Excuse me, are you Jewish?

My neighborhood has a large Jewish population, and every so often a person will approach me in public and say, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” I always say no. Sometimes this earns me a Good Card, the version for non-Jews. Most times it results in the person leaving me alone–he was looking for a Jewish girl to flirt with, a lapsed Jew to evangelize, or something that requires me to be Jewish.

But one time, the guy hollered after me as I continued briskly down the street, “Well, where’d ya get that nose, then?!” Other times, I’ve had this basic conversation:
STRANGER: Oh, what are you?
ME: Episcopal. [continue until person stops looking blank] Christian. Protestant. The American branch of the Church of England.
STRANGER: Oh, no, no, I mean, what are you; what country did you come from, or your ancestors?

This reflects a fundamental problem in our societal terminology. (On my crankier days, I think it also reflects a problem in people’s manners–it’s downright nosy to demand that a stranger reveal her ethnic or religious background, without even any preliminary conversation–but that’s another topic!) The word “Jewish” is used to label both a religious group and an ethnic group, and those two groups are not the same.

Am I Jewish? I am not and never have been a member of the Jewish religion. It’s got some truth to it, some good principles, some deeply meaningful ceremonies, but it’s not the right religion for me. I participate in a Passover seder every year, and it’s a religious experience for me…one of the several steps on the path toward Easter, a celebration of a long-ago salvation that established the culture and traditions into which Jesus was born and the New Covenant was established. There are some aspects of modern Judaism with which I vehemently disagree. I’ve never thought of myself as a Jew.

But where’d I get that nose? My mother’s father’s parents came to the United States from Eastern Europe, where their families had been driven from country to country, persecuted because they were Jewish. My great-grandparents weren’t very observant; Jewishness had been mainly a source of trouble for them, though they did celebrate the major holidays. My grandfather married a Christian and was only occasionally involved in Jewish practice. My mother married a Christian, and my parents later became Unitarian. My branch of the family has dropped the Jewish religion, but I have one-quarter Jewish ethnicity, and I guess it shows. (My mother protests that I do not have a Jewish nose. Yeah, it’s not the classic hooked schnozz. But it’s a relatively large nose, and it’s more similar to that of my mother and her father than any of my other ancestors. I also have rather deep eye sockets, which give me that Jewish look. I’m not complaining, just explaining.)

The distinction between the Jewish religion and the Jewish ethnic group really came to my attention last year, when my son and I tuned in to PBS partway through a documentary about “famous American Jews”.  The two we saw profiled were Irving Berlin and Louis Brandeis. Several of the people interviewed mentioned these men’s rejection of the Jewish religion and whole-hearted adoption of other value systems. Yet they faced bias because they “were Jewish”, and in some of the pictures they “looked Jewish”. It would have been more accurate to say this was a documentary about “famous Americans of the Northern European ethnic group that historically practiced Judaism” although I can see why anybody would reject that as too wordy!

Some people in my neighborhood argue that the problem here is not terminology but error on the part of Jews who have abandoned Judaism for other religions, agnosticism, or atheism. They believe that all those who are Chosen People by birth are obligated to observe Judaism. If they find out that, ethnically speaking, I am one-quarter Jewish and my son is five-eighths Jewish, they leap to convince me that I must raise him as a Jew, I’m depriving him of his heritage, I’m betraying my (ethnically) pure Jewish partner and his family, I’m betraying God, and deep down I must know this is true.

I don’t. In fact, the whole idea of anybody being the Chosen People and this status being genetic strikes me as very wrong–not necessarily horrible, bigoted, anything like that; just wrong. I’m not Jewish.

Yet there’s the ancestry, the legacy of thousands of years of learning and culture, the spirit that brought those people out of Egypt and through pogroms and persecution and university quotas, the faces like my own staring through the fences of the concentration camps, the academic and medical and scientific achievements, the great folktales and novels and plays, the humor, the Yiddish slang, the bagels! I’m not rejecting that! I love my Jewish ethnic heritage! We just need a better word for it.

I hereby suggest that the word Jewish be used to refer to the religion, and the Northern European ethnic group that historically practiced Judaism be called Yiddish. It’s a lot easier to spell and pronounce (and less evil-sounding) than Ashkenazic, and it’s the name of this group’s traditional language. (There’s at least one other ethnic group that historically practiced Judaism, which I don’t know nearly so much about, so I’ll let them suggest their own term if Sephardic won’t do.) Not all Yiddish people are Jewish. Not all Jewish people are Yiddish. Get it?

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