Monthly Archives: August 2013

What Is A Jew?

by Amy Krakovitz,(Charlotte, NC)

With the diversity of students we have at the Consolidated High School of Jewish Studies in Charlotte, NC, I got a variety of answers to the question that I asked my 8th and 9th grade students: “What is a Jew?”

One Orthodox student adamantly claimed that a Jew was someone whose mother was Jewish. Other students, whose mothers weren’t Jewish, were equally as adamant about their own Jewish identity. The discussion that ensued was lively, animated, and expressive.

“What if you don’t believe in God,” I asked?

Some students were sure that it didn’t matter. The same Orthodox boy, however, was positive that you couldn’t be Jewish if you didn’t believe in God.

“But what if your mother is Jewish and you don’t believe in God?” I asked him.

He couldn’t answer.

“You see, it’s not that simple,” I replied.

What I wanted from them, I explained, was what they thought, not what someone else taught them.

Are you still a Jew if you don’t observe certain mitzvot? Can you be a Jew if you cheat, hurt, or even murder someone? And what is it in your soul, that essential spark, that makes you a Jew?

Underlying all the questions was my need to answer that one question: what is it that makes a Yiddishe neshama?

Here are my students’ responses:

Who is a Jew? For the past 4,000 years, we have believed that someone is Jewish according to their mother. But let me ask you something: If your mother is a lesbian, are you automatically one as well? If your mother is Democrat, can you not be a Republican? Of course not! You are whatever you believe. That’s all religion is: belief and faith.

Belief is not passed on by genes. Neither is faith. These are the result of who you are, your God-given soul. So if you like the color blue, but it’s not allowed because your mother likes red, is that something you’ll stand for? Most people say no. Yet they still say your religion is based off what your mother is.

I believe that religion is your faith in God, your personal connection with Adonai. We’re not cells that are 100% identical to the parent. The connection you have with God is yours, and yours to keep. It’s not based on your parents’ beliefs. It’s because it’s YOUR belief. – Sam Cohen, Weddington, NC (9th Grade)

A Jew is defined by his or her personal beliefs. If a person believes in the core values of Judaism, such as one God, the Torah, etc., she is defined as a Jew. It does not matter what  her parents are, although if someone is raised Jewish that may affect her values and beliefs. If someone is raised one religion, no matter how extreme, and she decides she would rather practice Judaism, then she becomes Jewish and she is entitled to Jewish rights.

You cannot inherit a religion, so you cannot say that you are automatically whatever religion your parents are, especially just your mother. You can be a Jew no matter how much or little you practice or study your religion. You do not have to go to temple every day, or cover your head, or eat kosher. A religion is defined by beliefs.

A Jew is also not defined by values. A horrible person can still claim to be Jewish, even if she doesn’t exactly follow Jewish values; she may have a different interpretation, although an outsider’s view of Judaism might be affected by her behavior.

A Jew is defined by beliefs, and can interpret the values and teachings of Judaism in her own way and still remain Jewish. — Isabelle Katz, Charlotte, NC (9th grade)

What is a Jew? Jews can be defined by many things, such as physical features, morals and a common belief in a single God. What one word can describe Judaism? Purity. In Judaism we try to keep our actions pure through the morals that are taught to us. I think that the most important part of Judaism is its moral component and the moral values we espouse. They create, define, and shape a lot of our day-to-day decisions. I do not think that Judaism is the same for everyone, but for me the one word would be “pure,” though for someone else it might be different. — Roy Kasher, Charlotte, NC (9th grade)

A Jew is not restricted by the jewelry they wear,

A Jew is not defined as someone who keeps kosher, or wears a kippah,

A Jew is not limited to having dark hair and a big nose,

A Jew is not labeled by stereotypes,

A Jew is simply a person. — Ivy Gold, Charlotte, NC (9th grade)

What is a Jew? This is a very controversial question, as it can be argued many different ways. Different people may have varying opinions as to how Judaism is defined. Some would say that religion is acquired through inheritance, and people take on the beliefs of their parents. Others would say that one’s religion is determined through actions and practices such as prayer, eating habits, or other religious rituals. In my opinion, the second group is correct. Though some may be Jews from birth and practice Judaism throughout life, others may simply hold an “empty title.” These people may identify themselves as Jewish without taking part in the values and expectations of the religion. True Jews may not follow every word of the Torah, or eat kosher, but if they stay involved and connected to God through prayer and righteous values, they can proudly and rightly call themselves Jewish. — Olivia Weidner, Charlotte, NC  (9th grade)

I was brought up by a mother who claims relation to the ancient tribe of Levi and traces her origin back to Ukrainian Jews who fled to America because of the Russian pogroms. I was brought up by a man of Christian birth, although he was given a Jewish name and circumcision; his mother urged him not to marry my mother, a Jew. But he did and he converted.

The question of “who is a Jew” brings ups the conundrum of whether Judaism is a faith or an ethnicity. I believe Judaism to be a faith. I do not believe religion can be passed down through family lines, but believe, instead, that faith is taught by the parents and passed down through tradition and not passed down through ritual. To be Jewish, you do not have to light candles on Shabbat, or go to temple. Most Fridays, I dine across from a mother whose laptop is set up and being typed on, and I lay my plate on a table covered with papers from both our lives.

Judaism is a system of belief. And belief is all that’s required to be Jewish.– Sally Parker, Waxhaw, NC (8th grade)

A Jew is a person who actively practices Judaism and holds all of the traditions of the Jewish culture. They believe in one God and practice the traditions. Judaism is a religion where people practice their faith and have a personal relationship with God.– Isaac Turtletaub, Charlotte, NC (8th grade)

Do you identify as a Jew?

Yes? You’re a Jew.

No? You’re not. — Leah Kwiatkowski, Harrisburg, NC (8th grade)

A Jew is a holy person who follows the holy teachings of God and has a connection to Jerusalem as the holy homeland of the Jewish people. Jews are required to do as God commands them. I believe Jews were the chosen ones by God and are metaphorically “the branches of God,” for they take what God showed and taught them, and they pass it on to future generations.

To be Jewish, your mother must be Jewish. If the mother isn’t Jewish, then the children can’t be Jewish unless they decide to convert.

Judaism is more of a tradition than a religion. We practice the original ways of our ancestors and bring them into our modern world.– Elliot Adler, Charlotte, NC (8th grade)

Judaism is a matrilineal chain of people connected by a shared set of beliefs, values, or communities.

Judaism is so much more than a religion: it’s an ethnicity. Judaism is a word used to describe people with a common heritage.

Jews are technically born Jewish and must be part of a long line of people to be ethnically classified as “Jewish.”

However, people convert to Judaism all the time; does this mean that they are not Jewish?   — Sam Friedman, Charlotte, NC (8th grade)

Amy Krakovitz, an instructor in “Writing for Good” at the Consolidated High School for Jewish Studies, Charlotte, NC, worked with her 8th and 9th grade students to prepare these essays for publication. They are reprinted here with the permission of the students and their parents.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

How A Jew Reads The News

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

Most people wouldn’t put Trayvon Martin and Anthony Weiner in the same sentence, yet watching the recent news coverage of the Martin trial and the new revelations about Weiner’s sexting, I’ve been deeply aware that I read the news as a Jew.  And that this is something I learned from my parents.

My parents devoured a handful of newspapers between them, and they read them with a special lens.  They were always on the lookout for news about anti-semitism, in whatever form.  That’s understandable, given that they were Holocaust survivors.

But when they read their newspapers, they were also on the lookout for Jews.  Bad Jews.  If there was any kind of crime and the accused had a Jewish name, that name would always be read aloud, with an inevitable “Oy” or some other complaint.  I knew what concerned them:  Why does it have to be a Jew? Why did this Jew have to make us look so bad?  Isn’t it hard enough being Jewish already?

News like that was “a shandeh far di goyim.”  And the lesson was very clear.  If my parents were watching the behavior of every single Jew in New York, imagine what the goyim were doing. Those goyim were the same people Philip Roth’s Portnoy says “own the world and know absolutely nothing about human boundaries and limits.”

And so the Zimmerman trial echoed for me every single time I heard his name mentioned because when the story broke about his shooting Trayvon Martin, along with revulsion about the killing, I also thought “I hope he’s not Jewish.”  As it turned out, he wasn’t.  And I should have remembered that my junior high school French teacher, an Alsatian, was named Zimmerman and had explained that it was a common last name where he grew up.

Just when the Zimmerman trial was over and the controversial verdict started being debated in the media, another story reminded me who I was and where I had come from.  Anthony Weiner was not only running again for office, he was running from himself.

In all the furor over the revelations about his sexual behavior, the question “Why?” keeps being asked, and the answers, as suggested in a recent New York Times article, have been pretty superficial: addiction, inadequacy, narcissism.  Nobody’s mentioned the obvious fact that’s he’s Jewish and that he might be suffering from internalized shame about being Jewish.  It seems improbable at first because what he’s done, both the sexting and lying about it, seems shameless, but that’s just on the surface.

Weiner has always reminded me of guys I knew in junior high and high school.  Nerdy, driven kids, they were all Jewish like me.  And like me, they grew up in a culture that sent very clear messages to Jewish men: you are not athletic, you are not handsome, you are not manly.  You are Woody Allen.  Big nose.  Big ears.  Whiny voice.  A nebbish now and always. It’s only in recent years that advertising images of men have become more “ethnic,” but in the 50s and 60s, goyish was in and ethnic was not saleable.

And so I suspect that like me, Weiner grew up with a core of unexamined shame about being Jewish, though he might never have put it that way.  His behavior makes his doubts about his masculinity pretty obvious. Think of Weiner sending women pictures of himself.  That’s justifiable pride in one sense, but it also evinces profound insecurity and a response to internalized stereotypes of Jewish men as not being well-endowed.  And look how he posed his body for his camera.  All that showing off his muscles seems like an obvious response to intense body shame. Not a healthy one, no, but sadly understandable.

Nobody I’m aware of has published about the possible Jewish angle to this story, and that too is understandable.  It’s too embarrassing to explore. The renowned psychologist Gershen Kaufman has called shame a sickness of the soul, a wound that feels beyond healing because there is shame about shame.

Sexting is the mask Weiner shows the world, simultaneously hiding and expressing his secret shame.  Reading the news about him, I’ve both been ashamed for him, and aware of the ways in which my own shame has shaped my life.  That’s why when I see outraged pundits claiming they can’t remotely understand how Weiner could behave as he has, I wonder what they’re hiding, what nerve he’s touched.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty-four books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at where you can also read his blog on writing and publishing.  His most recent Jewish-themed novel is set in The Gilded Age: Rosedale in Love.  He currently teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity