I was tagged as an unrecognized face as soon as I pulled into the parking lot. The guard was ready for me as I approached the courtyard, his dark sunglasses preventing any chance of direct eye contact. His hands were leaning on his belt, which was heavily loaded with various tools of the trade such as a gun, a flashlight, and what looked like a very intimidating Taser.
“Can I help you”? His wide figure blocked me.
“Well,” I replied, slightly confused. Was this a trick question? “I came to join Sabbath services.”
“Are you a member of this congregation?” he inquired, obviously not convinced of my intentions.
“No,” I mumbled, my hope of being warmly welcomed into the arms of my community quickly diminishing. “It’s my first time here.”
“Well, I can’t let you in,” he strutted his shoulders, stretching them wide. “You have to meet with the Rabbi first before you can come in. Do you know the Rabbi?”
“I don’t,” I admitted, my voice low and discouraged. It was the first time I decided to visit the local synagogue since I moved to Spokane six years ago. I am not a religious man, but my desire to connect with other spiritually oriented beings has finally brought me out of my shell. Good idea, that was. NOT. I was obviously not welcomed.
“Are you Jewish?” He continued his investigation in a relentless tone.
That’s it. Something in me snapped and I suddenly raised my head. I couldn’t believe he just asked me that; as a man married to a non-Jew, this was a sensitive spot for me. Yes, I am a Jew; but what if I wasn’t? What if my wife, a non-Jew, wanted to visit the synagogue in order to explore my culture and heritage? I could only imagine what she would have felt when greeted with the same question.
Which leads me to ask you, the reader – what is Judaism?
“A religion,” you might say.
Hmm... Yes, no doubt, that too. But...
If you are a non-religious Arab, you are not a Muslim. In fact, you can be a Christian Arab, or even an Arab Jew. And you must believe in Jesus to be a Christian. However, I could be the world’s biggest atheist but I will still be a Jew.
So what is Judaism?
“Nationality,” you’ll then answer.
But wait. even though Israel is considered the “Jewish State” by its constitution, and by being a Jew you are automatically granted nationality, Judaism itself is not a nationality. The fact is, you can be a Christian Israeli or even a Muslim Israeli.
So what is Judaism?
By definition, and according to Jewish ― and Israeli ― law, you are a Jew if your mom was Jewish. That is, a direct bloodline. The reason Jewish law focuses on the mother is because it was never possible to truly discern who was the father; but it was always clear who was the one pregnant. In other words, I am a Jew because my blood is of Jewish origin.
In other words, Judaism is a Religion but it is also an ethnic group. Every time a non-religious person is called “a Jew”, it’s like saying “He’s black”, or “He’s Native American”.
Today, Israel is the only country in the world that automatically grants citizenship based on one’s bloodline ― that is, if one can be proved to be a Jew. In other words, based on one’s race. Quite astounding considering the unprecedented level of racial persecution we, as Jews, have been exposed to during the past century.
Tough to admit, I know. The comments below will no doubt be filled with seething remarks written by fellow Jews claiming that I am promoting haltered against the self-proclaimed chosen people. But truth sometimes hurts; and two wrongs don’t make a right. We, as Jews, have not always been welcoming, loving and accepting to other nations. That’s the reality. Our own sense of exclusivity is deeply rooted in the dogma of our religion, and consequently ― in the values of Israel as a Jewish nation, an axiom that continuously stabs the hearts of its non-Jewish residents, who feel like second class citizens.
The root of the issue is that beyond civil laws, Judaism is a race. You can’t choose to be a Jew – you just are – or you’re “not that lucky”.
Back at the courtyard of the synagogue, I strutted my own shoulders, which seemed lanky and dwarfed compared to the guard’s physique. He was obviously not Jewish ― we just don’t come in that size. How ironic.
“I refused to believe that I will be denied to pray here today,” I said quietly, ignoring his question. “Please call someone who I can talk to.”
He did, and I finally got in.
The news of the local Jew who nobody knew and was denied entrance spread quickly, invoking numerous apologies. “It’s OK,” I replied left and right in embarrassment. “I grew up in Israel, I understand the need for security.”
But deep down inside I couldn’t shake the notion that something just didn’t feel right. For the first time, I felt the rejection my wife, who was raised catholic, described to me as we visited Israel for the first time. “I can feel how people judge me here for not being a member of the tribe,” she said. “It’s not a good feeling.”
Her sense of being left out was amplified by the fact that one of my siblings, an absorbent orthodox, has cut all ties with me when we announced our plans to get married. “You crossed a red line,” my sister told me at the time. “You should be thankful I am not sitting Shiva on you,” (the Jewish custom for morning the dead).
I once asked my sister what she thought it meant to be a Jew. I knew the answer ― it’s described in Jewish law, and was taught to me as a kid; but I wanted to hear her say it. What is the difference between her and my wife, who was raised catholic? What makes her different, better? Her answer was unequivocal ― “Jews have a different soul.” Jewish tradition explains that there are four astral worlds in the cosmos. Jews have a soul that is from the highest world ― the world of Atzilut, which bestows light on all the other worlds. All other humans, Jewish law claims, have a soul from the lowest world ― Asiya ― which is the world of physical manifestation.
Sounds like a bunch of racist crap to me, to be honest. If you believe that’s the difference, I rather you don’t call me a fellow Jew.