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Whose Tribe Is It, Anyway?

Last Tuesday I heard this fascinating episode of Code Switch, an NPR podcast “cover[ing] race, ethnicity and culture.” For this round, they looked at the place that Jews occupy in America’s odd definitions of all those things. Ultimately, it…

…wasn’t totally off base. They narrated the American Jewish experience of becoming White clearly, accurately, and charitably: as a combination of White society’s whims, and of the desire (or need) to reap the benefits of Whiteness. This meshes well with the shockingly-civil social media debates I’ve gotten into with fellow Jews about our racial identity. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that light-skinned Jews get White privilege no matter how they personally feel about it.

But before the epic success of that discussion, the episode tries to characterize Jewish identity independently of American race politics. To explain how we define ourselves. And totally flubs it.

They try! They bring on their resident Jew, Leah Gershenfeld Donnella, to present large chunks of the program material. Both by her words and by her undeniable Blackness, she makes clear to everyone that It’s Complicated. (Code Switch host Shireen Meraji says “it should be the show’s subtitle—Code Switch: It’s Complicated.”) And yet they fail almost as soon as they start:

MERAJI: All right, so we’ve answered the question, everybody. Jews are a religious group, not their own ethnicity or race.

[Gene] DEMBY: Problem solved. Well, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. OK. OK. If you take a DNA test, though, it will tell you what percentage Jewish you are. So it sounds like there’s at least some ethnic component to being Jewish.

Blink and you might miss it—amid the charming self-deprecation there’s a conflation of “race/genetics” and “ethnicity,” and a related dichotomy between racial and religious identity. When combined with the (very true) observation that race as an identity category is new, this leaves them at a loss to understand the deep roots of non-religious Jewish identity. Even when their (Jewish) sources bring up concepts like “tradition or identification,” or mention “speaking Hebrew” as a marker of Jewish identity, the hosts never seem to notice or to fit these ideas into their narrative. They talk about the meaning of 23andme, but not of Yiddish revivalism, secular Diasporic Zionism, or hipster gastropubs’ chopped liver. (I have tasted of all these things, and the last is the most satisfying.)

It’s not all guesswork. We have the numbers (thanks, Pew), we know what we think of us. A large minority of Jews (especially young ones) say they’re “Jews of no religion.” Most Jews say being Jewish is about ancestry and culture, not religion; even most Ultra-Orthodox Jews say it’s not just religion.

So definitely not just a religious group. But not “just” anything else— the main impression is of an imagined community whose members disagree about what exactly they’re imagining. How very Jewish. And useless. There’s only one traditional solution to this conundrum—smartass Jews torturously justifying their preconceived notions. I’ll go first!

My tack is to think about that most bitterly-contested of questions: Who is a Jew? Not with the intent of answering it, but to observe the points where it’s uncomfortable. Controversial.

Someone who’s born in a practicing Jewish household and practices Judaism is clearly Jewish. And if they’re non-practicing atheists? Probably Jewish, even if some say they’re Bad Jews. And if instead of atheists they become Lutherans? Ooooh. Much less comfortable. What about Buddhists? Slightly better (judging by the way my father’s voice would communicate ridicule rather than pain).

And if someone who’s not Jewish just starts calling themselves Jewish? Probably not. But if they start studying Hebrew? Going to services? Beginning the conversion process? The line’s blurry, but every Jew has some point at which they start chanting “one of us!”

So, a group that you can be in by ancestry; with initiation rites and customs that you’re supposed to follow, but don’t lose membership by shirking; that you may be kicked out of for adopting another group’s ways, depending on how much bad blood there is; and that you’re formally adopted into by practicing said rites and customs and being recognized by the community. You know what this sounds like? Someone at Code Switch knew. They did, after all, call the episode, with head-scratching earnestness, “Members of Whose Tribe?”

Image via Pixabay.

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