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The Million-Dollar Question: What Makes Someone a Jew?

Review of What Makes Someone a Jew? by Lauren Seidman (Jewish Lights, 2006).

Who is a Jew? The old answers don’t work: “your parents are Jewish,” “you look Jewish,” “you obey Jewish law,” “I could plotz from you asking such a question.” Interfaith dating, internal Jewish diversity, international adoptions, and interfaith marriage have complicated matters.

Lauren Seidman’s What Makes Someone a Jew? aims its answers at young readers. Through marvelous pictures of children of various ages and origins blowing a shofar, lighting Hanukkah candles or just looking cute, Seidman makes her point clearly–“Some people are born Jewish, but you don’t have to be: Judaism starts when you live Jewishly.”

What does that mean? In simple terms, learning about Judaism, celebrating Jewish holidays, and being nice. The problem, however, is when Seidman asks “How do I know if I’m Jewish enough? Will God dislike me if I don’t do all this stuff?” (traditional answer: yes!) Seidman’s answer: “When you do a good deed, that’s being Jewish too, and one thing you can count on is that God always loves you.” What’s particularly Jewish about either of these? Try replacing “Jewish” with “Christian” or “Muslim” in that sentence, and they work equally well; Judaism holds neither patent nor monopoly on basic ethics or warm and fuzzy monotheism.

Simple God belief does not define Jewishness–it may be enough to be a Reform Jew, but not a cultural, Humanistic or even Orthodox Jew. It is more inclusive to talk instead about “being part of the Jewish family,” with its distinctive language, culture and history. Different beliefs co-exist in one family, and different faces too, since people join families all the time. To feel part of the Jewish family, all you need is your family loving you. We do good not to “make God glad,” but to help each other. That would be a truly open tent that welcomes Jews of all flavors.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the rabbi of Kol Hadash, a Humanistic Congregation in the north suburbs of Chicago, Ill., and the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Chalom was interviewed about his approach to intermarriage in “Mazel Tov” Instead of “Oy Vey”.