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Entry 20: Am I a Jew?

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This is Entry 20 in the Mondo Awards end-of-year Inspire-us contest.

In 1994 a man wrote me asking if I was a Jew. My answer was, I do not adhere to the Judaic religion, observe Jewish rituals or live in a community of Jews. Therefore I do not consider myself a Jew. Sensing from the tone of the letter that the writer’s intentions were not benign, I added that perhaps he had some other definition of “Jew” that applied to me, but in my view, “Jew” is a religious identity, except where Jewish ancestry has been assigned a social value, generally by anti-Semites or Zionists.

I once attended a religious ceremony put on by secular Jews in connection with the birth of their daughter. When I asked them why they chose to enact a ritual of a religion they did not believe in—indeed, why they identified themselves as Jews at all—they answered that so long as anti-Semitism existed it was necessary to continue to identify as Jews. Their answer made no sense to me: I am not black, but I fight white supremacy. Years ago in New York there was a popular series of advertising posters featuring different characters intended to be taken as not-Jewish: a cop with the map of Ireland on his face, a black construction worker, a Chinese cook, etc. Accompanying each was the slogan, You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread. If one didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread, why did one have to be Jewish to fight anti-Semitism? Indeed, as Hannah Arendt and others pointed out, one of the evil deeds of the Zionists was to try Eichmann for crimes against “the Jewish people” instead of for crimes against humanity. Their aim in doing so was to establish their claim to speak for Jews everywhere, and to underscore their contention, which they shared with the Nazis, that Jews stood outside humanity.

Another person explained why she and her husband, both atheists, had their new-born son circumcised: We wanted him to look like his father. Her answer was not necessarily Jewish, I reflected, since male genital mutilation is routinely practiced in U.S. hospitals, on gentiles as well as Jews, but so long as people thought that way, that barbaric custom will never die out. Furthermore, I said to myself, he doesn’t have his father’s eyes, or his father’s hair color—why does he need his father’s putz?

Several things I read directly addressed the issue.

In his essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” Isaac Deutscher recounted the striving of Jewish socialists in post-World War I Poland to escape the narrowness of the shetl and enter on the broad pathway of world culture, and noted with irony the efforts of modern secularized American Jews to keep alive traditions that he and his friends had rejected. Deutscher described himself as a “non-Jewish Jew.” I understood the adjective, but why the noun? Why a Jew at all? I wondered.

In Cult, Ghetto and State, Maxime Rodinson wrote that although there were people who considered him a Jew regardless of his atheism, he considered himself French. “My language is French,” he explained, “my culture is essentially French. I can sing in French, for example, whereas I don’t know any Hebrew or Yiddish songs.”

In 1940, when the Vichy regime promulgated a Statute banning Jews from the teaching profession, Simone Weil wrote to the Minister of Education asking for clarification:

I do not know the definition of the word, “Jew”; that subject was not included in my education. The Statute, it is true, defines a Jew as “a person who has three or more Jewish grandparents.” But this simply carries the difficulty two generations back. Does this word designate a religion? I have never been in a synagogue, and have never witnessed a Jewish ceremony. As for my grandparents—I remember that my paternal grandmother used to go to the synagogue, and I think I have heard that my paternal grandfather did likewise. On the other hand, I know definitely that both my maternal grandparents were free-thinkers. Thus if it is a matter of religion, it would appear that I have only two Jewish grandparents, and so am not a Jew according to the Statute. But perhaps the word designates a race? In that case, I have no reason to believe that I have any link, maternal or paternal, to the people who inhabited Palestine two thousand years ago… . I myself, who profess no religion and never have, have certainly inherited nothing from the Jewish religion… . I would say that if there were a religious tradition which I regard as my patrimony, it is the Catholic tradition. In short, mine is the Christian, French, Greek tradition. The Hebraic tradition is alien to me, and no Statute can make it otherwise.

There it is, I thought. Substitute Puritan for Catholic, English and Latin for French and Greek, and you will have me, even to the two non-observant maternal Jewish grandparents.

To Deutscher, Rodinson and Weil, and to Faulkner, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Richard Wright for things I have not quoted here, I am grateful for liberating me, not from other people’s anti-Jewish sentiments, which I had never encountered to any serious degree, nor from the willingness to acknowledge my forefathers— the ones I knew—but from the convention that one’s ancestry determines one’s affiliations. The scientists tell me I am descended from earlier hominids, and if so it partly explains my behavior, yet I do not consider myself an australopithicene.

Recently a friend was joshing me about being Jewish in some of my tastes and habits. I have never denied it, I replied (though I would prefer the term Yiddish), but that is not all I am: my musical preferences range from Mozart to Miles to the Rolling Stones; my sports heroes are Willie Mays, John McEnroe and Michael Jordan; my reading taste runs to Mark Twain and B. Traven… you get the idea. Like any person living in America, I am, according to Albert Murray (The Omni-Americans), “part Yankee, part Indian and part Negro,” with a pinch of ethnic salt. Or as blues artist Josh White sang, I am African and Indian, Mexican, Mongolian, Tyrolean and Tartar—and that’s the news, yes that’s the news—that’s the free and equal blues.

The above is taken from Noel Ignatiev’s “Memoir of an Ex-Jew,” published first on his blog.

Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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