How I Discovered I Was Jewish
Growing up, I was unaware of my Jewish heritage. My mother converted to Christianity before she married my father, and she actively hid our Jewish roots from my sister and me. Considering that all our relatives on her side of the family are unambiguously Jewish, this was no simple task, and as we grew older we became suspicious. But when we asked, our mother explained that the rest of the family had converted to Judaism when she was in college. This seemed a bit suspect, but having no more than a general knowledge of Judaism, we figured it was just like any other religion that people join and leave easily.
My first real clue came when I was 17 and visiting my Orthodox cousins. They kept trying to convince me that I was Jewish, and I kept denying it. The conversation went something like this:
“No, I’m not. I don’t believe in G‑d.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re Jewish because your mother is Jewish.”
“But my mother isn’t Jewish, she’s Christian.”
“Your mother is Jewish because her mother is Jewish, and that makes you Jewish.”
This is the point where the wheels really started turning for me—the realization that Jewishness is hereditary through the mother, and the understanding that people don’t generally convert to Judaism casually, especially not entire extended families.
Four years later, my uncle came to visit me in Santa Cruz, where I was studying. This was the first time I had met with him one-on-one as an adult, and I seized the opportunity to ask him point blank, “So, Ray, are we Jewish?”
“So Jewish,” was his answer.
He explained that not only were we Jewish, but that growing up, he, my mother and all their siblings had attended Hebrew school and synagogue, and kept Shabbat. As you can imagine, this was a major revelation.
Because I’m clearly of mixed race, people have always been curious about my background. Throughout my childhood, I would answer, “My dad is Chinese and my mom is Heinz 57,” which was another way of saying, “some kind of generic blend of white.”
But now I had suddenly acquired a second race, only it wasn’t quite a race, or a religion, or an ethnicity. All of a sudden I had discovered that I was a Jew, and I had no idea what that actually meant. I did know, however, that it was a big deal. And I knew I was now part of a very clannish, cohesive group with an intense shared history of genocide, persecution, controversy, and a disproportionately prominent role in the course of world history.
Frankly, it was a lot to swallow.
My sister thought so too—I called her as soon as I found out.
“I knew it,” she said. I could tell she was narrowing her eyes conspiratorially. “So what does that mean?” she asked.
“I don’t know! But it’s definitely something . . . I think we get to go to Israel for free.”
“Do we want to go to Israel?”
“For free? Of course!”
“Haha, you already sound like a Jew!”
“You’re a Jew . . .”
And that’s pretty much how we left it. I never did manage to take that Birthright trip, and aside from some Jewish girlfriends, I had little to no contact with the Jewish community, culture or religion for the next seven years.
After graduating from college, I floated from job to job for a few years. Eventually I ended up working in a Chinese-style teahouse in Austin, Texas, performing a traditional tea service known as gong fu cha. I had always identified with my Chinese heritage, and despite growing up without the language, I had cultivated an interest in Chinese culture from a young age. The job consisted primarily of serving tea and being charming, and I met a lot of customers with connections in China. In 2010, after receiving my tax return and an unsolicited tarot reading, I moved to Chengdu, China, to work for an environmental nonprofit organization doing freshwater conservation research.
By early 2012 I was fluent in Chinese, working multiple jobs and renting a small apartment by the river. My Jewish heritage was, for the most part, just an excuse to get drunk whenever I met traveling Israelis. Then my eldest Orthodox cousin, who confused me all those years ago, came to visit. She brought a siddur and began to introduce me to Jewish prayer, and eventually took me to my first Purim party.
The party was held at the Chabad House of Chengdu. The young Israeli rabbi, Dovi Henig, had arrived with his wife just a week earlier, and the Purim party was their first major event. Dovi and I had an instant rapport; he was fascinated by my almost complete ignorance of my own heritage, and seemed to take genuine pleasure in answering my questions about the most basic aspects of Judaism. I ended up visiting him nearly every day for the next two weeks, and by the end of the month he had bar mitzvahed me.
Now, here I am, writing an article for a website whose name I would not have been able to pronounce just one year ago. I’ve celebrated Purim, Pesach, Lag BaOmer and many Shabbatot, and I’ve put on tefillin almost a dozen times.
Do I know now what it means to be Jewish? Not really. It’s something I’m learning about slowly. But I have discovered what it feels like to be Jewish.
It feels like being part of a family.