Monday, August 15, 2016

No, we are not ALL Jews by Choice

Me (and other Jews by Choice): "I am a Jew by Choice."
Jew by Birth: "We're all Jews by Choice."
Me: *cringe*

In the April 2013 issue of Sh'ma, Rabbi Justin Goldstein explained an increasingly common idea - that we are all Jews by Choice. This was not the first appearance of this sentiment and certainly not the last, but Rabbi Goldstein summarized the idea so well: "In our world, even the most stringently observant wake up each morning and make a choice, even if not a conscious choice, to be a Jew and live a Jewish life."

There is plenty of evidence to support this idea - the ease of assimilation into mainstream American culture and rising rates of intermarriage make it easier to simply stop practicing Judaism or performing Jewish culture. Maintaining a Jewish identity in a world where it is so easy not to is necessarily an active choice that we all make. I understand that sentiment and I even agree with it. But I take issue with Jews by Birth laying claim to the phrase "Jew by Choice" as a way to express this idea.

To that Jew by Birth above who says, "We are all Jews by Choice," let me say once and for all, no, we are not.

I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that when he says this, he means well. He means to include me, to say that we are the same, and I appreciate that.

But it often feels like he is erasing a need that I have in that moment. I could just introduce myself as a Jew to him and frequently I do. When I "out" myself specifically as a Jew by Choice, it is usually because it is relevant to the conversation, often as a way for me to explain a gap in my Jewish knowledge. Maybe we're talking about summer camp or Hebrew school or any of the other childhood activities for which I have no first-hand experience. Maybe we're talking about family traditions surrounding Passover or he's recalling his bar mitzvah. Maybe it's December and I'm talking about going home to be with my family for Christmas. In that moment, I need him to understand a difference between the two of us that exists because I came to Judaism later in life and he did not.

This common interaction is why I have stopped using the phrase "Jew by Choice" to describe myself, sticking instead, when need be, with the term "convert."

This is on my mind at the moment because of a series of posts that have been floating around the internet this summer about the phrase "Jew by Choice."

The first, written by a woman who converted to Judaism, appeared in Lilith Magazine in June, and chronicles the author's personal Jewish journey and distaste for the term "Jew by Choice." She argues that: "The phrase 'Jew by Choice' is meant to be affirmational, but instead erases the ambiguities of my experiences and the experiences of so many others...How can I do anything but reject a term that dichotomizes what should be a messy spectrum?"

At the end of July, Mosaic Magazine posted a response. This author (I'm not sure if he is a convert, but if I had to guess, I would say he was probably born Jewish) dislikes the term "Jew by Choice," because "the term conveys a false idea of what Judaism is about. Judaism is about a people—and no people can be a people, much less remain one, without a sure sense of itself that can in the main be provided only by birth, parenting, and belonging to a community from an early age. One can join a people only if there is a people to join—and only if one understands that choosing to join it is more than a matter of selectively identifying with some of its beliefs."

Finally, a third author who was quoted in the Mosaic piece, responded with an attempt to clarify or more fully flesh out his experience of converting to Judaism. "I became Jewish because I hold a set of convictions that I see rooted in the Jewish experience...Of course, I understand and positively appreciate that my being Jewish also connects me to a people and makes me part of a broader community."

I highly recommend reading all of these pieces in full.