Am I “Jewish-ish”, or am I just questioning?

What does it mean to be Jewish? Is it a religion, a people, a culture? To some it’s a choice; to others, born as Jews, it’s who we are even if we haven’t had much of a Jewish upbringing.

I’ve heard references to being Jewish-ish, which I assume means not being very observant or kosher, yet hailing from Jewish stock. Perhaps a Jewish-ish home smells like fried latkes every December, and underneath the aroma wafts the scent of evergreen from wreaths or pine branches. But that’s just a guess – you can’t find the word in the dictionary.

As for me, Jewish-ish is not the answer I give when asked about my Jewishness. I respond the way I did in college when faced with that universal icebreaker: “So, what’s your major?”

I say that I’m not sure yet; I’m exploring options. I changed my declared major so many times I made the records office secretary dizzy. I wanted to be a writer, a teacher, a psychologist, an historian – there was so much to learn and discover, just too many choices. This is much like how I feel now in my attempt to figure out just what being Jewish means to me.

I validate my indecisiveness with this tidbit: In Judaism, questioning is not just encouraged, but central to the tradition. Thankfully, no one’s forcing me to hurry up and decide just what kind of Jew I am.

But I wonder: Is there such a thing as being not Jewish enough?

If you look at my father, he is indeed, as definition would have it, a Jew. Born to Russian Jews, he married a Jewish girl, and his Hebrew first name and common (though uncommonly spelled) last name screams, “This is a Jewish man!”

But, assumptions aside, is he? He’s not now, and never has been observant. He doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew, although he does know the translation of his first name. And he asked my mother last year if Purim was that holiday with the matzah. He is a Jew by birthright, but what he does and does not do with that Jewishness is entirely up to him.

And it’s up to me too, now that I’m a grown-up and make my own decisions. So, I continue to question: Will I do what’s easy and comfortable and settle back into the secularism of my upbringing, or will I run wholeheartedly into a deeper affiliation or end up somewhere in between? Sometimes I wish it were an easier answer and that I knew for sure what lies ahead.

Since I don’t have the luxury of slipping into the Judaism of my family or that of my husband’s (he was raised a Catholic, but supports my desire to raise our daughter in the tradition of my ancestors), I’ve had to find the path on my own. And sometimes that means feeling alone among those who are more immersed in both their own Jewishness and their affiliations with an organized community.

It’s nice to be reminded once in awhile that I have company. A Hebrew school mom tells me that even though she looks Jewish and has a Jewish last name, “as a secular assimilated Jew, I don’t know much beyond dreidel, Manischewitz and my mother’s kugel recipe.”

I nod in understanding, even though I can’t recall my mother making kugel. “My daughter asks about tikkun olam,” she continues, “and it’s not a phrase I understand.”

I stop nodding and begin to tell her what it means – repairing the world, doing social justice – because I now know from experiencing it. I’ve been part of Oakland congregations that donate food for the needy and restore wetlands.

I tell her I was in her shoes only a few years ago. I can’t recite the entire alef-bet, but I’m able to decipher the words “Shabbat” and “matzah” in my daughter’s Hebrew workbook, and that’s a start. As I share my knowledge out loud, I start to feel much better about what I do know instead of feeling deficient about what I don’t.

And even though I can’t articulate yet how Jewish I really am, I think I’m beginning to understand that it might not matter. I’m part of the tribe, even if I’m not exactly sure where I’m wandering.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at


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