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When a Child Asks ‘Are You Jewish?’

An interesting new post on the New York City Mom’s Blog, here, explores a mother’s feelings about her 4-year-old daughter asking people, “Are you Jewish?”

Of course the little girl has lots of company – shout out Lubavitchers! – who apparently find my Brooklyn neighborhood fertile territory for fishing for Jews. So many young Chabadniks have in recent years blanketed Prospect Heights and Park Slope around Rosh Hashana and Sukkot, trying to get Jews to hear the shofar being blown and to bless and shake the lulav, that it’s been turning off even those locals who don’t generally mind their assertive approach to outreach. (How many times in a day can one person reasonably be expected to answer “Are you Jewish?” before losing their patience?)

But a 4-year-old asking the same question is a different kettle of gefilte fish.

Kosher Mommy Blogger, as she calls herself, is concerned that her non-observant relatives (she and her husband are the only religious ones in their families) will be offended when her little girl pipes up with the question that she worries could be incendiary.

The little girl must be KMB’s first child, because anyone who’s parented a 3- or 4-year-old knows that they are wont to pepper everyone around them with questions like these. They’re waking up to the fact that there is a world beyond mommy and daddy, and trying to figure out what is part of “their” world and what isn’t.

KMB is worried about offending her relatives. As the mother of three inquisitive children myself, I remember when they were that age and asking almost everyone they met the same question. Occasionally I’d feel the need to step in to try to smooth over what I thought was an awkward moment but usually, whether the person my son or daughter was asking was Jewish or not, I’d just let them answer it however they wanted.

KMB writes:

it is still awkward when she blurts out these questions to my own family members (just the other day she asked if her grandparents were Jewish, oy vey).

She also writes:

Will my four year old understand this concept and stop questioning the religious beliefs of our friends and family?

But KMB has it wrong. The value judgments aren’t there in her daughter’s innocent question. Instead, they’re in her mother’s mind. KMB is presuming that her non-observant relatives are going to regard it as a judgmental question, probably because KMB is worried about being viewed by them as judgmental herself.

In our family, where we run the gamut of Jewish identification and practice from my husband’s large, entirely haredi family to my own smaller iteration, where some relatives observe Jewish tradition but others enjoy their bacon cheeseburgers, I’ve had plenty of chances to explain and discuss with my kids that there are many ways that people relate to being Jewish.

At the same time, more than once I’ve been on the receiving end of similar comments and assumptions that feel freighted with judgment.

I was recently on the phone with my mother in law who said, of my 15-year-old son, Boychik, that she thinks that “one day he’s going to really keep kosher.”

Thing is, he already does.

Our home is kosher, and my MIL knows this – though of course she doesn’t trust our observance, so my husband’s family will eat only eat chips or pretzels served on a paper plate and seltzer from paper cups (and they like to be able to check the hecksher on the bag). I find it slightly amusing.

What did bother me, though, was the suggestion that Boychik was “not really” kosher. He is a serious vegetarian, which my MIL knows, so at home and out, there should be no question that he is keeping kosher.

My MIL’s comment pushed my buttons. I took a deep breath and reminded her that he does keep kosher. She responded that she thinks that one day he’ll be religious.

Thing is, he already is. Spiritual and engaged with Judaism, deeply devoted and proud of being a Jew, he wears a kippah and tzit tzit out, enthusiastically participates in a Hebrew high school and a Jewish chorus. He was hired by a large Conservative shul to be a cantor for the High Holy Days. I mean, the kid could not be a more Jewy Jew!

But for my MIL, because he’s not living the way she does, he’s not “really” religious.

After tremendous effort to keep my tone pleasant, I told her that her comments were hurtful, and she said she really did not mean them that way. She apologized, and that diffused the moment.

It’s interesting, though. When I’ve been with liberal Jewish friends like myself in the haredi precincts of the Catskills or Boro Park, my friends have voiced their impression that they’re being silently judged for “not really being Jewish” by the hasidim around us. Despite experiences like the one mentioned above, I don’t generally think that’s true. I’ve had countless positive experiences with haredi Jews who don’t treat me with any disrespect simply because I’m not like them, and this is what I tell my friends.

I did find it amusing, however, when recently in an Orthodox Jewish bookstore I was asking the clerk for a particular sefer which I am using in my study of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah. This cheerfully friendly young man, with a patchy beard and curled peyes bouncing to his shoulders, said they didn’t have it. I had previously bought another volume of the same work at the store, so I knew they did. When I offered that it’s a Hebrew sefer, he said “oh, I thought you were looking for it in English.” Surely he assumed that I wouldn’t be looking for an all-Hebrew book of Torah because I am a woman, all the more because I was wearing jeans and a tee shirt.

So I guess I can understand Kosher Mommy Blogger’s worry that her non-frum relatives will hear her little daughter’s innocent question, “Are you Jewish?” as coming from a place of judgment even when it’s not.

Then again, perhaps the girl is just warming up for a future doing outreach for Chabad.

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