Judaism – a race, a religion, a nation, or an identity?

I’m a twenty-something Jewish woman. What that means exactly… I’m not all too sure. My daily life doesn’t only revolve around Judaism, even though it plays a significant part. This phenomenon is difficult to explain to outsiders. Because what exactly is a Jew? What does a Jewish person look like? What makes someone more Jewish than others? Who are the real Jews?

Judaism Jodendom

Rabbis can endlessly discuss what that one word in the Talmud means. And likewise, Jews sitting at a shabbat table can kibble for hours about what it means to be Jewish. Because there is no right or wrong answer. We come from various places in the world that are sometimes miles apart, speak different languages, our traditions don’t always align and there are various degrees of religiousness – orthodox to traditional to liberal secular. So, no simple answer there.

A few years ago, I did one of those DNA tests and found out that I’m 90.8% Ashkenazi Jewish. That’s not something strangers would necessarily guess. They usually think I’m Spanish, Russian, French, or even Greek. Because what does a Jewish person look like? There’s no clear-cut answer to that question. Dark curls, brown eyes, and a stereotypical Jewish nose? Why does one of my cousins, who is just as Ashkenazi as myself, have blond hair and blue eyes? And even when looking at Russian or Ethiopian Jews, they don’t tend to look the same either.

When I was thirteen years old, I used to go to a Karate Dojo. A girl I met there once asked if I go back home a lot. “Back home?” I answered confusedly. “Yes, to Israel,” she said. I found this to be a strange comment. My parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents have all been born and raised in various European countries. The Israel that was founded in 1948 is not my real home (though it does feel like a familiar place). It’s not because you’re Jewish that you were born in Israel, and It’s not because you were born in Israel that you’re necessarily Jewish.

So, I wouldn’t call it a nation, race, or a religion either – many Jews tend to drive on Shabbat. Perhaps identity is the right word. But someone who doesn’t necessarily identify with their Jewish side, can still be seen as a Jew by others. However, something that has strengthened that identity over centuries is the fact that our people have always been persecuted. This means that we stick together, in good or bad times. It’s a safety net where you can always fall back on.

Therefore, I believe that Judaism is a family. Like in a family we are just as similar as we are different, we often love each other dearly but sometimes we can’t stand one another. They always say that you don’t choose your family – for better or for worse. And it’s only normal to get annoyed by your neurotic uncle or chatty grandmother at the dinner table. It’s just a part of it. An unconventional way of bringing together a group of people that don’t necessarily have much in common. But what we do share is a special feeling of togetherness.

Magali Jeger
Magali is a Jewish Dutch-Belgian writer and actor. Her novel, HANNA, was published in the US last year and is being translated to Dutch. She graduated from a drama school in the UK, which is where she was also working as an actor and playwright. Magali recently moved to Amsterdam where she has been working as a dramaturg and junior creative developer for Hollands Licht – the drama- and comedy series branch of Warner Bros in the Netherlands.

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