As someone who grew up in a suburb of Boston, I never felt a lack of Judaism in my life. Although I was never religious, I was raised believing that being Jewish was important to my identity. Many of my family friends were Jewish, we spoke Hebrew and celebrated holidays together. Eating a sufganyah from a local bakery around Chanukah time or sitting down for the Passover Seder were essential parts of my life growing up. Public schools in my town even had vacation on Jewish holidays because so many people were Jewish. But as I came to Georgia Tech, I realized that many people do not know anything about Judaism and malign Judaism as an evil entity without trying to understand what it is. For example, in my English class, I shared with someone that I am pledging at the Jewish Frat. His first question was, “Oh, are you Jewish?” which was followed up with, “Are you a Zionist?” and then, “How do you feel about dead children?”
There are about fifteen million Jews worldwide, a majority living in either the United States or Israel. Jews comprise about 0.2% of the population and 2% of the American population. Most people in the world will go throughout their life never meeting a Jew. Even though Jews are such a small percentage of the population, many people have different perceptions of what being a Jewish person is. Someone who lives in New York and whose neighbor is Jewish will have a drastically different perception of Jews than someone in a rural area in Alabama.
One of the best-case scenarios for someone who has never met a Jew is what they have learned from popular media. Some people might be introduced to Judaism through TV shows and characters like Ross Geller from Friends. There are others, like Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Schmidt from New Girl. All these characters are Ashkenazi which narrows Jewish representation, but at least they don’t portray Jews in a harmful way.
However, there's a much higher chance people are introduced to Jews in an antagonistic manner, leading to antisemitism. For some people, the first thing they hear about Jews is that the Jews murdered Jesus. Many younger people are introduced to Jews through social media, where conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world and committing atrocities run rampant. So at best, people know about Jews through a tokenized Ashkenazi lens, or they learn about Jews through an antisemitic conspiracy lens. Not a good look.
So what is a Jew? That is almost impossible to answer. Some Jews are practicing, and some are not. Some speak Hebrew, but some don’t. But Jews come from every corner of the Earth, speak many different languages, and although they share a common religion, they have created traditions specific to their regions.
These differences in Jewish traditions are part of what makes Judaism so amazing, and yet they are rarely seen in American Jewish communities, much less greater American society. For example, there is the Maghrebi Jewish tradition of Mimouna. Delicious food such as Moufletas, a Moroccan pancake, and stuffed Medjool dates are served to guests wearing their nicest clothes. Ethiopian Jews have the holiday of Sigd. The Ethiopian Jewish community marks the renewal of the Jewish people's covenant with God, and many Ethiopian Jews go to Jerusalem to celebrate.
Being Jewish is more than just the language you speak or where you were born. It's more than just Ross Geller or the Orthodox Jew from Crown Heights. Judaism is a diverse and beautiful religion, and hopefully, future representation will reflect that.