As Cleveland natives know, this city used to be the home of the Empire chicken restaurant and a major provider of kosher chickens for Jewish households. The six chickens in my backyard coop that provide my family and friends with fresh eggs would be horrified to learn that I eagerly checked on the internet to see if that restaurant had been re-opened.
In fact, Jewish identity used to be that simple and easy to prove – serve roast chicken for Shabbat dinner and matzo ball soup on Passover; know which food goes with what holiday, and why the rabbi at Mrs. Meisel’s wedding was so offended by the presence of real shrimp in the shrimp cocktails at her reception.
But the Empire chicken empire has fallen, not only in Cleveland but also throughout the American Jewish community. As members of the Reform movement today may choose vegan Thai food to eat on Shabbat, it has become more difficult to identify simple outward markers that establish a sense of Jewish authenticity.
I remember my mother storming into the kosher bakery that made the best challah in town, then returning empty handed to our car vowing never to shop there again. She had asked my eight year old blonde-haired sister to pick up our challah order while she picked up the dry cleaning at the shop next door. My sister had done so, but left the bakery with some confusion.
Why, she asked, did the lady in the store tell her that she was a pretty little shiksa? My mother entered the bakery, gave the challah back to the manager, and informed him that the use of that Yiddish word was disrespectful to both Jews and non-Jews.
When I recall that scene, I am embarrassed about the ways that Jews have complained about stereotypical depictions of Jews, yet have used internal stereotypes to determine other people’s religious purity. I would hope that we no longer assume that appearance, last names, or knowing a few words in Yiddish are things that confirm Jewish identity.
Does Judaism become one’s faith simply because we choose that box on a hospital admissions form rather than checking the box next to “NRP” – no religious preference?
Can we find intrinsically meaningful factors to bring us together and affirm our Jewish identities not based on boundaries that feel arbitrary or xenophobic?
Is it more respectful of ourselves and others to forget about Jewish identity requirements and accept the eventuality that there will soon be two Judaisms? One will be under the strict supervision of the Israeli Haredi Orthodox rabbinate, which meticulously guards the lists of those Jews with proper religious pedigrees and those Jews whose conversions are deemed acceptable. The other Judaism will be the one in which I proudly will find a seat.
My mother’s mother, Alta, legally changed her name to Ruth when she went into the mikveh in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The three Orthodox rabbis who stood on the other side of the mikveh’s closed door waited to hear the sounds of splashing water and her careful recitation of the Hebrew blessings.
Grandma Ruth wasn’t Jewish until those rabbis said that she was Jewish. For the rest of her life, she was proud of her choice. Then, this past year, the 23andMe results told us that my maternal line had been Jewish all along. So how should we define the real meaning of Jewish DNA?
Let’s figure this out together, both by diving into a study of our traditional texts and by harvesting from the wisdom that we hold within our hearts.
– Rabbi Schwartz