Religion & Beliefs

New York Is My Israel

Others say, Law is our Fate; Others say, Law is our State; Others say, others say Law is no more, Law has gone away. And always the loud angry crowd, Very angry and very loud, Law is We, And always … Read More

By / November 3, 2009

Others say, Law is our Fate; Others say, Law is our State; Others say, others say Law is no more, Law has gone away. And always the loud angry crowd, Very angry and very loud, Law is We, And always the soft idiot softly Me.

– W.H. Auden, "Law Like Love"

This summer, I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in Israel. While there, I met a wide variety of Israelis, from the descendants of Palmach fighters to the recent immigrants. So often, people told me how grateful they were for the existence of a Jewish state – even if they lived elsewhere in the world, they were comforted by the knowledge that there was a place where any Jew could go to escape persecution and be welcomed immediately. On one level, I agree with this – although I’m fortunate enough not to have lost any relatives in the Shoah, I grew up in a place where it was not always safe or prudent to acknowledge being Jewish in public. Yet, as much as I started to become enamored with the country and the people of Israel, one thing kept me from loving it completely – the knowledge that, if I did want to move there, I probably wouldn’t be welcome. As those of you who have read my previous writing on Jewcy know, I’m the product of an interfaith marriage, and my Jewish parent is my father. That’s immediately a problem for many Jews, who believe I should convert and that Jewishness can only be inherited via one’s mother. Luckily, the services I attend are Reform ones, and the Reform movement accepts patrilineal descent. I’ve also had the opportunity to study with rabbis whose primary concern is that I want to learn more about my faith, not about what my dad thinks or whether he had a bar mitzvah.

In America, in the capital of American Jewry, I’ve found a place where I can be the exact kind of Jew I want to be. In Israel? If I tried to move there I’d probably be turned away at the door like a boatful of pilgrims ordered by the British troops not to enter Palestine. The Orthodox ruling class of rabbis would want no part of a girl who doesn’t have a Jewish mother and didn’t go through a conversion (and, if I did go through one, it wouldn’t be Orthodox, and therefore wouldn’t "count"). My problem with the Jewish state is that, well, it’s a state. That means that Israel has to have the necessary elements of a nation, like a national governing body. And when that governing body allows certain rabbis to make rules about who is and isn’t a Jew, it takes things out of the realm of personal preference and into the books of laws. Why should I donate money or exert political influence for a country that probably wouldn’t let me become a citizen? [Author's Note: For more details on how Israel classifies people from interfaith backgrounds, please read this post by Robin Margolis.]

New York is my Israel. Here, there’s no litmus test for what makes a Jew – sure, we argue about it, and each denomination has its own definition, but there are enough synagogues and independent minyans to choose from that everyone is bound to find a place they like. For every person who has sniffed and deemed me an irredeemable Gentile, there are two or three who accept me just as I am. It’s not about who my family members are or whether they believe in Judaism; it’s not about what some rabbi somewhere has decreed. The same people decrying the end of the Jewish people and the death of our culture are often the same ones refusing to allow admittance to anyone who does not meet their exacting standard of Jewishness.

As for me? I’ll take my own little Jerusalem, in an apartment that overlooks the East River, where the only person who cares about what defines me as a Jew is me.