What makes a Jew a Jew?

This post will probably say more about me than I’d care to reveal were it not for the relative annonimity of this type of forum.

Here goes…

I’m not a believer. My feet are fairly firmly set in the atheist camp. I don’t participate in religious ceremonies unless they are weddings, bar-mitzva’s and sadly funerals. Keeping kosher is as foreign to me as a McDonalds cheeseburger to a hassidic jew. I had a bar-mitzva but only because I was too young to say no to my parents (and extended family) and I knew how much it would disappoint them if I refused. My family practices the high holiday judaism like the majority of reform North American jews. I don’t even bother to that extent. Now that my kids are growing out of diapers, we celebrate - in a very non-denominational way - Chanukka, Passover and Yom Kippur. Why? Well, mostly because I’m a pretty good cook and we all love good home-made chicken soup with matzo balls. Not to mention schnitzel and potato latkes. Having said that, I consider plain, unadorned matza to be the 11th curse. My digestive tract will second that motion.

My wife is (as we often say in jest) a recovering catholic. She does not practice either. Despite that, Santa still makes his trip down our chimney every xmas eve to leave presents for our two kids and in the spring, the easter bunny still hides all the eggs that the kids have painted.

To top it all off I agree with A. Einstein who said (and I paraphrase) … “those rocking and praying individuals of our race who stand facing the wall, they are people with a past but without a present or a future.”

And yet, to the same extent that I feel myself a man, a husband and father, I consider myself a jew. Now I suspect I know why that is, and I will reveal that part of it. But first I’d like to hear what say the teaming millions (maybe teaming few) on this topic. What makes a jew a jew?

A Jew is someone who:
[li]is born of a Jewish mother, or[/li][li]converts to Judaism.[/li][/list=1]

Now, Reformed Jews believe that one born of a Jewish father (and not mother) is also Jewish - Orthodox and Conservative Jews vehemently disagree with this notion of patrilineal descent.

As far as the rest of your post, QuickSilver, it sounds like it belongs in either GD or MPSIMS instead of GQ. I am not going to tell you what to believe.

…if a moderator would do the honours… MPSIMS or GD it is.

Check out the Mailbag: Can you be an atheist and still be Jewish?

But, despite legal definitions, the Lubavitchers argue that there is a Jewish Soul, that is born in you, that has nothing to do with practice or belief, but that sometimes causes you a yearning for the divine.

Yeah, well, Lubavitchers.

Quick, you might want to do what I do—I consider myself “culturally Jewish,” but an atheist when it comes to actual religion. This explains it pretty succinctly to most people, and doesn’t sound like we’re trying to weasel out of our Jewish background.

Quicksilver, sdimbert gave you the Orthodox definition of Judiasm. However, I wish to elaborate on that a bit:

Even if you don’t practice or believe any of the precepts of Judaism, Orthodox Jews will classify you as a Jew because in the eyes of the Torah, you are obligated to do so. That is what the definition sdimbert applies to. By the same token, one who does not meet his definition, no matter how Jewish he acts, is not Jewish because the Torah does not view this person as obligated to observe the commandments.

As for your Einstein quote, all I can say, is that he was a much better physicist than a sociologist. Anyone looking at current demographic trends amongst Jews will see that.

And…how in the world do you celebrate Yom Kippur by cooking??? What specific dishes are associated with Yom Kippur by whatever denominations don’t believe in fasting on that day?

You may be right about that.

Maybe it’s just in my grandmother’s house but at sundown at the end of Yom Kippur, the tables are heaving with more food than can be imagined. It’s as if the entire family has just returned from wondering through the desert for 40 years without a crumb of food. It’s quite a funny site. Especially when she says, “You don’t have to eat all of it… just try a little bit of every-ting! - Ess faegaleh, Ess.”

Ah! Well, to those of us who fast sundown-to-sundown on Yom Kippur, the big meal upon completion makes sense…it ain’t tradition, it’s hunger.

Chaim Mattis Keller

Oh, I fast. Believe me, I fast. I may not go shull but I fast. How the hell else am I going to be able to eat all that food unless I’ve fasted for 24 hours.


CKDex -

I read the post for which you were kind enough to provide the hot link. It all makes sense but for the last of it.
The part that really grates on me is where it says that it’s okay to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Doesn’t that smack rather loudly of hypocracy? Does it not encourage people to do “good” things for their owns self agrondisement and selfish ends? … and please let’s not go down that Ayne Rand Virtue of Selfishness road… and yes, I know she was jewish.

Well, Quick, I don’t think it’s hypocrisy… Let me try to explain as follows.

Obviously, the best thing is to give charity because you truly want to help those in need. The action is right and the reason behind the action is right.

Less than that is someone who gives charity because they get their name on a plaque, or because they feel superior to those in need. The action is right, but the reason behind the action is wrong. This is less than ideal.

But worse than those is someone who does not give to charity at all. That is, it is better to give charity for the wrong reason than not to give. Someone whose “heart is in the right place” but they’re always too busy and never get around to giving – that person is lower on the scale than someone who gives for the wrong reasons.

Does that explain it better? One approach to Judaism says that the obligation of a Jew is to partner with God in helping to repair the world. Taking action to better the world is better than thinking good thoughts.

On this issue, I suspect that many of our Christian friends may differ.


I think I undestood it right the first time. I even understand your point about net gain from the needy point of view… as in, if I’m in need and someone helps me in order that they may gain better standing in their community then it’s still a net gain to me as well as a shot in the arm for them which a) does not take away from my gain, and b) accomplishes a net gain for them as well. What could be wrong with that?!

Well, a lot in my opinion. First it tells me that this person is not to be trusted. If there was nothing in it for them then I would not be the happy recepient of their contrived benevolence. Secondly, it tells me that their humanity and convictions are for sale. If helping someone else would gets them a bigger plaque then so much for my rescue line. Thirdly, it tells me that once they gain a big enough plaque and a high enough standing in their community, they will forget about me and the needs of those like me. Finally, it tells me that as a Jew they may be fullfilling their requirements but as compassionate human beings, they are miserable failures.

I will be honest. I understand a person who I know will not give because I know their stance from the start. I cannot have any illusions about a person like that. At least they are honest in that respect. I absolutely cannot tollerate a person who’s convictions change to suite their goals du jour. Is this a person who anyone can call a friend? Is this a person anyone can hold up as a shining representative example of the community? I think not and I think you’ll agree.

Quoth CKDextHavn:

Actually, CK, that sounds a lot like one of Jesus’s parables: There was a father who had two sons. He asked the first to (go out and do something in the fields, I don’t remember what), but the sun refused. So he asked the second son, and the second son said he would. However, the second son became lazy, and did not, while the first repented, and did it. The point was that the first son was the better son for doing, than the second was for intending to do it. Yes, the situation isn’t quite the same, but I think it’s relelvant.

The Op having been factually answered, I’m going to move this thread to In My Humble Opinion.

IMHO, you are only a Jew if you practice that religion, even if only in the most “reformed” way. If your mom’s a Jew, but you’re a Catholic Priest, you are not a Jew. You are a Catholic, with a jewish mother (and trust me, many of us goyim also have had one of those, “oy vay!”). I will accept the fact that with your heritage you are more welcome “back”, but I think the Pope might disagree with you having a “jewish” soul.

And I know, you CAN be converted, there are some instances of it in the OT, and I believe it still occurs, ie. Sammy Davis jr.

hadn’t seen this thread earlier, would’ve contributed then, but it seems not to matter now, so:
i was born a Jew as well Quick, and i even went to yeshiva. i’ve always been into learning more anyway though, so in High School, when i left yeshiva for a public school, i still went to “hebrew school” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I really didn’t pay much attention to most of the traditional, and religious learning, for the most part, i have forgotten so much, though not by choice, most of my childhood is forgotten for a number of reasons. But i loved learning hebrew, and i speak it fluently, spoke it at home with the folks, both Israelis, and with Israeli friends. Found myself drawn towards Buddhism more and more in HS, and less to Judaism. It wasn’t until i joined the army and spent some time there that i felt my roots pulling at me, there were so many cultural differences between me and the rest of the world around me, the real world all of a sudden. No matter what in my life though, i always considered myself a Jew as a person. Something i believe about the Jews is that we are not a simple religion at all, but a nation of people. It’s something that’s been a natural feeling for me my whole life i suppose, even now, when i’ve ceased to attach myself to any religion in particular. So for me, a Jew is someone who comes from Judaism through their roots, and accepts that, and will admit that they are a Jew. It’s like asking fish, how does it know it’s a fish? A halibut just IS a fish. a fish is a fish. (to put it in Zen terms.) :slight_smile:

I’ve never had any doubts about my jewish identity. I don’t wear it on my sleeve but neither do I shy away from it. But I often wonder what compells me to still feel that way even though I rarely practice even the most basic traditions. As I often joke, I’m a high holiday jew and even then you won’t catch me inside a synagogue.

My jewish training was not the classical herbrew school training. My jewish training came from sometimes having to fight to get out of a school yard. Why? Because I was a jew growing up in the former Soviet Union. Being a jew was not a popular thing then (nor is it now from what I hear). Anyway, there were not the huge brawls that some may imagine. These were simple fights with the occasional bloody nose or lip. The kind of fights boys get into around the age of 10. Usually I would fight because I had no choice. Sometimes I would fight to defend the only other fellow jewish friend in my grade who wasn’t much of a fighter and got picked on constantly by some of the other kids in class. In short, I learned about my ethnicity not in the yeshiva but in the school of hard knocks - literally. I got so tired of having to fight that one time, while signing up for a photography club, I marked my nationality as russian instead of jewish on the application form. I came home and told my parents what I’d done thinking they’d be proud of me for thinking on my feet and avoiding potential problems. They did not get angry at me or lecture me but I will never forget the disappointed looks on their faces. I never did that again.

Living in the former Soviet Union, we did not know much about classic jewish tradition. What we knew could be gathered in the palm of your hand with room to spare. Once a year, my grandfather managed to find five rounds of matzo for our Passover celebration. That was it. No pomp and circumstance, just a meal like most other large family meals with matzo being the central theme. No prayers, because no-one knew any. No history recitals, no-one knew much of that either. No mention of god because few but my grandparents illustrated any kind of belief in one. Essentially, I was born and raised an atheist and to this day, nothing else has ever made any sense.

We immigrated to Canada shortly before my 11th birthday. It was a long time before I had to fight again simply because someone decided to physically object to my being jewish. I was 18 or 19. Living in a predominantly jewish area (90% predominant) in Montreal. Walking home late one night from a bus stop, a friend and I were confronted by a four arab guys a few years older than we were. This was right after the massacre in southern Lebanon where the Christian Arab Militia entered two Muslim Arab towns and began shooting people indiscriminantly. The Israely army stood by on the outskirts and presumably did not attempt to stop the slaughter. I did not blame the Muslim community for being angry, I was angry too. But this was something else entirely. These four were on a mission to find and beat up a couple of jews in a country half way around the world simply because they were jews. I was not going to have that and I told my friend as events developed not to leave my side and to watch my back (as I would watch his) no matter what happened. The minute the first punch was thrown, I saw him sprinting like a rabbit in the oppisite direction through people’s lawns and back yards. One guy followed him while I was left with three. Things could not have looked worse. Fortunately, the conviction of these guys left them after they realized I was not going to back down and that I knew how to handle myself in a fight. I consider myself very lucky to this day because these guys turned out to be bigger cowards than my so called friend sprinting through the yards.

I realized then and there that my connection to judaism is quite different than that of a Canadian born jewish kid who knows how to read hebrew, knows all the right things to do and say during a service in synagogue, but who has never had to stand up or defend himself for who he is simply because someone happens to take a strong offense to that fact.

Later, in college, I inadvertantly hooked up with some more jewish guys who, also Canadians born and bread, were a little different as well. These guys were members of the JDL (Jewish Defense League). They were good guys for the most part but a little too militant for me in many ways. I did not share their company for long, although, it was nice to know that a group like that did exist and did, in their own misguided way, try to protect their own community.

Anyway, I guess the moral of this long boring story is that many (perhaps not all) roads lead to Rome. I arrived at my jewishness not simply by birth but equally importantly by certains rights of passage which had nothing to do with practiced rituals, religion, or belief in god.

Now only one question remains. How do I pass that on to my kids? I’m certainly not goint to send them to yeshivas to study things I don’t believe in myself. They are certainly not going to learn much about traditional jewish rituals from me. Unless it has something to do with cooking great chicken and matzo ball soup… oh, and cougle, I make a mean cougle. With raisins. My wife thinks that this, combined with the jewish holidays we spend with my parents will give them what they need to learn about their jewish roots. I’m not entirely sure if it will be enough. I suppose this is where I begin to hope that there is something to genetic memory theories after all. :wink:

I’m not a Jew, but my dear neighbors are. When I look at them, I see wonderful people. What makes a Jew? What makes the rest of us? I think it’s a heart…

Quick, we’re not disagreeing on the deed vs thought. It is best to do the right thing for the right reason. We’re at the lower level, now – comparing (A) someone who doesn’t do the right thing even though his heart is in the right place, to (B) someone who does do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. Judaism says that (A) is the better of the two; not that those are idea or best, but that one is better than the other.

Basically, if you will allow another intepretation, Judaism says that it is better to give charity grudgingly than not to give at all. But best is to give with a joyful heart.

On how to raise your kids Jewish, I wish I knew the answer. The highest success rate is among the ultra-Orthodox sects, because their kids never see or talk to anyone outside their sect. Sort of like raising the kids in a monastery, they grow up not knowing anything else.

That aside, sociological studies seem to indicate that the best approach is for the family to celebrate Judaism – food, holidays, Sabbath, keeping kosher – joyfully, to make the kids feel good about it. However, strong Jewish education is also important. They will be faced with the challenge of secular life, and they need to have education to be able to know WHY and HOW to celebrate Judaism.

That’s my 'umble hopinion.