Yes, I grew up in an interfaith house. Yes, we had a Christmas tree. And yes, I made aliyah. And yes, I know what that means for my status in Israel.
Two weeks ago Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote an editorial entitled “The Real Jew Debate.” The article asked who is a Jew when it comes to support for Israel. Who is a real Jew? Upon reading the article for the first time I felt tinged with anger. How could he link whether or not you support Israel to the issue of who is a real Jew? That manifestation of the question does not ask who is a real Jew, but rather, what is expected of a real Jew. I recognize the issues framed in the article but it by no means deserves the title of “The Real Jew Debate.” The “Real Jew Debate” begs the question of who is a Jew. So let’s have it out – the question of who is a real Jew in Israel applies to how we, the members of a Jewish state, define a Jew on a larger level.
While my anger over the word choice started to dissipate, the Christmas season here in Israel brought it to the surface again. I celebrated Christmas growing up. It is part of my repertoire of childhood memories. I will not give that memory up because I have chosen to live in Israel.
The Christian side of my upbringing has made its way into many conversations recently (even though I identify as Jewish and actively practice Judaism.) To not understand how it affects me would imply that I missed every glaring caution light during my aliyah.
At every step of my aliyah process my Jewishness was challenged. When being interviewed for aliyah approval I was asked: “Are you going to convert?” The implications abounded; no one is going to consider you Jewish. You should have an Orthodox conversion. Two months later while on my aliyah flight, the Israeli government official processing papers and the Nefesh B’Nefesh representative got in a not-so-discreet argument over whether or not I was Jewish. Needless to say, by the time I arrived I fully understood it would be a customary part of my life in Israel.
Make us feel welcome
Recently, there have been many articles delineating the obstacles placed in front of children born to interfaith parents who live in Israel. I understand the obstacles. I sympathize with them. At the same time, to think that the issue will disappear when you get to Israel is naïve. I would love for laws to change. I would love to find a way for my Judaism to be recognized, but more than that I would like people to not treat me like an anomaly.
People from interfaith marriages make aliyah and live Jewish lives. And let me say, it takes a lot of devotion to Israel to stay in a country where people do not recognize the way you identify yourself. I respect the religious halachic belief that I am not Jewish. I will not ask anyone to change his or her belief because it works against me. I prefer that you do not impose your beliefs on my life. In return I will try not to impose on yours.
What we need to do is to recognize that people choose to make aliyah and make a life here from interfaith backgrounds. We come not out of necessity but out of a dedication to Israel. We identify as part of the Jewish community. So when we frame discussions of conversion, increasing rates of interfaith marriage abroad, who makes aliyah, and more importantly who is part of the Jewish community I ask please grant us recognition. If we are so concerned with interfaith marriages abroad, shouldn’t we try to make the people who choose a Jewish life feel welcome?
While I recognize that it is a complicated issue, please grant us recognition and bring our “type” into the larger equation. Remember that we are here. Talk about us when creating conversion bills. Let us deal with who is a Jew in full. Roger Cohen, here in Israel we need to deal with whom we recognize as part of the Jewish people before we start applying the title of who is a Jew to questions that really relate to expectations. Let us deal with our communal definitions before we deal with what we expect of our members. Give us that.
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