Sisterhood Blog

When a Child Asks 'Are You Jewish?'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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An interesting new post on the New York City Mom’s Blog, here, explores a mother’s feelings about her 4-year-old daughter asking people, “Are you Jewish?”

Of course the little girl has lots of company – shout out Lubavitchers! – who apparently find my Brooklyn neighborhood fertile territory for fishing for Jews. So many young Chabadniks have in recent years blanketed Prospect Heights and Park Slope around Rosh Hashana and Sukkot, trying to get Jews to hear the shofar being blown and to bless and shake the lulav, that it’s been turning off even those locals who don’t generally mind their assertive approach to outreach. (How many times in a day can one person reasonably be expected to answer “Are you Jewish?” before losing their patience?)

But a 4-year-old asking the same question is a different kettle of gefilte fish.

Kosher Mommy Blogger, as she calls herself, is concerned that her non-observant relatives (she and her husband are the only religious ones in their families) will be offended when her little girl pipes up with the question that she worries could be incendiary.

The little girl must be KMB’s first child, because anyone who’s parented a 3- or 4-year-old knows that they are wont to pepper everyone around them with questions like these. They’re waking up to the fact that there is a world beyond mommy and daddy, and trying to figure out what is part of “their” world and what isn’t.

KMB is worried about offending her relatives. As the mother of three inquisitive children myself, I remember when they were that age and asking almost everyone they met the same question. Occasionally I’d feel the need to step in to try to smooth over what I thought was an awkward moment but usually, whether the person my son or daughter was asking was Jewish or not, I’d just let them answer it however they wanted.

KMB writes:

it is still awkward when she blurts out these questions to my own family members (just the other day she asked if her grandparents were Jewish, oy vey).

She also writes:

Will my four year old understand this concept and stop questioning the religious beliefs of our friends and family?

But KMB has it wrong. The value judgments aren’t there in her daughter’s innocent question. Instead, they’re in her mother’s mind. KMB is presuming that her non-observant relatives are going to regard it as a judgmental question, probably because KMB is worried about being viewed by them as judgmental herself.

In our family, where we run the gamut of Jewish identification and practice from my husband’s large, entirely haredi family to my own smaller iteration, where some relatives observe Jewish tradition but others enjoy their bacon cheeseburgers, I’ve had plenty of chances to explain and discuss with my kids that there are many ways that people relate to being Jewish.

At the same time, more than once I’ve been on the receiving end of similar comments and assumptions that feel freighted with judgment.

I was recently on the phone with my mother in law who said, of my 15-year-old son, Boychik, that she thinks that “one day he’s going to really keep kosher.”

Thing is, he already does.

Our home is kosher, and my MIL knows this – though of course she doesn’t trust our observance, so my husband’s family will eat only eat chips or pretzels served on a paper plate and seltzer from paper cups (and they like to be able to check the hecksher on the bag). I find it slightly amusing.

What did bother me, though, was the suggestion that Boychik was “not really” kosher. He is a serious vegetarian, which my MIL knows, so at home and out, there should be no question that he is keeping kosher.

My MIL’s comment pushed my buttons. I took a deep breath and reminded her that he does keep kosher. She responded that she thinks that one day he’ll be religious.

Thing is, he already is. Spiritual and engaged with Judaism, deeply devoted and proud of being a Jew, he wears a kippah and tzit tzit out, enthusiastically participates in a Hebrew high school and a Jewish chorus. He was hired by a large Conservative shul to be a cantor for the High Holy Days. I mean, the kid could not be a more Jewy Jew!

But for my MIL, because he’s not living the way she does, he’s not “really” religious.

After tremendous effort to keep my tone pleasant, I told her that her comments were hurtful, and she said she really did not mean them that way. She apologized, and that diffused the moment.

It’s interesting, though. When I’ve been with liberal Jewish friends like myself in the haredi precincts of the Catskills or Boro Park, my friends have voiced their impression that they’re being silently judged for “not really being Jewish” by the hasidim around us. Despite experiences like the one mentioned above, I don’t generally think that’s true. I’ve had countless positive experiences with haredi Jews who don’t treat me with any disrespect simply because I’m not like them, and this is what I tell my friends.

I did find it amusing, however, when recently in an Orthodox Jewish bookstore I was asking the clerk for a particular sefer which I am using in my study of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah. This cheerfully friendly young man, with a patchy beard and curled peyes bouncing to his shoulders, said they didn’t have it. I had previously bought another volume of the same work at the store, so I knew they did. When I offered that it’s a Hebrew sefer, he said “oh, I thought you were looking for it in English.” Surely he assumed that I wouldn’t be looking for an all-Hebrew book of Torah because I am a woman, all the more because I was wearing jeans and a tee shirt.

So I guess I can understand Kosher Mommy Blogger’s worry that her non-frum relatives will hear her little daughter’s innocent question, “Are you Jewish?” as coming from a place of judgment even when it’s not.

Then again, perhaps the girl is just warming up for a future doing outreach for Chabad.

Sarah Thu. Dec 3, 2009

The word "judge" is so tough. "Judgmental," even worse.

If I formulate a general impression of someone based on externals, or one perceived differences or similarities to myself, am I judging them? If so, am I being judgmental, attaching a value judgment to the person?

Or am I simply building my knowlege of the person - perhaps, of the world - one bit at a time?

I often think of a really wonderful, if brief, encounter I had early in my marriage. Shopping in the kosher section of a major supermarket in a town with a smallish Orthodox community, I was approached by a woman who was not dressed in a typically, obviously observant manner (read: shorts and a t-shirt) who asked me if I had information about the local mikvah. Feeling, in my newlywed state, like I had just received my membership card into some sort of club consisting of Women Who Know About the Local Mikvah, I was thrilled to tell her what I could. I remember being very struck by the significance (or lack thereof) of clothing on that occasion. With my long skirt and hat in the middle of the summer, I was easily recognizable as someone who might know where the mikvah was. With her shorts and t-shirt, I couldn't have picked her out of a crowd as someone who would want to know where the mikvah was. And yet, here we were, in the middle of the supermarket, united in our "club." Was I "judging" her if, two seconds earlier, I assumed she wasn't Jewish/observant/religious? I simply had no reason to think she was - until she spoke to me. Was she "judging" me based on my clothing? She was simply working with her knowledge of the current temperature and societal norms and the evidence of my clothing and shopping cart contents.

I have been the woman in the sefarim store asking for something and hearing the response "are you sure you want that? It's more of a men's sefer!" I take it not as a judgment, but as surprise - incomplete information - like whatever initial thoughts I had about that woman before she asked about the mikvah.

I can totally understand the blogger's concern about her daughter's question. In my experience, the more outward signs of observance one has, the more one is assumed to be judgmental - regardless of actual evidence of actual value judgments being made. On a recent trip, a friend suggested that I was going to look down on her for not davening as much as I did. The reason for her concern? The simple fact that I said more words of davening than she did. (So tell me, which of us was the judgmental one?) This sort of issue has made me incredibly sensitive to the perception that I am judging others, simply because of who I am. I can certainly imagine that when my daughter begins to develop a concept of "Jewish," I would want to melt into the floor if she ever asked some less-externally-obviously-observant-than-I person "are you Jewish" - because, after years of being judged as judgmental, I would worry that they would assume she's asking that because I've taught her women who wear pants aren't Jewish. As you put it - "probably because KMB is worried about being viewed by them as judgmental herself."

Sarah Thu. Dec 3, 2009

On a different note (in case I haven't talked long enough already)...

I wonder about the whole idea of being "judgmental." There are different things to "judge" about a person. For instance: (1) "Joe does X differently than I do." (2) "Joe does X wrong." (3) "Joe is a bad person because he does X differently than I do." (4) "Joe is a bad person because he does X wrong."

I think we're all fine with #1, and not fine with #3 or #4. But what about #2? What about the countless other nuanced perceptions one person might form of another person that could be described as "judging."

I feel for your MIL. Based on my admittedly tiny collection of evidence, she sounds like someone who genuinely struggles to understand you and your family, but doesn't have the framework to even find the right words. (I admire any MIL-DIL relationship in which the DIL could voice hurt like that and the MIL could apologize!) I would also presume (forgive me if I'm judging) that, as a charedi, she genuinely believes certain things your family does are wrong. Not that you're bad people - just mistaken. I don't think the kashrut thing is a question of "trust" - it's a question of differing views on halachic requirements. I doubt she thinks you're going to slip bacon in her gefilte fish - that would be like 3 or 4 above. But she probably does think you have different ideas about which hechsher is reliable, for instance. That's more like 1 or 2 above - but is it judgmental?

Let's say the guy in the sefarim store is not only surprised to find that a woman in jeans wants this book (for herself, not her husband) - that would be #1. Maybe he actually believes it's wrong (immodest) for a Jewish woman to wear pants, or to spend her time on serious text study - #2. Is he wrong to hold that position? Are we wrong to judge him for holding that position?

Judging opinions is not the same as wantonly judging character, and I would venture to claim that if one wants to preserve one's identity in a pluralistic world, one will need to allow for some degree of the former while staying far from the latter.

Jen in Oz Fri. Dec 4, 2009

So does this mean that if there's a particular book I want to buy from the local Jewish bookstore, I should dress as though I were Chabad or Adass (neither of which I usually am/do) before entering the shop, including wearing a tichel or sheitel, and tell them it's for my son or husband who is currently busy studying, and then I'll get better service?

eli Sun. Dec 6, 2009

I'm sick of being looked down on by our haredi brethren because I don't wear stockings and don't keep chalav Israel. I'm modern orthodox but totally accept the reform and conservative movements as valid ways of being jewish (although whether I'd want my kids to marry into families in these movements who aren't halachically jewish in the orthodox sense or shomer shabbes is a different story). The concerning thing about haredim, particularly chabad, is this absolutist outlook that sees only them as the purveyors of the 'true' judaism. This from people with their rebbe/king/moshiach!!!

sd Sat. Dec 19, 2009

Eli-your comment resonated with me. Thank you...

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