What makes a Jew

Israel has been one hell of a trip, in more ways than I thought it would. Making  use of my illiteracy in Hebrew and defining Judaism have made for some good stories for friends back home and sleepless nights in my bed below the Lebanese border. Everywhere I go, I’m amazed with what I didn’t know or understand. Why was I so in the dark?

In the U.S., most kids studying for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah are taught to read the print Hebrew alphabet, because that’s what the Torah is written in. We read the same prayers so many times practicing for that one day when everything is on us, that it becomes memorization, not mastery of a language. We only had a few hours per week in class, so a little Hebrew and a smidge of culture is all we had time for, and most American Jewish communities I’ve heard about sound similar to mine. In Sunday school, I learned about Judaism as a religion, often whatever the next holiday was became our focus, because outside the walls of my synagogue there was no Jewish life. Although some of my teachers tried to give us a look at the culture and history, it’s not easy to teach Judaism to kids that are surrounded by non-Jewish influences for the vast majority of their lives. Or maybe that was just me.
If so, what are some of those things I missed out on? Well, for one there’s that cursive alphabet, the one with the squiggly characters that make up 90 percent of the words I read in this country. There’s also the part of being Jewish aside from the spiritual connection I can’t remember ever feeling. I’m pretty sure 16-year-old Bill would have jumped at the chance to learn some of these things, but no educator managed to impress upon me the importance of understanding Judaism and Hebrew in a way that would catch my attention; it’s not a fault of the educators, Jews in America that grow up being the only Jew in school sometimes reside across impassible terrain. But there are unorthodox methods to bridge that gap.

Ben Gurion is like an Israeli Churchill, a million golden quotes  |  (CC_By_Avi1111_Wiki)

For example: Tell a 10-year-old that eggs and testicles are the same word in Hebrew – Yep (grin). Fifteen years ago that would have been just as funny as it is now, and this along with many other fun play-on-words could very well have pushed me to care about continuing my Hebrew studies. Knowing how much more badass Ben Gurion is than Batman would certainly have got me learning how to do a handstand many years earlier. Such an incredibly influential character in history with hair to make Einstein look fashionable is a great selling point too. These subjects might have brought me a step closer to caring more about Judaism and learning the language.
Sure, had I gone that route I would know efis (zero) Spanish because Hebrew would have fulfilled that ridiculous university language requirement, and I probably would have skipped American Sign Language because fluent Hebrew requires enough hand gesture to make you look fluent in sign. But, I would have a stronger connection with Judaism, which I believe would count for more than the ability to half-ass two languages. I don’t know if any of this would have made me a better person, but lately I’ve wondered what difference could have been made.
What I do know is that I recently spent Shabbat at a mifgashim seminar in Jerusalem as part of a group of 20 Israelis and 20 Masa volunteers that caused me to think about a few questions young, impressionable me would not have grasped no matter who taught it. For example: What does it mean to be Jewish, and who is a Jew? According to President Emeritus of Hillel Avraham Infeld, who spoke at the conference, being Jewish is more like being part of a family. “IT’S NOT A RELIGION” he yelled at the audience, to a few gasps, then a few laughs, followed by a few head nods (mine included).
It was easy for me to relate to, because Judaism has never been about the religion, for me. I’ve had plenty of people, Jews and not, tell me I’m not a “real” Jew because of my parentage; an Irish-Catholic father and a mother adopted at birth by a Jewish family means I’m in the grey area to some. But I’ve never identified as anything other than Jewish, and from an early age have been happy to argue with every close-minded individual that steps forward.
‘What other “religion” is as diverse, accepting and tolerant of other people and religions,’ is something I told my friends in middle school. Put on the spot, I would probably rephrase that to something like, “What other community can include people of every race, ethnicity and walk of life, as Judaism does?”

In California, I met people from around the world with whom I shared many commonalities, but I’ve never interacted regularly with many other Jews. So it was not until coming to Israel that I could meet people from around the world with whom I could share a culture, an experience and a history. What other family could I have been born into where I could boast this? This, to me, is one of the greatest aspects of being a Jew.

21 Jews, from 6 countries, of one people and one history. Masa’s Mifgashim seminar in Jerusalem, 2013. | Photo courtesy of Yael Shavit


About the Author
Bill Crotty was a 20-something guy just learnin' how to Israel. He lived in several small towns and kibbutzim across the Western Galil for a year in 2013-2014. Then in 2016 he returned to Israel, for a year of work in Jerusalem with the JDC and CIMI.