Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

What Defines Us as Jews? Actions — Not Ancestry.

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.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.