What does it mean to be Jewish? It’s a question most Jews are faced with at some point in their lives. Despite appearing to be a simple question, it’s not. Jews are not a monolith. We don’t fit into a box. In fact, I often find myself checking off the ‘other’ box in questionnaires because nothing accurately and authentically matches who I am as a Jew. In the modern world, this can be disjointing.
We want everything to fit into a box, a desire which often leads Jews to pick one choice and ignore the rest. It is much easier to check off one box than click ‘other.’ Checking off the ‘other’ box forces us to ask ourselves who we are and explain it to the world. It is a difficult decision but an important one nonetheless.
Awareness of who we are creates a sense of pride in the Jewish people and therefore leads to the rejection of assimilation. In order for the non-Jewish world to understand the Jewish people, Jews must first be able to understand themselves and their history.
Jews are from the Middle East, which includes the land of Israel today. This recognition brings about a connection to our homeland. This is perhaps the most important aspect of understanding the Jewish people, for it is in the land of Israel that our religion, culture, and traditions were created. It is where the Jewish people became a tribe.
Some of the most accurate words to describe the Jewish people aretribe or nation. These terms encompass peoplehood for the Jewish people have a shared history, ethnicity, culture, religion and language that originates in the same land. This explains why someone born to a Jewish family doesn’t have to be religious and is still just as Jewish.
After being exiled from our land, different Diaspora communities were established. While some traditions differ between communities, the root of the culture and customs remain the same and Jews from all over the world have maintained ancient practices.
When talking about Middle Eastern communities, Jews are often left out. This is especially true for Ashkenazi Jews who are often told that their roots are entirely from Europe. However, several studies have shown Jewish people – both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi – have shared genetics that display Middle Eastern ancestry.
The misconception of Ashkenazi Jews has led the world to classify them as white. While many Ashkenazi Jews have white skin, it is a conditional privilege. White skin does not protect Jews from being the target of white supremacists nor did it save Jews in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, for they were never considered white; they were considered to be of a lesser, evil race.
The classification of Jews as white attempts to strip Jews of their indigenous roots. Yet no matter where individual Jews’ ancestry is from, these were only experiences; Jews do not originate from Europe or across the Middle East, but from the Levantine specifically.
It is challenging to explain that Jews are an indigenous and ethnic nation, with Judaism as our religion, but it is necessary. The Jewish world especially deserves to understand who we are. We deserve to live Jewishly through a Jewish lens. We deserve to understand our peoplehood without having the external world impose non-Jewish narratives upon us.
The panic that often accompanies that one seemingly simple question is valid. Jews are a beautifully complex group of people that predate many modern definitions. Rather than feel shameful for that complexity, we should feel a sense of confidence. We owe it to our ancestors – who often gave everything to keep their Jewishness – to know their history and pass it on. Being proudly Jewish today is an act of resilience that should never come with shame.