I almost walked out of my first college Shabbat. Not only did I miss the close Jewish community from high school, but I also remained convinced that my new peers would view me as a “fake” Jew.
Because my mother isn’t Jewish. Only my father is. I feared saying that openly would evoke chuckles from my peers, as well as staff, and automatically place me into a category of “second-class Jew,” something I’d encountered in the past. So I avoided the topic of my parents altogether.
It’s because of my non-Jewish matriarch that I realized how women in many ways are at the core of our tradition. After all, though Abraham sacrificed Isaac, it was Sarah who, after much trouble, gave birth to him.
The centrality of women, particularly via motherhood, continues today. Rabbinic Judaism, in fact, traditionally recognized only children born to Jewish mothers as Jewish. The father could not confer halachic Jewish status, only tribal affiliation.
It was only in 1983 that the Reform movement recognized patrilineal descent (Reconstructionist Judaism had gone first, in 1979), and the Conservative and Orthodox movements still do not recognize patrilineal descent as a valid means of passing on Judaism.
So where does that leave people like me?
Born in the mid-1990s, I am not part of the first generation of Jews to be the product of an interfaith union. I am, however, part of the cohort who struggles to find their place in the Jewish world today.
I remember driving home from large family holiday parties, where we decorated cookies for Santa, only to detour through the Jewish neighborhood to admire the many menorahs and grab some Chinese takeout. I was a mash-up child in an interfaith family, and who I was, and how I celebrated, was normal.
Until it wasn’t.
Seventh grade rolled around, and I attended b’nai mitzvah after b’nai mitzvah, waiting in anticipation for mine. It never came. The ritual was too one-sided, my parents told me when I asked why I wasn’t having one. To have a bat mitzvah would be choosing my father’s traditions over my mother’s.
This push and pull over my two identities continued on as a young adult.
Though many Jews from all backgrounds doubt if they’re Jewish “enough” based on practice, for myself, and for my patrilineal peers, it’s an issue of identity as much as belonging. Patrilineal Jews are welcomed in many congregations as long as they are Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or Humanist. These groups recognize our Jewish identity and welcome us as Jews — not as almost Jews or, even more insultingly, as non-Jews. Remaining in these communities are comfortable and safe.
Yet for those like myself, who have found homes in more observant communities or venture out into the non-American Jewish world, our Jewishness is always in question.
I am an enthusiastic and active Jew. I speak and read decent Hebrew. I attend synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat almost weekly and am often at Saturday services, too. I study the Torah portion each week. I studied abroad in Jerusalem during college, and I’ve even thought about becoming a rabbi.
Yet I still needed to take an extra step to prove to the wider Jewish community that I’m a Jew.
So after nearly eight years of reflection and unease over being “just” patrilineal, I decided to affirm my Jewish identity according to Jewish law. As college ticked away and the greater Jewish world followed, I wanted all doors to be open.