The biggest threat to Jewish survival is not intermarriage, but the message born Jews send to potential converts like myself. Bringing non-Jews into Judaism is essential for the Jewish future--and yet many non-Jews will never feel connected to the Jewish people as long as so many born Jews cling to "ethnic baggage" in defining their Jewish identity. Yiddish slang and Bubbe's chicken soup are more about Eastern European assimilation and nostalgia than about Jewish identity. They are incidental, not fundamental to Judaism, and therefore hold little attraction to religious seekers who might otherwise consider becoming Jews-by-choice. Why does the road to modern Jewish identity have to take a detour through the shtetls of Poland and the Lower East Side? Wouldn't it make more sense to go directly to the original sources: Torah, Israel, and the teachings of inspired Jewish sages through the ages?
I have traveled far along the latter road. As the non-Jewish half of an intermarried couple and father of three sons raised in the Jewish faith (our oldest became a bar mitzvah this past spring), I struggled for a long time with the strangeness of the liturgy, the rituals, and the Hebrew language. Now, after eighteen years of study and immersion in Judaism, my own religious practice at home and in the synagogue has reached the point that many members of our small rural temple would be surprised to discover that I am not Jewish. And my wife jokingly says I'm a better Jew than she.
Yet, after seriously considering conversion, I've hesitated. What stops me? The impossibility of my ever feeling ethnically Jewish. Ethnicity is the element that separates me from most Jews. It obscures what I regard as the essence of the Jewish faith--monotheism, ethical living, and tikkun olam. When born Jews wax rhapsodic about family lore, I, who lack such stories, feel inadequate, like an outsider. When they construct their idea of Jewishness on ancestry, with little regard to religion, a hierarchical system sets us apart, with my ancestors and myself inhabiting lower rungs.
Some may object to my being so bold as to ask individual Jews to rethink how they define themselves. But from my perspective, the tendency among many Jews to confuse "yiddishkeit" with Judaism is a detriment to the Reform Movement's otherwise commendable Outreach initiative.
My sons will raise their children in a world in which Smith and O'Reilly are as likely to be Jewish names as Rosenbaum and Goldstein. What is more likely to hold them fast to Judaism--a family tree that passes through Eastern Europe or a living religion that is an enduring source of wisdom, solace, and belonging?
I hope that by rededicating themselves to choosing Judaism in their own lives, born Jews will create a more welcoming environment for people of all ethnic backgrounds. Only then will we have an American Judaism that truly reflects the diversity of America.
David Essex is a member of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Keene, New Hampshire.
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