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I'm Nothing in Israel
By Mari Pack
Like many American Jews, I have a non-Jewish parent. My mother never converted, but she organized two B'nai mitzvahs, held fast over Yom Kippur, kept kosher for Passover and cooked Shabbat dinner. She raised two dark haired Jewish children. When our community shamed her for keeping a small Christmas tree through December, she took it down. No fuss. No drama. My mother forced my brother and I to attend Friday night services in a language she did not understand for almost twenty years. She gave my father the great gift of raising children in his own religion.
In short, she made us Jewish.
I moved to Israel last summer to work as part of a teaching fellowship. I expected my cohort to consist of mostly middle class Ashkenazi Zionists. To my surprise, I met a group that (I think) more accurately represents modern Judaism in the United States. We are the Ashkenazi Plus generation; millennials whose Jewish-American parents—almost entirely Ashkenazi in origin—married or mated with various shades of European-American, Latin-American, African-American, and Asian-American peoples, much to the benefit of our notoriously hegemonic gene pool. Some of their partners converted, while others, like my mother, did not.
All of us moved to Israel through “Masa,” an organization that that funds programs for Jewish youth. Although non-Jews can join Masa, the organization stipulates that participants must "be Jewish" in order to receive scholarships. My entire cohort, even those of us with non-Jewish mothers, made the cut. During my first interview with Masa, my interviewer explained that their organization does not adhere to traditionally held notions of Jewish inheritance. She said it was more important that I "felt Jewish" and identified as Jewish.
Let me explain: Judaism inherits maternally. Under Jewish law, your mother must be Jewish for you to be. When I attended confirmation and post-confirmation classes at my Synagogue as a teenager, our Rabbi revealed the strikingly archaic nature of maternal (and really, all) inheritance: we can watch a woman give birth, but we cannot authenticate male parentage without modern DNA tests. For our Bronze Age tribe, witnessing the singular act of birth alleviated what must have been the unenviable task of confirming all acts of male gratification.
For American Jews, these laws matter as much as waiting until 7 o’clock to break the fast on Yom Kippur. We know what the rules are, but, seriously, it’s 5:30 and look at all these bagels. Moreover, in a country where Jews are a vast minority, the chances of marrying outside the tribe are more considerable. Neglecting to include hybrid Jewish families with children who did not arrive out of Jewish vaginas would negatively and increasingly affect diasporic communities.
I eat brunch every Monday in Tel Aviv with my cousin Lauren, an ordained Rabbi who grew up with me in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. We attended the same temple, and our families are similarly religious. In the right light, we even pass as sisters. Lauren and I are equal parts “culturally Jewish,” or “ethnically Jewish”—whatever wording you find less offensive. The bottom line is that neither of our mothers were raised Jewish, but they both raised Jewish children. However, her mother converted to Judaism before she was born, while my mother did not. This means that under Jewish law, she is considered Jewish. Hence being a Rabbi.
We sometimes discuss how grateful we are for the hybridity that enables us to avoid the genetic pitfalls of many Ashkenazi Jews. For me, these benefits are not only obvious, but also consistent with the traditions of a diasporic people. It isn’t a coincidence that Jews often mimic the traits of the communities that surround them, be them Iranian for French. Passing was, in some cases, a form of survival.
Lauren, moreover, relays textual evidence of historical hybridity in biblical figures like Ruth and Esther. Ruth, a Moabitess, marries Boaz, a Jewish landowner in Bethlehem. She converts and assimilates into the Jewish community. The Book of Ruth describes how Boaz and Ruth beget Obed, Obed begets Jesse, and Jesse begets David. And then BAM! Give that kid a slingshot and he’s on his way to kinghood. Saul, the first king of Israel, goes a bit crazy, and David is chosen as the new King of Judah. Therefore, the royal line of the Jewish people, descending from a Moab convert, is one of mixed blood.
Similarly, we have a character like Esther, who saves the Jewish people by marrying the Persian King Achashverosh. Not only this, but Esther may herself have been part Persian. She, after all, passes as Persian in the Persian court at a time when Jews were unusually assimilated. Her parentage, moreover, is vague. Esther’s Jewishness is textually confirmed by her Jewish uncle, Mordecai, rather than by her mother.
So while there are certainly some biblical tests that command Jewish husbands to cast off their non-Jewish wives, intermarriage was also a biblical reality.
To be clear, no one in Israel is casting off his non-Jewish wife. However, there are limits to the legitimacy of intermarriage as it arises in religious Judaism in Israel. In 1950, the Law of Return granted every Jew the right to “return” to the state of Israel. According to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a Jew is “a person who was born of a Jewish mother, or has converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion.” However, in 1970, the law was amended to include “the child and the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew.”
However, in Israel, the issue of immigration is separate from who is really considered Jewish. Israeli immigration laws, at least in part, evolved as a response to the Nuremburg laws, which stipulated that a person could be considered Jewish if he or she had one Jewish grandparent. Ultra-orthodox Rabbis control the rights of Jews as connected to traditional Judaism. Hence, Israeli immigration laws do not grant the right of religious inclusion, but only the rights of a citizen—the rights of an Israeli.
The result: I am not Jewish in Israel.
Indeed, Israelis are sometimes surprised by my claim to Jewishness. Part of this is cultural. I am not Jewish in the way Israelis are accustomed to considering Jewishness. I lack the forthrightness, the aggressiveness, of Israeli Jews. I speak, on my best days, maybe thirty words of Hebrew. To them, I am an American first. I also don’t look Jewish—if that’s a thing. In my case, hybridity provided an extra genetic dose of the white privilege that most Ashkenazi Jews enjoy anyway.
Yet in a country where the Jews are literally every shade of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Ethiopian and Mizrahi, I think that this visual distinction is ultimately less crucial. Israeli Jews define themselves against the other of their Arab neighbors, but they acknowledge Jewish ethnic diversity in a way that most other countries peopled by dominant ethnic groups do not. In Italy, my waitress gave me a menu English before I requested it. She was quick to distinguish me as a traveler, an outsider. Yet although most Israelis are bi- and even tri-lingual, Israelis always speak to me in Hebrew first. It is a strange reality that despite their fear of an encroaching outsider, Israelis acknowledge that anyone could be an insider.
So where does that leave me?
I’ll tell you: in November, I traveled to Haifa—one of the most secular and diverse cities in Israel—to attend a Shabbat dinner with a friend. I told his family that I was Jewish. I told them that I had read from the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah. I told them that I had attended Sunday school and even (usually) observed High Holy Days. I told them about my mother. Without missing a beat, the oldest brother joked, “Oh, so you’re nothing.”
And he’s right.
Israel the Jewish state is problematic for a number of reasons, including a very personal one: Israel represents me as a Jew, but I cannot represent Israel as a Jew.
Everyone who chose to participate in my Masa fellowship, including and sometimes especially those of us from mixed families, came to better Israel; to make space for different types of Jews and non-Jews in a country that is increasingly on the brink of eruption. We are idealists who, especially in light of last summer’s events, are often belligerently and naively invested in contributing to an Israel that we can be proud of. Perhaps this is my mother’s legacy: I know that coexistence is possible. With or without the sanction of the Jewish Rabbinate, I am here because my mother made me Jewish.
#Real #Judaism #TheLawOfReturn #JewishIdentity #MyMotherMadeMeJewish #History #Israel #NothingInIsrael
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