Sunday, September 19, 2010

Random Traffic Checks... For Jewish Identity

So it was Friday night, and having eaten a pre-Yom Kippur meal with my family, I'd headed over to a meeting. I had just reached the cafe where my pals and I were going to hang out. As I was locking up my bike I ran into an old neighbor of mine. He introduced me to his girlfriend, and that is when she realized that she was a close friend's colleague. Small world.

And then she asked me if I was Jewish. "So and so said you're half-Jewish". I said, "that's right". She asked me which parent was Jewish. I admitted that it's my mom. She smiled and said, "oh, so you're Jewish". She explained that she was Jewish, as if to imply she was therefore qualified to render a verdict on my claim of Jewishness.

Seriously? It's Friday night, I've just gone to a Yom Kippur meal, started my fast (I did not order anything at the cafe), and have plans to go to a kick-ass Jewish Renewal service tomorrow. I'm meeting you at a random place and time while locking up my bike, and you feel now is the time to inform me I've "passed" the test?

Now the awful thing is, I get it. I was instilled from childhood, even by my mom, with the understanding that only the right Jewish parent could make you Jewish. As I've walked into adulthood, I've had issues aplenty about race, identity, etc... in Judaism. But I haven't had many issues questioning whether I was truly Jewish. Until recently, but that's a different story. The point is, I haven't dealt with being a Jew whose father was Jewish. They haven't even been recognized by most.

I've read an extremely small amount about why and when Rabbinic Judaism decided Jewishness was passed on through the mother. But it seems it hasn't always been matrilineal. In Karaite Judaism (which is different than Rabbinic), I know identity is passed on patrilineally. So matrilineal descent isn't an ancient Torah-based edict in my opinion. There are many theories on why matrilineal identity came to be legitimized, and the benefits women and Jewish culture as a whole have from them.

I think, intellectually that patrilineal Jews are Jewish. "Halacha" doesn't matter. Organized religion has a weakness when it comes to reality. It's like people spend lots of time trying to figure out if there's a way to do something fun or meaningful that also conforms to the their theology. Reality doesn't need to conform to theology, theology needs to adapt to reality. For if it doesn't, isn't that a very dangerous form of idolatry? Isn't that worshipping the Gods of (wo)men, rather than the God of all? No, Jews from mother or father are Jewish, anyone can see that plain as day. At least I can.

And yet, there's a tug. A small voice that says, "they don't belong. YOU belong. You fit. You have proof. You have your boarding pass. Remember that."

The woman, a friend of a friend, meant well. She wasn't trying to be obnoxious. And it doesn't bother me all that much anyways. I'm slowly (very slowly) becoming more compassionate to those who make ignorant or boorish remarks about just exactly "what" I am. They're just people, confused about life, like I am. I've let this become a big deal in my mind, and it doesn't really need to be at all. But I figured I'd get a good blog post out of it. On the plus side, I often have a mental scenario playing out in my head about the poor ignorant schmuck who questions my Jewishness or ethnicity in general. About how I'll handle it. How I'll give them a piece of my mind. At least this gave me an opportunity to make use of my repetitive internal dialogue. But I didn't make a big deal out it, because I didn't need to.

Now, this doesn't mean that it's ok when someone does this, or that I never will make a big deal out of it. It does mean that I'm human and I often avoid JOC-slapping someone ig'nant because I'd rather have friends. So I wince a little and move on. I myself have made many ignorant remarks in my life, and I will have many more opportunities to do so in the future. I also keep noticing that humans repeat the same pattern of oppression upon each other. Refusing to pursue vengeance doesn't mean the pursued don't DESERVE retribution. It means there's too much at stake to pursue it unless absolutely necessary. So I hold back on cutting ignorant schmucks down to size. What I sometimes do instead is smile at people. When I'm brave enough, I assume there must be other people who feel shy to make contact with those around them, especially at a Jewish function, which can make a person feel intimidated.

And as I wrap up this blog post, anticipating the leftover fast-breaking finger-sandwiches I'm going to have for breakfast, I can't help but wonder - maybe I have changed positively this year. Maybe I have, in fact, been touched by a Yom Kippur angel.

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