If My Friends Are ‘Culturally’ Jewish, What Does That Make Me?

Obviously, I understood that choosing a Jewish life meant joining a demographic minority, less than two percent of the U.S. population. What I didn’t understand as deeply is that by choosing a pretty observant Jewish life, I’d be joining a minority within a minority.

I started out on this journey because I found God, and I found God through God-centered Jewish texts and traditions.

I may not adhere to the fine print of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, but I hit most of the big items.

To name just the most obvious ones, I observe Shabbat. I go to services at our synagogue, Central Reform Congregation. I pray and study daily, give away a tenth of my take-home pay to various causes, say as many b’rachot — Hebrew blessings meant to remind us to be grateful for simple things, like eating bread or seeing a rainbow — in the course of a day as I possibly can.

This sets me apart from the vast majority of Americans who identify as Jews, at least as documented by a recent study (page 8):

Typically, on social surveys, Jews attach more importance to “being Jewish” than to “having religion in your life,” suggesting that a good many Jews see being Jewish in some overall sense as transcending religion.

Given this propensity, as well as the complexity of Jewish identity beyond just religion, we are not surprised to find that Jews trail non-Jews with respect to every measure touching upon religion and prayer. The gaps are especially large with respect to prayer (frequency, importance) and to reading religious literature.

In short, Jews are less religious than non-Jewish whites.

There’s even a bar graph:

For many of our Jewish friends, observance consists mainly of celebrating the Big Three — Passover, Yom Kippur, and Chanukkah, which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be in the Big Three were it not for Christmas.

It seems that for the vast majority of b’nai yisrael in the United States, religious Judaism is less relevant than a more diffuse cultural heritage. Big communal meals, a few Yiddish words and phrases here, a membership in a Jewish organization there, going to a synagogue two or three times a year.

I’m in no position to judge, and even if I felt like I were, I hope I’d have the good sense to hold my tongue.

But I can speak for myself, and what I can say is that this leaves me — and probably others on the conversion path — in a kinda awkward position. Having a very intense, passionately religious experience in what can seem like a bleached out sea of ambivalence.

My Jewish friends tease me sometimes about my level of observance, warning me, for instance, that they’ll have me examined by a psychiatric professional if I start growing sidelocks or something. Sometimes I tease them back, calling them “Jews-by-chance,” as opposed to Jews-by-choice.

Sometimes I think, but don’t say, that I’d give up a lot if I could somehow change history and acquire the breezy legitimacy they take for granted, if only because they’ve known nothing else.

Dutch Ladies Dressed Up for the Tourists

Sometimes I feel like an overeager tourist on a trip to, I dunno, Amsterdam or some place. Learning how to ask for directions in Dutch, picking out just the right pair of wooden shoes, boning up on the history of the Netherlands … only to arrive at the train station and find that everyone speaks English, wears Nikes, and is more interested in American Idol.

Luckily for me, religious Judaism is alive and well in the United States, and according to the same study I cited above, converts and the children of interfaith couples are a vital source of new energy in Jewish religious communities and an increasingly large segment of the demographic pie.

It’s still a big world out there, though, with plenty of room for awkward moments. I’ve reached the point where I’ll gladly take them and put them next to the sublime ones that are also a part of this journey.

Like sitting down to a meal at a diner with a friend from our synagogue — one of the “bornies” as I say when I am too weak to shun sarcasm — who suddenly sees me whispering the words of hamotzi, the blessing for bread.

Are you praying?” he asks me.

Not as in “Oh, I was hoping someone would start. Let’s say it together.” More like “You cook on a wood-burning stove?” or “You drive a horse and buggy?”

Or meeting a new co-worker who sees the Hebrew prayers pinned to the wall of my cubicle. “Oh, Hebrew,” she says. “I haven’t been around Hebrew in years.”

A cultural Jew? I think to myself. Do I say shabbat shalom when I leave the office on Friday, or will that make her self-conscious if she doesn’t observe? Do I say chag sameach on the eve of one of those holidays that only religious Jews ever touch, like Lag b’Omer or Tu b’Sh’vat?

How do I fit in among cultural Jews? I’m not Ashkenazi or Sephardi or Mizrahi. I’m the descendant of some poor schmuck who left northern Ireland in the middle of the potato famine in the 1840s.

This both sets me free and casts me adrift.

When you get right down to it, nothing compels me to identify with the Ashkenazi heritage at the center of most Americans’ idea of Jewish culture. Across the centuries, more Jews have spoken Greek, Spanish, and Aramaic than Yiddish.

So where am I? Somewhere in the how-to literature on conversion is an anecdote that keeps popping into my mind.

“But Rabbi,” says a man on the conversion path, “Fitzgerald just isn’t a Jewish name.”

The Rabbi nods quietly and says, “It will be.”

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