauty of struggle. That is the beauty of Israel. Ruth did not find her soul in the shallow waters of a mikveh looking into steely eyes adept at upholding the continuity of the word of God. She found her soul through making a choice. She chose to be Jewish and she lived her life as a Jew. When I made my choice, I had no idea that the other half of my soul would be driven deeper into the abyss into which it had somehow fallen.

In a recent article on, Rabbi Scott Aaron of the Brandeis Bardin Institute, which I attended this past summer, made the following comment: “It’s better to be raised in one faith or another; then you have a basis upon which to make a decision.” It is not clear why Rabbi Aaron made this comment. Perhaps he was alluding to the confusion that often permeates the minds of the children of interfaith families, obfuscating any one spiritual path. But what Rabbi Aaron did not mention, and he is certainly not alone, is that perhaps the most significant problem children from interfaith families have, particularly us patrilineal Jews, is acceptance from others if or when we decide on a particular religion. I have been told over and over again that I am not a real Jew. What it means to be a real Jew, I have no idea.

Was Ruth a real Jew? She abandoned everything and adopted the faith of her stepmother Naomi. What a beautiful story. My own story is not so uplifting. Amid the questions and prejudices of my mother’s side of my family, I maintained my affinity for Judaism. I thought that I had successfully fought for and reunited the two halves of my soul. The passion that I felt for ideas like tikkun olam (repairing the world) overflowed from somewhere deep within me. The words of the Kabbalah massaged my broken soul. I voraciously inhaled the wisdom of a tradition that has braved the most violent of storms. But it was not enough. My mother is not a Jew, ergo I am not a Jew. This defies logic to me. Each time I hear the word conversion or half-Jew, I feel my soul is being ripped into two just when I was sure that I had, through a tumultuous spiritual quest, stitched the broken pieces together, binding them such that they could never again be separated. Now, a jagged knife is cutting through me, with such precision as if it were being guided by the hand of God. And the ones who wield it in fact tell me that their hands are the hands of God.

During this battle for my soul, I have often thought about capitulating. Reiterating what too many have said, I am not a Jew. Or I could convert so that there are no longer any doubts about my true faith. I could bind the words of God on my person and get down on my knees and offer myself to a people, begging for acceptance. Acceptance so that my soul will no longer be seen as damaged, that its stitch marks go unnoticed under the pages of sacred text I carry against my chest. And then I read the Book of Ruth again. And again. And the beauty of her choice overwhelms me and allows me to reaffirm my Judaism. Despite the words and actions of others, my faith is as unbroken as the tradition of which it is a part. I follow my people to the very beginning. Where it all started. I used to believe that half of my soul was at Mt. Sinai. And too many Jews have told me the same. They did not stand next to me at the mountain when the people of Israel were choosing their God. Yes, the people of Israel chose. And so have I chosen. This makes me one of the chosen people.


About Nick Zaller

Nick Zaller is studying international public health at Johns Hopkins University and is currently in China doing research.