Julie Wiener enters the “Who is a Jew?” Debate

In this month’s installment of Julie Wiener’s In the Mix column in the (New York) Jewish Week, she reviews yet another challenge in interfaith families: the difficult questions often posed by curious young children too young to understand all of the identity intricacies resplendent in intermarriage.

To a child being raised Jewishly, it might be difficult to understand why a loving parent who happens to come from another religious background is classified as an “other.” When that parent is fully supportive of their child’s Jewish upbringing, it can be confusing to a young person when that parent is nevertheless portrayed as a stranger by the Jewish community. If Judaism is defined by the way people live, then surely this parent would be considered Jewish. It is unrealistic, of course, to expect children to be able to comprehend such thorny issues at such an early age. It is hard enough for those of us who are adults to understand. As Julie says about her daughter Ellie:

At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel—or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.

Later, Julie laments that, armed with her newfound knowledge that she is Jewish and some of her friends are not, young Ellie has taken to classifying everyone in her life as either “Jewish” or “Christian.” Julie worries about how much further complicated matters would become “by elaborating on Islam, Buddhism and the myriad of other religions represented just within our ZIP code.”

That point underscores the fact that the issue many families face is really about what to tell the children, especially when they are young and not yet able to grasp the nuances of daily life and certainly not the complications of Jewish communal life.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to reframe the conversation, and move from “Who is a Jew?” to “Who is a member of the Jewish community?” That will allow us to move toward a situation where children are not inclined to look upon parents from other religious backgrounds as being “outsiders” nor will the rest of the Jewish community. By welcoming the stranger, we will help both parent and child and ensure that everyone assisting in the valuable endeavor of raising Jewish children finds their rightful place in the Jewish community.

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