I used to host an annual party called Jew-Day. My high school friends who identified as half-Jewish because they had one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent would come over and we would light eight Chanukah candles and two Shabbat candles; spin dreidels and tell the Passover story; and eat latkes, Rideau Bakery cookies and stale matzo left over from last Pesach.
The joke was that I was the one who, despite also not being 100 per cent [ethnically] Jewish, knew all the holiday prayers and customs, even to the point of knowing it was incorrect and inappropriate to casually bless everything at once and to mix up Shabbat and all the holidays on a Sunday afternoon. But, because I had eight years of Jewish day school behind me as scaffolding, on Jew-Day, for my half-Jewish friends, I was 100 per cent Jewish, as well as 100 per cent bubbe and zaide, Jewish mama and teenage-girl rabbi.
I’m Not Jewish, But My Mother Is is a new play by [Ottawa actor and playwright] Steve Martin, that premiered this summer at the Gladstone Theatre. It was billed as a hilarious and boisterous romp of a family comedy. But the title also gives me pause. What makes Martin’s protagonist Jewish or not Jewish? What makes someone 100 per cent Jewish? What makes a person Jewish enough? I fear this may be a question of Jewish Arithmetic, passed on since Sinai by the people who can find 613 mitzvot in a pomegranate. This is not New Math but Tricky Math, involving percentages, fractions and the concepts of “greater than, equal to, and less than.”
Jewish Arithmetic: “OK, get out your pencils and some paper, and divide up your family tree, recipes and DNA to calculate just how Jewish you really are. Remember, we are looking for fractions and percentages here, people, not jokes or monologues or four questions. This is Jewish Math!”
A rather different set of results would emerge, if the instruction was to calculate how Jewish you seem to be according to other people’s opinions. In other words, if and how, other people recognize you as Jewish. This is the question of passing.
Halachically, the protagonist of Martin’s play is 100 per cent Jewish, if his mother is. But, what if he doesn’t identify as Jewish? What if he doesn’t want to be Jewish? The subtext in the title is that he has rejected his Judaism or never identified with it in the first place.
Using my aforementioned Jewish Arithmetic skills, I can tally up the number of my friends who, because they have one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, consider themselves half-Jews, rather than 100 per cent Jewish. Notice the implied inadequacy in their own terminology: Half-Jew. One friend, who was ceremoniously blessed and dunked in the mikvah by an Orthodox rabbi as an infant, still considers herself only a half-Jew. She was converted in infancy and has read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank at least three times – and yet, because she has been made to feel less than, she will never feel equal to.
I have a radical hypothesis. Had my mikvahed yet self-declared half-Jewish friend and her non-Jewish mother been welcomed more openly, I bet she would have grown up feeling 100 per cent Jewish. Not half. Not inadequate or defective in her Jewishness. Our community openly sustains a paradox: we worry about Jewish continuity, but do little to include and accept multi-faith families; mixed-race families; Jews of colour; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in a predominantly Ashkenazic North America; adopted Jews; LGBTQ Jews; Jews who converted; progressive and feminist Jews; Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Jews, etc.
How do you define yourself Jewishly? What kind of Jewish Arithmetic would you use to define your affiliation and identity and why? If I admit here in print that I pray in Hebrew without transliteration; that only 50 per cent of my grandparents were Jewish; that I have learned to chant Torah and wear a tallit because it is a spiritual practice for me; but that I have never, not once, read Anne Frank, what percentage Jewish does that make me?
Jew-Day. Offensively named, but absolutely earnest in its intention. We observed Jew-Day every year because my half-Jew friends yearned for something. They wanted to be invited to the party. On Jew-Day, as the twilight snow fell softly outside, I offered Kedem grape juice and led our alternative minyan in rousing renditions of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Dayenu.”
For a brief afternoon, we all felt like we counted. Like we belonged. Like we were enough.