What Defines Us as Jews? Actions — Not Ancestry.

Editor's Notebook

josh nathan-kazis

By Jane Eisner

Published January 29, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

One of my daughters recently suggested that I investigate whether I’m eligible for British citizenship. It’s not a far-fetched notion. My mother was born in England, and so were her mother, and her mother, and her mother, and probably her mother. There’s a cemetery in Leeds where many of these women are buried; my mother may well have been there, too, had she not immigrated to America after World War II.

When I lived in London as a foreign correspondent two decades ago, the possibility of being a British citizen never occurred to me. But now that there’s a European Union, offering tantalizing access across the continent, and now that some European countries are smelling the economic advantages of handing out passports to foreigners with a bit of local blood, suddenly it’s a possibility.

But much as I adore everything British — even my dogs are named for Jane Austen characters — I have no interest in obtaining a passport from Her Majesty’s Government. It’s not my country. And it’s not my tribe.

To paraphrase what Josh Nathan-Kazis says he learned from his exploration of his Sephardic heritage: Blood is sometimes fiction.

Josh’s extraordinary story, which you can read here, began with his own quest for a passport and ended with the realization that his claim to Sephardic ancestry was tenuous at very best. His blood claim, that is. The more powerful and legitimate connection is that which his family has chosen to maintain over the centuries.

There’s a lesson here. This fraught dynamic of identity — are we a tribe or a religion? — is a central tension in Jewish life today. For centuries and in many places around the world, the dichotomy didn’t exist because we were not either, we were both, not of our own choosing but because the outside world saw blood and religion as intertwined.

Today it’s not so simple. In Israel, the dominant association is tribal, as it should be in a nation-state. Secular Israelis are bound by nationality, culture, loyalty, their peculiar anxieties — with religion playing little or no role. Even the “law of return” privileges the tribe, which is why you see the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate so assiduously raising the gates to entry and others wondering about the morality of basing an immigration policy on bloodlines.

But we can’t purely be a tribe because we can, and should, accept converts. And we can’t purely be a tribe — perhaps “people” is a more palatable term —because that is not, in my view, a sustainable option.

We didn’t need the Pew Research Center survey to tell us how tribal identity alone wilts in an open society like 21st century America, but now we have the data to prove it. Those who identify as “Jews of no religion” have little connection with the Jewish people, however that is defined. They may have been born Jewish, but they don’t act Jewish, and over time, the bloodline will only dissipate. It’s by our behaviors and our beliefs that we sustain a living Judaism.

That, to me, was the searing message of Josh’s story. At the end of his entertaining, exhausting, illuminating journey, he realized that he is Sephardic not because of a difficult-to-prove blood connection to someone living centuries ago, but because he and his family have chosen to maintain their allegiance to and support of a stream of Jewry today. It’s what they do, not who their ancestors may have been, that truly defines them.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.