As the sun set late one Friday in August 1998, I walked to services in Jerusalem with my best friend. A first-year student at Hebrew Union College, Debbie had just moved into an apartment on the top floor of a bougainvillea-draped home on Hovevei Zion Street, where a Shabbat feast of succulent fruits and olives awaited our return. I was nervous about attending my first service in Hebrew, but I followed along without mishap, and Debbie’s new classmates welcomed me warmly. Afterward, one woman asked me: “So, you’re originally from Indiana? That’s unusual. There aren’t many Jews there.”
I now understand what kind of response she expected—a tale, perhaps, about how my ancestors surmounted the challenges of sustaining our tiny Jewish community despite isolation and limited resources. At the time, however, I thought it a puzzling statement of the obvious and simply responded, “No, there aren’t.”
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and raised on a farm, I had not knowingly met a Jew until I went away to college. But since that first Shabbat in Israel, I have begun to pass as one. While at first this astounded me, I have come to accept it as my fate. It’s simply an assumption some people make when your best friend is a rabbi.
I met Debbie in the most secular of settings, a graduate program in English, and I quickly enlisted her as a running buddy. As we logged miles over hilly country roads and through the leafy streets of a picturesque college town, she would regale me with whatever lesson she was preparing for her students at the local synagogue. The characters she described, many familiar from my Sunday school days at the Stewartsville United Methodist Church, came alive as never before. The rich traditions, the holidays, the openness of Reform Judaism enthralled me. Anyone who could teach Torah and make it interesting for 10 miles was going to make a great rabbi.
That year, I visited my first synagogue and attended my first seder; I loved even the horseradish. But once Debbie ditched Derrida and immersed herself in the Talmud (the original hypertext), I began to wonder how I would fit into her new life. Could a gentile and a rabbi remain best friends? Would I embarrass her by standing out?
My fears turned out to be unfounded. Everyone in her new life just assumed I was Jewish. When I visited Debbie one summer in western Massachusetts, where she was serving as a rabbinic intern, several congregants approached after Friday night services to welcome me. Was I also a rabbinic student? they politely asked. Though I answered honestly—”No, I’m a magazine editor”—I lacked the courage to out myself.
Over the years, Debbie’s congregants and colleagues have continued to ask questions, and I confess that I sometimes have some fun with them. When they ask whether I keep strictly kosher, I sometimes say that, as a vegetarian, I keep kosher by default. Or I answer with a simple and honest, if incomplete, no. But if I’m in a feisty mood, I tell the whole truth.
I learned the shock value of revealing myself at Debbie’s wedding. During the ketubah-signing ceremony, I was one of several friends to offer words of blessing to the couple. A relative pulled me aside to say how much she enjoyed my comments, adding that I was going to make a great rabbi. “But I’m not a rabbinic student,” I admitted, at last feeling at ease being an outsider. “I’m not even Jewish.” Later, it got back to me that this woman said the shock nearly sent her to an early grave.
When I share these stories with Debbie’s colleagues and ask how people could possibly mistake me for a Jew when—all physical stereotypes aside—I muddle my way through Hebrew songs and blessings, they all laugh and say the same thing: that makes me no different from many congregants.
Over time, I’ve begun muddling less. I attend synagogue more often than most of my Jewish friends. I’ve grown comfortable sight-reading transliterated Hebrew. Every week, I read Debbie’s d’var Torah—her teaching on the weekly portion—which goes out by email to her congregation. Through our regular conversations about something as mundane as the workday, I have gained broad knowledge about the rituals and teachings of Judaism. I’ve even acquired intimate knowledge of the writings of the obscure 11th-century North African philosopher Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob of Kairouan by virtue of having edited Debbie’s rabbinic thesis.
In this process, I’ve begun to fall victim to some assumptions of my own. When one friend of mine—I’ll call her Amanda—was getting married, for example, I asked her (with some envy, for I find it one of the most lovely of traditions) what she planned to do about her ketubah. “My what?” she replied. Suddenly I found myself, the lapsed Midwestern Methodist, in the singularly odd position of explaining the Jewish covenant of marriage to a Jew (albeit a secular one), born and raised on the East Coast, whose uncle fronts a klezmer band. “That does it,” she declared through her laughter. “I’m granting you honorary status as an M.O.T.” (That’s “Member of the Tribe,” for those not in the know.)
By some standards, Amanda, whose mother was raised Protestant and converted when she married, is not an M.O.T. herself. But she insists that her mother is absolutely a Jew, citing as evidence her cooking and kvetching. Jokes about her Jewish mother notwithstanding, Amanda is quite serious in believing that her mother’s Lithuanian ancestors were probably Jewish. As proof, she describes a photograph of her great-grandmother in which she looks “quintessentially Jewish—dark, big nose, round features.” She wonders if it isn’t an accumulation of traits—physical, stereotypical, ineffable; she never mentions anything moral, liturgical, or spiritual—that add up on the scale and point the arrow toward “Jew.”
At this, the respectful gentile in me stops dead in her tracks. Aren’t these the very physical stereotypes in which we should never indulge? This encounter with Amanda took me right back to my youth and the backward environment of rural Indiana, where I often heard the same negative stereotypes accompanied by outright anti-Semitic loathing.
When I first arrived at college, I was immediately interested in Jewish identity mostly as a measure of adolescent rebellion against the bigoted community from which I had come. What makes someone a Jew? (I could barely ask the question then, conditioned as I was to hearing the term used pejoratively.) Is it a religion? A race? An ethnicity? Now, after nearly a decade of informal learning with my own personal rabbi, I have come full circle to ask again.
One woman I know declares herself a devout atheist and spurns any utterance of Hebrew as an unwanted vestige of Orthodox Judaism, yet she fiercely embraces her heritage as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Is her Jewish identity comprised entirely of carrying the burden of this legacy of horror? How am I to understand such a person? What part of Jewish identity is maternal birth, religious observance, complexion, last name, hair color and texture, culinary persuasions, or the frequency with which one says, “Oy vey?”
Years of passing as a Jew have disabused me of some stereotypes while introducing and reinforcing others. But don’t I now better understand—by reading everything from Torah to Philip Roth novels to news articles about the Chief Rabbi of Israel—that one of the most defining elements of Jewish identity is to be fervently engaged in debating precisely what it means to be Jewish?
How has my friendship with Debbie and, through her, my immersion in Judaism shaped my own religious identity? I may enjoy challah on a Friday night, but I’ve never seriously considered converting. An Anglican priest officiated at my own wedding back in rural Indiana, but I asked Debbie to play a role in our service. She offered a blessing in Hebrew, startling my relatives (most didn’t know why she was speaking a foreign language) and leading a few of my husband’s family friends to ask if I was Jewish.
Some might say this straddling of two traditions, this playacting in another faith, is simply an easy way to exempt myself from fully engaging in either. But I choose to think of it as a provocative dialogue—something akin to Midrash perhaps—in which the endless engagement with interpretations can guide me on the intellectual quest to define myself and my beliefs.