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!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • 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.