I was asked to contribute an essay for a special issue “on the communal impact - over the past decade or so - as Jews by choice and ‘fellow travelers’ have assumed positions of communal leadership.”
The question comes up all the time, usually over coffee and danish at the end of an overlong meeting to discuss turnout at the text study, or staffing at the tashlich event, or funding for the upcoming Jewish learning-event-ritual-happening-whatever.
Am I, um, Jewish?
It’s my name - that’s why I get the question. Never mind that my mom, a fan of A.A. Milne, named me for Christopher Robin; I may as well be called Jesus. When I started dating my wife, the first thing out of her mother’s mouth was, “well I can never put that on a wedding invitation.”
So, no, I’m not Jewish. The only religious instruction I received growing up came after my parents divorced and my atheist dad sent me to a Catholic school to spite my Beatnik-Buddhist mother. Whatever spiritual yearnings I had were satisfied by “Star Wars.” At school they prayed to a spooky guy on a cross; I preferred Obi-Wan. Then I fell madly in love with a Jewish girl from Beverly Hills. After a long bout of soul searching and a course at the University of Judaism, I decided against conversion, for reasons both small (ritual bloodletting? really?) and large (an apparent inability to connect with anything resembling this thing called God).
Still, I happily consented to my wife’s demand that we raise our children as Jews. Whatever personal opinions I had about the Almighty or gefilte fish, I figured our three children would only benefit from a solid foundation in what I understood to be a deep and durable tradition of the Western civilized world. If all else failed, I figured it would give them something to rebel against besides their crazy goy dad.
And that was that; I was content to remain on the sidelines, Jew-adjacent but proudly “unchosen.” At the synagogue day school where we enrolled our children, when they talked about “interfaith families,” I proudly identified myself as the inter.
But a funny thing happened along the way to a happy, unaffiliated, intermarried life. Every year got progressively Jewier.
Today, I’m active in three Jewish organizations - the national nonprofit Reboot, the upstart collective East Side Jews, and the Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center. Last year, I launched Undo, an online publication for people seeking to reinvigorate the practice of Shabbat. I fast on Yom Kippur, pay dues at two synagogues, use babysitter nights to attend Jewish community organizing meetings, and have deeply felt opinions about the best pastrami in Los Angeles (Langer’s) and the greatest baked good of all time (Zabar’s chocolate babka).
And all the while, the question keeps resurfacing: Am I Jewish?
I could call myself a ger toshav, a biblical phrase loosely meaning “landed immigrant” or “resident alien.” Many communities, I’m told, have adopted the phrase to clarify the status of non-Jews who are nonetheless welcomed in the community. And yet I’m not sure that framing my status as a guy with a green card but no permanent papers really helps. Other communities are looking for alternate ways of naming this amorphous group of Jewey non-Jews: A group of Oakland-based conservative rabbis have proposed the name k’rov Yisrael, a friend or relative of Israel, which they describe as “like an amicus curiae, a friend of the court.”
Both options are good, but they both miss a central point about this growing group of the community. That point came into focus for me at a Reboot group discussion with Rabbi Ed Feinstein. He’d come to talk with us about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings on the role of awe in prayer, the notion of radical amazement, and the concept of God not as an omnipotent force but as an ongoing action of creativity and caring. Like any great simple truth, this one - God as verb, not noun - got under my skin and seeped into my thinking. After years of exposure if not active participation in Jewish learning, I’d reached a threshold. I was changed, prompted to seek the sacred in everyday acts of love and opened up to new ways of thinking about questions big and small. Like, for instance, the question of my religion.
Whether or not I officially qualify as Jewish is far less interesting to me now than how I live. Whether or not those around me are Jewish is also beside the point; it’s how we live that counts. This, of course, is a central tenet of Judaism; it’s a faith of deeds not creeds. And that has given me permission to draw on Judaism’s rich traditions and practices without worrying too much about the labels. Jewish, intermarried, ger toshav, k’rov Yisrael - what we call ourselves matters, but only inasmuch as it defines our actions.
The nouns count. But ultimately, I’m much more interested in the verbs.