You’re Not Actually Jewish

17 Aug

The other day after working a night shift at my bar I decided to fulfill a promise I had made to someone. I decided to do the thing that I very rarely do now that I drive to and from work: I stopped in somewhere for a nightcap. The reason I did it is quite simple. The guy who owns the bar I popped into works behind it on Friday and Saturday nights and occasionally comes into my daytime spot to have a sandwich before going up the hill to do his ordering, or whatever he does. The sandwich costs $12 or $13, depending on what he gets. He pays with a $20 bill and leaves the change. I am of the mindset that tip karma is a thing and so I figured it was my responsibility as a bartender to return the favor. See, that’s how it used to be back in the day. (And still is, among a certain set.) Bartenders would go out and visit their friends at work and drop money on them with the understanding that those friends would, at some point, return the favor. I think that’s a nice thing and so I do my best to remember who visits me and visit them when possible, keeping my wallet and my liver in mind of course. So on this Saturday night, after getting out of work slightly earlier than usual, I decided to go return the favor and drop some money on this dude.

I walked through the door at about 3:45 to a more or less empty bar. Perfect. If I had seen the dozen or so people that are apparently usually there on a weekend night at that time I likely would have kept driving because the last thing I want to do after working a busy bar all night is go and hang out in a busy(ish) bar. No thank you. So I walked in, took my seat by the door, and ordered a single pour of Don Julio and soda in a pint glass. I figured the more hydration the better. For some reason, and I am not entirely sure how this even happened, the conversation at the bar turned to everyone trying to figure out where I am from. Not like where I grew up – New Jersey all the way! – but where my family came from. And, as usual, the answer was shocking to people. I am Russian and Irish and Jewish. Apparently I look everything but those things and so it always becomes a longer conversation than I necessarily want to have. Such is the life of being an Irish, Russian Jew with long, dark, wavy hair and a good tan. At some point the dude sitting at the bar who had not just come from work and was therefore significantly less sober than I was asked me if it was my mother or father that was Jewish. I knew exactly where this line of questioning was leading and so I said what I always do:

My mom converted to Judaism before my older brother was born.

“Well,” he said, “then according to Jewish law you’re not actually Jewish.”


This happens more often than you might think and it drives me up a fucking wall. The first thing is that I identify much more closely with my Judaism than with the fact that my long ago ancestors came to the United States from Ireland and Russia. I have never been to either of those places, I do not speak Russian or Gaelic, I know virtually nothing about the history of either of those countries outside of potatoes and the crumbling of the Soviet Union (okay I might know a little more than just that but for sake of argument let’s go with it), and my name is Rebekah Esther. Rebekah Esther, for crying out loud! That shit is no joke! It’s double Old Testament! Also, I was Bat Mitzvah’d. I always try to ask the people who try and take my identity from me, whether or not they were Bar or Bat Mitzvah’d. The answer is usually no. I don’t know what that means exactly but it means something. Maybe they feel not so Jewish and so they’re like, whatever, that bitch’s mom wasn’t born Jewish so she is even less a Jew than I am!

On a more serious note, though, this plays into the world of identity politics. Listen, I know that I live in New York City and that some people call it Jew York City. We are everywhere. I am safe here. How I identify religiously and ethnically, because I think of Judaism as being more than a religion, does not put me in danger. But how dare someone try and take my identity from me. How dare they tell me that the way that I think of myself, the way that I go through the world, is actually technically not correct. I am not co-opting something that I have no right to co-opt. I was raised by two Jewish parents. I went to Hebrew School. I recited from the Torah at my synagogue. No, I am not the most religious kid in town but I take pride in my background. It is something that, in whatever way, has shaped the person that I am and the ways in which I go through the world. Do not take that from me.

And then it got me thinking just in the bigger sense: what right does anyone have to take someone’s identity from them? I have friends who do not identify within the gender binary and that, in many places (New York City included) is not always safe. But they do it because it is how they think of themselves and how they interact with the world around them. It is not a choice, it is a matter of fact and it is really nobody’s right or business to question that. And I have friends who are biracial who have people tell them that how they identify, how they were raised, who there parents are does not matter because they don’t look or sound or act black or white or Asian or whatever. As if there is one way to look or sound or act. And it’s like, fuck, how presumptuous some people are. And how violent it is to tell someone who they are because you think that it is your right or responsibility or something. My Jewishness is not any less valid because my mother was raised as an Irish Catholic (sort of). She converted because she liked the inclusiveness of Judaism and the fluidity of it. She chose to be Jewish and she and my father chose to raise us in a (some what) Jewish household. My Judaism matters to me so, drunk dude at the bar at 4:15, don’t act like you have any power over it or me.

Instead of all of that, though, I just looked at him, rolled my eyes and said, as my friend Ben would,

Mind your business.

And maybe we should all just do that more. We should all just mind our business. We should mind our business about other people’s religion, race, gender identity, weight, ability, and everything else. People navigate the world with a specific level or engagement with their past. Not only with their personal lived experience but the experience of those in their family who came before. And no one has the right to question that. Especially at a bar, after 4am, when you have no fucking clue what you’re on about. It’s rude. And I do not appreciate rude.

One Response to “You’re Not Actually Jewish”

  1. Scott Frank August 19, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    Busted by your best friend: That’s what happened to my daughter when she joined a friend at the Chabad in Venice, CA. They were both maybe 7, or 6, I’m not sure, but out came my daughter’s blond and blue eyed friend Rai (daughter of a Wasp father and Jewish mother) with the truth about Kael’s mother….”Kael’s mother isn’t Jewish…” I received a call that day from the pimply faced abbot (or whatever Chabad calls them), whose name was dunny… And he sounded just like a dunny (sorry cousin Dunny, (who quite intelligently now uses Danial instead)). Your daughter can’t come to the Chabad Summer camp because she’s not Jewish. This was the clarion call of the Dancing Rabbi whom I met on the plane some months later and to whom I told this story…”Oh, isn’t it better that she know now?” Fucker.

    Okay, dunny (with a small “d” because your “d” is soooo small), you’re denied the presence of my beautiful and loving daughter and another Summer camp solution will be found, which it was and so goodbye. Rebekah, bless you, Jew, no Jew, JewBU, which is what I consider myself or no JewBu. Bless you. Scott

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: