Wednesday evening, when I grabbed my tallit and walked down Hill street toward Hillel for Yom Kippur services, nobody asked if I was Jewish. I fit right in — I knew when to bow during the Shema (a prayer calling out to God) and the inflections of the v’ahavta (a prayer reminding us of certain Jewish practices). I knew how to be humble when asking God for forgiveness and the strength to be a better person, a better Jew. The vulnerability that crept into my chest as I acknowledged my flaws and screw-ups throughout the past year was heart wrenching, but familiar. This Yom Kippur, nobody doubted my faith.
Although I don’t go to Hillel nearly as often as I should, I identify as a Jewish American. I grew up very much in the faith — my sisters and I kept kosher, went to services regularly, became B’not Mitzvah — and I’m increasingly embracing my Jewishness. I love belonging to a minority with a success story — one that overcame prejudice and persecution to settle as respected middle- and upper-class citizens. I’m proud of our historical narrative and how we used our position as societal “others” to advocate for the oppressed, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. We remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt.
This is the element of Judaism that I most identify with. The Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or healing the world, comprises my core. It shapes my passions and pursuits and is part of the reason I love public policy so much. Maybe it’s idealistic, but I see policy as a tool to repair poverty and inequality to make our country more just. The summer after my sophomore year, I interned at a Jewish social justice nonprofit, advocating for Voting Rights Act reform to ensure people of color throughout the South could exercise their right to vote. I found the work so fulfilling because it was connected to the abstract ideal of justice that I embody in my Jewish being.
And yet, since I first started living in Ann Arbor three years ago, my Jewish identity has come under dual scrutiny from both Jews and non-Jews. I’ve found that some gentiles have a hard time reconciling my faith with my appearance. When kids found out I was Jewish my freshman year, I was often greeted with raised eyebrows. “Wait, really?” they would say, utterly shocked. “But you don’t look it at all!”
Of course, this reaction is more innocent ignorance than malicious prejudice, but it still stings. Yes, I’ll admit that I don’t possess many of the traits some people expect Jews to have — my hair is light brown and I have my mother’s slim nose and green eyes. I’m from Maryland, not Westchester, Long Island or Los Angeles. But the fact that some people don’t realize that it’s offensive to openly act surprised when a member of an ethnicity breaks away from an offensive stereotype is beyond me. What was even more offensive was when one girl, after discovering I was Jewish, cocked her head to the side and said, “Yeah, I guess I see it.”
But these superficial encounters aren’t the ones that fundamentally upset me. In fact, they feel more like dirt in an open wound. The real gut-punching is when people of my own community and faith don’t recognize me as one of them. It’s when a hand shoots up behind me two weeks ago during the first day of a Judaic studies class and tells me directly that to be Jewish, my mother must be Jewish, too, openly contradicting me and my faith in front of the entire class. Plain and simple, he says. It’s from the Torah.
My mother is Catholic, which, according to certain Jewish doctrine, invalidates my Jewish identity. This doctrine, however, is not actually from the Torah and instead is merely a practice passed down from ancient Roman times. Even though my sisters and I had mikva’ot (conversion ceremonies) when we were babies, the ceremony wasn’t Orthodox. As a result, neither the state of Israel nor the kid behind me recognizes me as Jew. And it hurts.
This doubt stings more than the ignorant stereotypes because, coming from within my own group, it’s harder to dismiss. The matrilineal teaching is not some fringe, ultra-Orthodox belief. Though not present in the Torah, the teaching is widely accepted, and part of being Jewish is feeling connected to the patchwork of practices and traditions that form our dogma. This tradition, however, makes me feel alienated, like an outsider in my own faith. I find it perplexing to encounter Jews who feel like they can and should reject me for not corresponding with an arcane definition, especially during a time of shrinking numbers and dwindling faith.
The fact that I don’t fit neatly into my community is something I’m learning to digest. For now, I’ll continue to embrace the elements of Judaism that speak to me: the emphasis on progress, social justice and the duty to make the world a better place. And in doing so, I vow to push the community’s stubborn boundaries by creating my own space.
Anne Katz can be reached at email@example.com.