What Do You Mean I’m Not a Jew?

By Rachel Sarah


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of The Dayton Jewish Observer. Reprinted by permission.

I’m not going to convert. So what?

Recently, a Dayton Jewish Observer reader e-mailed me with this:

“I’m concerned that you are not halachically Jewish,” she began. “Yet you participate in JDate–and you lament the fact that non-Jewish men are using that site, too.”

stock young women looking incredulousHer point is valid: If I’m hoping to end up with a Jewish man, and I’m not Jewish according to halacha, isn’t that a double standard?

For the record, I’m always up front with men on the first date that my Mom isn’t Jewish–and I add that I was raised Jewish and am raising my daughter in the Jewish community.

“Have you ever considered converting?” this reader wanted to know. “If you do it now, while you are not romantically involved with anyone, you stand a good chance of being accepted as a candidate.”

Between you and me, is there a reason that I wouldn’t stand a good chance to be accepted as a candidate?

Even so, I see where she’s coming from.

What if a man whom I loved–a man whom I envisioned marrying–asked me to convert to Judaism?

Would I do it? Would it be a big deal?

Or, would it be off-putting, equivalent to say, a man asking me to convert to Christianity? Would it offend me?

First of all, let’s be realistic here: is there a Conservative man out there who’d even consider dating a single mom? We all agree that an Orthodox man wouldn’t get near me.

Then, let’s be honest: I have a biracial child, and unless this make-believe white, Conservative Jewish man also happened to be very open-minded… Well, I have yet to meet him.

Like attracts like, right? As of yet, I seem to attract men who are culturally Jewish like me. More often than not, they don’t attend synagogue or they attend a more alternative shul. I also seem to attract liberal, smart, hippy kind of Jews.

The answers to “Who is a Jew?” could fill a book. First, traditional Judaism maintains that a person is a Jew if his or her mother is a Jew, regardless of who the father is. Or you can become a Jew by formally converting.

Even if I observe Jewish law and customs religiously, according to halacha, I will still be a non-Jew because of my maternal ancestry.

However, another woman who was born to a Jewish mother–but could care less about Jewish religion–is still a Jew.

I was raised as a Reform Jew, which considers a person to be Jewish if either parent was Jewish and the child was raised Jewish.

My Dad was raised in his Orthodox grandparents’ home in Boston. I grew up in the Bay Area, where I had my bat mitzvah and confirmation alongside my friends, so I never had a clue that I was any different. Sixty of my relatives never resurfaced after the Holocaust–this alone has always connected me deeply to Judaism. In high school, I became a docent, and went to history classes to share lessons about the Holocaust with my peers.

It wasn’t until I went to Israel as a teenager that I heard a Jewish scholar explaining who’s a Jew and who’s not a Jew.

What do you mean I’m not a Jew? I had no idea.

At this point in my life, I agree with the Reform movement. The fact that my Mom must be a Jew to make me a Jew is an archaic rule, I think.

At the end of the day, showing that I’m Jewish on paper isn’t my life goal right now. Yes, I can imagine a few reasons why I might want to convert someday: 1. If I were going to marry a Jewish man and considered having more children, 2. If this were a dealbreaker for him, 3. If I wanted to move to Israel, 4. If my own child expressed the wish for me to convert.

Instead, I’m trying to live by Jewish values every day. This is what matters to me right now: Living with integrity and honesty. Asking questions. Raising my daughter lovingly in a close community.

My hope is that if I do meet a Jewish man who might be my match, he’ll accept me for who I am.


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.