I’ve come to the conclusion that most Jews have the same problem I do in making explicit to others what being Jewish means to us. I’ve stumbled in this regard for years when I’d be asked by my children, or by journalists, “Why do you go to synagogue?” or “What do you actually believe in?” I do better with specific question that have answers formulated by others before me: Why the dog gets fed before the humans, why we give to someone begging on the street, and similar questions about daily living. But when the questions get more personal, and touch on what I myself believe, I often flounder.
I know I’m not alone in having trouble articulating what Judaism means to me because I’ve watched others struggle with the same problem (though sometimes in different contexts). For example, when I was interviewing couples for my book Intermarriage a couple of years ago, a young Catholic man who had promised his Jewish wife that they would raise their child a Jew was puzzled and hurt that she was reluctant to do “anything Jewish” with the little girl.
“Look;’ he pleaded, “If I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. If you don’t believe in God how can you call yourself a Jew?”
“What does believing in God have to do with any of this?” the woman snapped back, “I just want my kid to be Jewish!’
For many Jews self-definition is a painful and often puzzling process. In an interfaith relationship, the Jewish partner must make explicit how she feels about her Jewish identity in ways that she never would have had to with another Jew. Even the terms of the dialogue feel as if they’ve been defined by others — Jews typically talk about practice (the things we do that shape our lives Jewish); Christians talk about belief, faith. Jewishness (rather than Judaism) is more than a religion, which is why so many of us wrestle with its multiple meanings in our lives today.
These questions about Jewish identity surfaced again and again as we were planning and editing the issue of LILITH you’re now reading. Sometimes the articles in any issue crystallize themselves along a wire thread, a continuum representing a single theme. This time it is Jewish identity, explored here in three unusual pieces.
Our cover story is about “conversos” — women who, raised Catholic, are secret Jews, descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition. Those who are bold enough now to claim their Jewish roots are finding them entangled with strands from very different cultures, Hispanic and Native Indian among them.
To me a more troubling playing out of Jewish identity issues — and of how in the diaspora we define ourselves as distinct from the dominant Christian culture — is embodied here in the figure of Edith Stein, a Jew in Germany in the 1930’s who became a nun and is now being considered for sainthood.
From a different tack altogether, comes a short story in which a young Jewish daughter confuses Jewish issues with her own complex family dynamics. In a stressed situation, she yearns for normalcy, imaging that Christian families are better able to live out the American ideal of domestic bliss presented in 1950’s TV sitcoms.
In this issue we have marginal Jews — the conversos, reaching inward toward the core of Jewish life, a born-Jew who was pulled away from that center by the centrifugal forces of the Catholic church, plus a very American story about family upheaval which is linked in a daughter’s mind to Jewish traits. While the subject matter — defining ourselves as Jews — is fascinating of itself, there’s a special poignancy for women. We are expected (and often expect ourselves) to be the transmitters of Jewish culture to others yet our own identity issues are rarely explored, except in situations of crisis.