Confessions of an Incidental Jew

My Jewishness doesn’t define me. It doesn't shape my existence, my choices or conduct. For me, it's entirely arbitrary.

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I'm Jewish but it doesn't define me (illustrative).
I'm Jewish but it doesn't define me (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime

My late mother-in-law approved of me. The product of a grand Scottish family, she liked to introduce me to her equally grand friends as “The marvellous Jewish gel who married my son.”

It was an introduction that provoked a variety of responses. There was the perennial British standby, “How very interesting,” meaning, of course, just the opposite, and there was the occasional query about “Your people back home in Israel.” (My ‘people’ are all in New Jersey.)

What it provoked in me was a familiar ambivalence, what I call my grey area.

Last month, my choir participated in a Holocaust memorial ceremony. We sang two Hebrew songs to honor the victims and mark the infamy of the villains – the Nazis and all who ran with them.

Never again.

After we sang, a designated member of the choir lit a candle on stage, a beacon for the liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years ago.

I was the designated candle lighter for our choir because, as it happens, I seem to be the only Jew in the group.

So, not for the first time, an identity (a Jew) and a behavior (a Jew shakily holding a taper to the wick of a candle) were assigned to me on the basis of the religion into which I happened to be born.

I’m Jewish, ancestrally, absolutely. The grey area part is the fact I do not consider it to be the or even a defining factor in my life. It does not shape my existence, my choices or conduct. For me, the fact of my Judaism is arbitrary and incidental.

Incidental, that is, until I am defined or challenged, or in any way set apart by someone on the basis of my Judaism. I find this ironic, and something of an affront to my freedom, to the inalienable right of self-creation.

There’s nothing anti-Semitic or self-hating about my stance; I don’t walk around wishing I were Episcopalian or Hindu. Rather, I walk around wishing no one was anything, wishing that religion didn’t exist, except as a force of history.

I am not a believer.

I do not believe in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Shinto, Sikhism, Rastafari, Paganism.

Ultimately, I do not believe in belief.

Spirituality, yes. The sense of something greater than us, a great and miraculous mystery, definitely. Morality, and rituals that give shape and continuity to life: I embrace all of that.

But religious strictures make me nervous. I’m wary of all codified systems of belief, with their intractable rules – the violations of which are punishable or at the very least are a source of guilt, and that seem to threaten other systems of belief. Historically, and all too often, that sense of threat snowballs into, first, group paranoia and, second, hostility toward other belief systems. The result: a religious community is transformed into an allegiance of violence. History has proved this time and time again.

The first recorded ‘official’ conflicts in the name of religion were the Sacred Wars of 595 BC, Greeks against Greeks, defending the honor of their local deities. In the 2,600 years since, there are very few eras that have not seen a – typically bloody, often genocidal - holy war of one sort or another.

In a small, personal way religious conflict directly impinged on my life. I grew up in a rural community in the States. There, the fact of my Judaism was a constant source of comment and aggression, verbal, occasionally physical: the casual anti-Semitism of small-town America. As a 9-year-old the word irony was not in my vocabulary but I lived within its meaning, doing battle on a regular basis to defend a religion that was irrelevant to me but somehow wildly provocative to others.

The grey area comes down to this: am I a Jew because I say I am, or because others say it? Either way, the decision seems out of my hands.

To paraphrase what is said about greatness: some are born to Judaism, others have it thrust upon them. With me, it’s both.

Mike Stern, originally from New York, lives in Britain. She is currently writing a novel about two generations of immigrants.

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