When I was last in Israel, I was asked by a tour guide if I am Jewish. When she heard me respond, “Yes, I am” in my American accent, she said, “Ah, but you are an American Jew, yes?” In America, 1.4 percent of Americans identify as Jewish, but today, many claim the title “cultural Jew.” Whether it’s a disbelief in the specifics of the religion or a detachment to religion in general, Jewish people will often identify strongly with only the societal implications of Judaism.
The phrase often coined to describe my own and others’ personal cultural and religious existence is “I’m Jew-ish.” It should be noted that there are many devout followers among the U.S. Jewish population; I am speaking only from experience stemming from my community, which may not be the norm.
I generally avoid the topic of religion due to anti-Semitism and my personal disconnect from the idea of a “higher power.” I mean, I know when I think about G-d I’m not meant to be aware of any corporeal form that It may take, but frankly, all I can picture is Dumbledore. And not the later, intense Dumbledore … I’m talking about the one from the first two movies. As I ask myself whether or not I should do shots on a Wednesday night, all I can hear is Richard Harris’ voice whispering, “It is not our abilities that determine who we are, Annie, it is our choices.”
As a Jew, my religion has always been far more of a culture than a faith. Judaism isn’t particularly different from the other Judeo-Christian religions. For example, where Christians and Muslims have various head coverings, Jews have yamachas. These fabric caps are meant to represent that G-d is always above us. However, my upbringing as “Jew-ish” allowed me to question a seemingly trivial representation, and considering they’re worn only by men in the Reformed tradition, I can’t help but think that perhaps their true purpose is to cover up bald spots. And the older Jewish men get, the more often they pull out their yamachas. Now, my dad is 65 and has a bald spot about the size of a Girl Scout cookie, and when I was last home, my dad came down one morning wearing his yamacha which hasn’t seen the light of the day since my Bat Mitzvah in 2010. My mom takes one look at him and says, “either G-d has spoken to you or it’s time to try Rogaine.” Yes, the stereotypical Jewish mother will have mastered the art of the clap-back just like mine has.
Two weeks ago, my mom and I went shopping to find a dress for a black tie wedding I’m going to in a few weeks. I tried on a floor-length periwinkle gown with a huge ruffle on the left shoulder, and when I came out of the dressing room to show my mom, she looked me over, and said, “You look like a misshapen jug of antifreeze.” I can never count on my mom to sugar-coat anything, but I can expect a hefty helping of guilt.
You’ve heard of Catholic guilt? Well, the guilt doled out by a Jewish mother is Catholic guilt’s obnoxious cousin that force-feeds you and constantly asks when you’ll be getting married. I once sent a call from my mom to voicemail, and proceeded to get a 500-word text on respecting the woman who spent 13 hours in labor to bring me life.
All religions have their own cultural implications, but I have found that the culture surrounding my faith has shaped my existence far more than the belief system passed down to me by the Old Testament and praise in temple. My Jewishness is more represented by typical cultural stereotypes than my relationship to G-d, but I’ve embraced that and am proud of that identity.