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Jewish litmus test

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NOVEMBER 05, 2018

Updated 7/13/21: This article has been updated to remove the photo of an individual whose personal safety was under threat.

Some of us identify primarily by our zodiac sign. Others identify most closely with their love of pizza. I cling to many identities, but I cling primarily to my Jewishness.

Although I pride myself on my self-proclaimed title of “female Larry David,” how Jewish am I really? The most I know about the kabbalah is that apparently, Madonna is a fan. The Talmud is as mysterious to me as my seventh-grade self’s fashion choices.

Even so, I announce myself as the pinnacle of Judaism — welcome all; it’s me! The modern Moses. Instead of parting the sea, I’ll part your heart. Instead of making frogs fall from the sky, I’ll shower you with love. Showcasing these ostentatious displays of cultural Judaism is much easier for me than actually knowing and understanding the religious concepts.

I’m ignorant when it comes to the true religious foundations of Judaism. I’m not an astringently practicing Jew. I experience the specific humiliation of espousing my great knowledge of all things Jewish, but not knowing the difference between the Mishnah and Gemara. There’s a ton that I’m ignorant about on the varied cultures of Judaism — there’s not one homogeneous Jewish culture, as a Sephardic Jew from Spain will have very different customs than an Ashkenazi Jew in Poland. I know little about how Jews around the world practice their individual forms of Judaism.

As a kid, going to temple served as a harbinger of dread, an arduous chore rather than a fulfilling practice. I adamantly refused to listen to an old, white guy say words in a language I didn’t understand — and finally, my parents gave up. It wasn’t for lack of trying; my mother always read me the stories of the Old Testament, and I actually loved hearing the stories about Jacob and Isaac, but who wouldn’t? Nothing is more “metal” than sacrificing your son for a voice you heard. I practiced the religion sparingly, doing the bare minimum to constitute “Jewry.” Shabbat dinners and fasting on Yom Kippur were regular rituals, but the actual intricacies and meanings of the prayers were foreign to me.

Logically, I understand that Judaism is a religion and that the word “Jewish” can indicate ethnicity. You can identify as Jewish without practicing Judaism, and your Jewish identity is just as valid. But while I can believe this of others with ease, I experience great difficulty in applying it to myself. I hold myself to different, arbitrary standards.

Maybe this is because of my personal insecurities, or perhaps it’s just because I’m a Virgo (which is obviously scientific evidence). My life has been enriched by myriad embarrassing moments in which my lack of religious knowledge was exposed. Like the time I proudly volunteered to lead the Sabbath prayer at my friend’s Shabbat dinner before realizing I knew only about 30 percent of what I thought I knew. I’m pretty sure I was just reciting “Fiddler on the Roof” lyrics by the end of it. Or that time I proudly discussed how I keep kosher without realizing what keeping kosher even meant — it’s not a hard feat when you’re vegetarian in the first place. I feel guilty, internally labeling myself a hypocrite for praising myself for being so immersed in my culture and heritage, yet not going to synagogue weekly.

I struggle to avoid invalidating my sense of Judaism when I realize the extent of what I don’t know about it. Sometimes, I think the “modern Jew” is an invention, that the distinction between Judaism as a religion and Jewish as an ethnic descriptor is a modern phenomenon. Sure, there’s an evident, distinct Jewish culture now — anybody who’s watched “Seinfeld” can confirm. But what was cultural Judaism in the past? I’m sure anthropologists can give me legitimate answers detailing the folklore, dress and songs of the Jews in the past. But a part of me projects my insecurities. I tell myself that I must engage in all the religious practices to prove that I am a Jew. I impose a self-inflicted test that I continuously fail because I can never meet my own standards. I never feel like I’m doing enough — whatever I determine “enough” to be. Maybe I’ve destined myself to failure, to proving my insecurities right and to demonstrating that my identity is a farce.

There’s a simultaneous feeling of not being Jewish enough and a shame for even having a makeshift litmus test of Judaism, a test to be Jewish enough. I’ve struggled with myself over a test that nobody has assigned me. I know I can be Jewish without being Jewish. That doesn’t make sense; let me rephrase that: I know I can be Jewish without being Jewish. Is that better?

Many people my age share the same sentiments as me. It’s difficult existing in the in-between of cultural and religious Judaism while still maintaining a “full” Jewish identity. But in the space between the two lies the grace and the struggle of identity and belonging.

Melody Niv writes the Monday blog on her experience as a Jewish and Israeli-American. Contact her at [email protected] .

JULY 13, 2021