Question: I am a Christian college student dating a Jewish guy. When I was in high school, my friends and I regarded Jews as a race. We were not as aware of the religious traditions. Now, I’m in college, and my friends attend services and there are several who look like different races. I am completely confused. Are Jews a religion or a race? And either way, will I ever be accepted if my boyfriend and I decide to marry?
Answer: We, Jews, are a confusing bunch. We are many races, many nationalities and many religious beliefs. Sometimes, this works to our benefit in that we feel like a global brotherhood. Other times, we are accused as part of an international cabal. It is both our strength and our weakness.
Complicating all this is that now we have a Jewish homeland, Israel. Some Jews feel very connected to the land while also feeling loyalty to their home country; we are often accused of having conflicting allegiances. Again, this has worked to our benefit and our detriment. Many Jews take great pride in the accomplishments of Israel. On the other hand, many Jews feel alienated and upset by some of the current Israeli policies concerning the Palestinians.
Most Jews believe that Jews should have a right to self-determination and their own land. It gives some Jews a tremendous sense of security. If history repeats itself with another anti-Semitic uprising, as happened when Jews were persecuted in Babylon, during the Crusades and in Nazi-era Europe, we have somewhere to go.
Past anti-Semitism and migration patterns have led to Jews being scattered far and wide, with different groups developing their own practices and customs. Every nation has influenced Jewish practices as Jews in that country adopt some of the local music and local ways. Because of these influences, contemporary Jewish traditions – and people – can be roughly divided into “Ashkenazi” Eastern European, “Sephardi” from Spain and Portugal, and “Mizrachi” from the Middle East and North Africa. Each subset have their own customs, liturgical styles, and foods. In addition to heritage, Jews can be divided based on practice. In America, there are three main denominations, known as Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. Of course, there are also other smaller movements and different divisions within each one. As you can see, Jewish practices are quite varied!
Because Jewish history has been influenced by both ethnic prejudice and religious oppression, different Jews view their Judaism differently. Some identify as “Jews of no religion” per a 2013 Pew report, meaning that they see Judaism as cultural and ethnic heritage rather than a practice. Other Jews see it as a living religion they actively take part in, as opposed to a part of their ethnoracial identity. For many others, it is both!
You may have wanted a simple answer to your question, but you are right to be confused – I am too! It is important for you to know, however, that there are many multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious Jewish families. Many people who have formed such families find it easy to learn the daily rituals and cultural customs. However, the sense of peoplehood – with a different meaning for every person! – can still make one feel like somewhat of an outsider.
As there are always difficulties in moving from high school to college when the kids may listen to different music, may dress differently, and may have different philosophies of life, there are difficulties when entering a new family. You might not get their inside jokes and references. The families who successfully welcome others do so by explaining the inside jokes, the history, and the sensitivity. Entering another culture is always hard. I would urge you to be curious and find someone you can honestly ask questions to.
Remember, your partner will also feel like an outsider in your family, so you can model inclusive behaviors by explaining the subtle details of you family, customs, and in-jokes. I suggest you show curiosity and the willingness to learn. You may not ever feel entirely comfortable in the culture of your new family, but you will feel less strange if you learn as much as you can. Of course, it’s also on the community and the family to be open to your efforts to learn. Even if you do not end up marrying this boy, you will be enriched by learning about another culture!
Though parents in America have little say in the decisions of married children, they can create a fertile climate for including newcomers into their families and their customs. For some people, it takes many years, many good years, and many crises to be part of a spouse’s family. It’s wise not to confuse the difficulties we all have in joining a new clan with being excluded.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.