I grew up in Wyoming, where there aren't many Jews, and there were fewer then than there are now. As is often the case when it comes to identity politics, the fact of being a minority in this category meant that it was something I invested at least some of my identification in, even though it wasn't a big part of our day-to-day life. As one of two Jewish kids in my grade school (my brother being the other), and being part of one of maybe 6 or 10 Jewish families in the county, I felt like being Jewish was a pretty cool thing. We got special holidays and drank wine on Friday nights.
Being a Wyoming Jew meant doing things a little differently. I knew that most Jewish kids would read from the Torah for their bar/bat mitzvah, but I had a piano recital, instead. Being a half-Jew was different, too. I knew that many Jews didn't celebrate Christmas, but we did that, too. It never really occurred to me, of course, that this meant I was as much Christian as Jewish, in part because Christian wasn't the marked category, and in part because being Jewish did feel like a cultural thing more than being Christian. But that just goes back to Jewishness being the marked category, now, doesn't it?
I've called myself Jewish, half-Jewish, and I've toyed with saying I'm not Jewish, and somehow, none of them quite captures it.
College was the first time I met what I came to think of as "real" Jews. These were the peers who spoke Hebrew, who knew the prayers, and who questioned my credibility as a Jew. On one hand, they would assure me, if my mom is Jewish, I'm Jewish. On the other, they would say, you don't really count as a Jew. Because I don't keep kosher, or I eat leavened foods over Passover, or I celebrate Christmas. These are all true, and, still, saying I'm not Jewish seems like an oversimplification. On the other hand, what is it to be Jewish if you don't act Jewish? If you don't believe in God? If you don't participate in the Jewish rituals or community?
You see, back in Wyoming, I did participate in the Jewish community, much of which was made up of mixed families. No one for whom Jewishness is a primary driving force of life ended up in Jackson Hole in the 60s and 70s, because there wasn't much in the way of support for that. No synagogue, no rabbi, no place to buy Chanukah candles, much less kosher foods. On the other hand, no one for whom being Jewish doesn't matter at all would celebrate holidays and seek out others to create a home for an altered belief. I learn that being Jewish in Wyoming is about community more than practice, and I learned that being Jewish this way felt good.
Still, the real Jews told me I didn't really count, and I struggled between resentment toward them (who were they to tell me I didn't count?), toward myself (who was I to call myself a Jew?), and toward my parents (why hadn't they given me more clarity? if they wanted Jewish kids, why didn't we learn the prayers? if they didn't, why did we light the candles?). A friend of mine, and the only serious Jew in my close circle, told me how upsetting he found it to see the Jewish women dating goyim. Jews who marry out, he said, stop being Jewish. On one hand, he was just another person to resent for this, while on the other, that approach gave me a certain clarity: If Jews who marry out are no longer Jews, then my mom's not a Jew. And if she's not, I'm not. QED. But, no.
I learned a little more about Jewish culture. Not the ritual culture, so much, at this point, as the way of thinking. Two things became clear to me: First, many of the things that we (that is, Americans) use figure Jewish culture are things that everyone does and values: hospitality, food, money, family. Second, that these are things that I do and value. And on top of those things, when I see Jewish culture represented on screen or in books, it feels familiar. So. Maybe I am a little Jewish. It was hard to know. I decided to give it a rest for a while.
It wasn't until I read Emmanual Levinas's Nine Talmudic Readings that I discovered what it is that is the root of why I now call myself Jewish. In the first of these readings, Levinas discusses atonement, and how to bring onesself into right relations with God. It is through relations with our neighbors that we do so. It is less important that we believe in God, that we follow God's nitpicky rules, that we light the candles, and more important that we treat each other well. We atone, at the end of the year, not only to God, but to those people we've wronged, and that, Levinas argued, was the more important, because we come to relate to God through our neighbors. We create right behavior through community.
This was a lightbulb moment for me. I had always felt that my take on how to move through the world was one I developed outside of any particular system. But reading Levinas was like reading a religiously backed take on my general life philosophy. Maybe, I thought, there is something to my calling myself Jewish. It turns out a lot of my ethical system is based on those values.
In retrospect, this seems like a tawdry realization. Of course my ethics, guided by my parents', will be connected to the cultures in which they were raised. But in the midst of my self-doubt as to my validity in calling myself Jewish, it was a big moment. For months, I stopped feeling defensive about calling myself Jewish. I'd found a quiet center of satisfaction on that point.
Time has gone on, as it does, and my quiet center has wavered from time to time. I still see and hear a lot of "real" Jews describing what "counts" for Jews to do. Hell, I do it, myself. Jews for Jesus? I'm sorry, no. I still occasionally toy with the concept of dropping the Jewish from my identity. But that has never felt quite right. I still resent the gatekeepers to Jewish identity, but I know that all identity categories have gatekeepers, and I no longer resent myself or my parents for our respective roles in making me who I am, ethically, philosophically, and culturally. And even the gatekeepers, when I'm feeling still, bead and roll off my back.
If I'm trying to prove to others that I'm Jewish, I'll always fail. I rarely light candles, and when I do, I almost never sing. I eat pork; I mark my body; I don't fast. On the other hand, I try to apologize before I have to, to treat people well, to provide a welcoming home, and to build community where I am, and make it what I want it to be. I don't know that these are Jewish things, but I do know I come to them from a Jewish background, and I figure for an agnostic atheistic secular humanist, that's a fine place to stand while also calling myself Jewish.