Becoming Jewish: The Half of It
My first experience with Jewish culture didn’t come from my Jewish father.
It happened in ninth grade when one of the teachers invited my class to make latkes with her class in honor of Hanukkah. I had no idea what Hanukkah was, and when I found out it was an iconic Jewish holiday, I was shocked. I felt guilty as I stared at the huge Hanukkah poster taped to her classroom window and the bowl of grated potatoes on the counter for the latkes. It felt wrong that the first time I ever became exposed to Jewish tradition was not with my Jewish family.
I was not raised Jewish, as my dad had distanced himself from religion, and there were few resources to expose me to Judaism where I grew up, in China. The only things I knew about being Jewish came from the stereotypes that Chinese family friends told me.
Once, I got an unusually high score on a math test. The mom of one of my friends found out about my score and told me at a parent-teacher conference, “It’s because you’re Youtairen (Jewish). Youtairen are just really smart and good at money things.”
I didn’t have a chance to understand my Jewish identity on my own terms before others imposed their biases and stereotypes onto me.
Getting involved with Jewish spaces at UC Berkeley was my first serious attempt at “discovering” my Jewish heritage. I figured if this was an identity that people continuously expected me to have because of my looks or last name, I may as well reclaim it for myself. I thought I would feel out of place because I was half Asian or because I wasn’t raised Jewish. But at Berkeley Hillel, I was warmly welcomed, to my surprise, by a fellow mixed-race Jew of color.
Hillel’s social justice fellow, Matt, is mixed Ashkenazi Jewish and Mexican. In our conversations, he always acknowledged all of my intersecting identities and taught me about Jewish traditions without judging me for not knowing them in the first place. He assured me that Jews were not all white and that I deserved to claim my Jewishness just as much as a “full-blooded” Jew. Every time I felt uncomfortable or weird about being in Jewish spaces, he reminded me that someone who shared my experiences was present and in leadership.
The Jews of Color Collective, which Matt founded with another Jew of color, created a space in which I could be acknowledged as Jewish and as a person of color at the same time. I felt validated as some of us stumbled through Shabbat prayers together and folx shared how they struggled with reconciling the distinct religious affiliations of their two parents. I realized that other Jews also felt an internalized uneasiness about stepping into Jewish spaces because of not being “Jewish enough.” For the first time in a space dedicated to one of my cultures, I felt like my mixed background didn’t diminish the validity of my cultural identity.
Meeting other Jews of color also made me realize my own privilege within Jewish spaces. One of my friends was approached countless times while attending events at Hillel with “Are you Jewish?” Once, she even overheard a white Jewish womxn telling her friend, “I saw an Asian lady buying challah at the store, does she even know what it is?”
Her own Asian mother buys challah every week.
Another friend, a Black womxn, attended freshman retreat with Hillel. At this retreat, a white womxn smirked at her and asked her judgmentally, “Why are you here?”
I personally have not been asked to prove my Jewish identity. On the contrary, people often assume I am Jewish.
Once, my friend brought up in casual conversation that her ex-boyfriend had immediately thought I was Jewish because of my last name. The second a Jewish person sees “Slosberg,” they conclude that one of my parents must be Jewish.
I am still struggling to claim my Jewishness, though. I am fully aware of the fact that many orthodox and conservative Jews will reject me because of my lack of Jewish heritage from my mom’s side. I internalize the idea that I am “not Jewish enough,” thinking that to be Jewish, I must have been raised with Jewish culture and adhere strictly to all religious practices. And I sometimes dismissively tell people, “I’m not that Jewish.”
Coming to terms with a cultural and religious identity is a long process, but I’m determined not to let anyone else’s perception of Jewishness dictate how I define my Judaism.
Genevieve Xia Ye Slosberg writes the Monday column on being a mixed-race womxn in China and the United States. Contact her at email@example.com.