By Jelena Woehr
“You have somebody that comes from Somalia—which is a failed government, a failed state—who left Somalia and ultimately came here, and is now a congresswoman who’s never happy. Says horrible things about Israel—hates Israel, hates Jews. Hates Jews. It’s very simple.”
In July, when I heard the president unleash that cascade of partially coherent invective toward Representative Ilhan Omar, I was outraged. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was a little jealous of his confidence. I’ve never felt that sure in my life about how Jewish people ought to feel, or what Jewish people should fear.
Sometimes I think my Jewish identity is a mirage. The farther away from it I am, the more solid it feels. When I examine it up close, it dissolves. “Very simple,” it is not.
As people—mostly not Jewish people—like to remind me, under traditional Jewish law (halacha), all children born to a Jewish mother are Jewish. Kids like me, with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, aren’t. However, in 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform Rabbinic leadership organization for the U.S., began recognizing patrilineal inheritance. That policy was expanded in 1983 to cover children not converted by their parents who identify as Jewish. Still, tell someone you’re “half-Jewish,” and you’ll get the response “that’s like being half-pregnant.”
Yet, even people with two Jewish parents don’t always feel confident about their place in the Jewish diaspora. Autumn Lewis, 26, grew up in Peoria, Arizona, where she attended Hebrew school. Her father is Jewish by birth, while Autumn’s mother, who is Native American, converted to Judaism. Autumn told me, “I find the most offensive stereotype about Jews is that they are all white, conservative, and come from money. I am not any of those things, though I do experience white-passing privilege.”
Like me, Autumn struggles to pin down her Jewish identity. “Culturally, I’m very Jewish,” she says, “But I’m not traditional. I have tattoos, and, honestly, I barely remember Hebrew.”
My paternal ancestors survived pogroms. They sailed across oceans to practice their faith. They raised children who were barred from segregated “No Blacks, No Jews” neighborhood pools. My paternal grandparents had to wed at the secular Society for Ethical Culture after both my grandmother’s rabbi and my grandfather’s priest refused to perform an interfaith marriage. And now there’s me, feeling like I make some real sacrifices by eschewing pork and shellfish.
“Send her back!” Donald Trump’s supporters chanted, a few days after the president’s “Hates Jews” remarks. In their voices, I heard the echoes of the Miami immigration officials who, in 1939, turned away the M.S. Saint Louis and its 937 mostly Jewish passengers. Standing on colonized Seminole land, white gentiles sent Jewish children back to the Holocaust. Now, 80 years later, the president appropriates Jewish pain as a rationale for driving away another religious minority.
Maybe this happened in part because of children of intermarriage, who, like me, don’t feel Jewish enough to give voice to Jewish concerns. Among millennials, as of 2013, 48% of adult Jews had only one Jewish parent. Of that 48%, only 49% identified as religiously Jewish, compared to 85% of Jewish people with two Jewish parents.
Romy James, 29, of Los Angeles, was born to a North African, Sephardic Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. Romy attended Hebrew school and celebrated her bat mitzvah, but by her late teens she was attending temple only on the Jewish High Holidays. “I’m an agnostic Jew,” she says. “I believe in a higher power, but not necessarily something I’d quantify as God.”
Regarding Trump’s attacks on two black congresswomen, Romy says, “I’m a black woman, and also Jewish. That is a nuance Trump refuses to accept. I think he has a fundamental misunderstanding of what Judaism is, and a caricaturish vision of Jewish people. It seems like he sees us all as Shylock from The Merchant of Venice.” But as one of an estimated 40,000 to 500,000 black Jews in America, Romy also experiences the erasure of her identity by people who see themselves as Jewish allies. “At work (as script coordinator for a television show), we had a storyline recently where someone was trying to make a certain joke, and I said, ‘None of these characters are Jewish, so maybe we shouldn’t do that.’ And then someone said, ‘We should probably ask someone who is Jewish.’ I had to spend a lot of time explaining that I am someone who’s Jewish.”
If I didn’t go to Hebrew school, but was raised with a library of Yiddish books so large it belongs in a museum, am I Jewish? If I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, but my peers in elementary school asked me where my “Jew gold” was (thanks,South Park), am I Jewish? Can I still call myself Jewish after—true story—I set my living room window on fire with the first menorahof my adulthood, then set my trash can on fire by throwing out the smoldering candles?
In the Trump era, even the unquestionably Jewish have been forced to reckon more deeply with their faith and culture. Sigal Engelberg, 29, was born in Israel and moved to the United States at age 7. She says, “Before Trump, I was never very religious, nor did I stop to think about myself as a Jewish person or what others thought of me. Now, I think about my Jewish identity on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day. Because I’m very easily identified as Jewish, I worry about anti-Semitism, about my immigrant status, and about philosemitism.”
For Sigal, even her appearance is a form of resistance. “I used to straighten my hair and over-pluck my eyebrows, but now I wear both naturally. I don’t want to fit into European beauty standards anymore,” she says. “I’m upset about how many years I spent burning my hair with straighteners, instead of learning to love and care for my curls. I want to be seen as Jewish and as Middle Eastern, because I am both. Most Israelis are brown! My look is an act of defiance against Trump and people like him, who spew anti-Muslim rhetoric while thinking they are on the same side as Jews.”
I never wanted to speak out too loudly “as a Jewish woman,” while still wrestling with my own questions about my identity. But, like Sigal, I was tired of people projecting their own Islamophobic politics onto me, then patting each other on the back for being such good Jewish allies. So, I did something that, in 30 years of dancing around the question of how Jewish I am, I’ve never done: I went to shul.
I still don’t know exactly what I expected to find there. As an endurance horse rider competing in a largely desert region, I’ve done enough (literal) wandering in the desert to feel like, if God was going to speak to me, S/He’d have done it by now. I simply could no longer stand hearing about Judaism only when the president feels like using Israel as a bludgeon. I wanted to hear about Jewish values from people who receive the words “remember that you were slaves in Egypt” not as a cause for resentment, but as a reminder of a shared duty to welcome the stranger.
Romy also feels drawn further toward Judaism these days. She says, “I often ask myself if I’d attend temple more if I had more time. Before Trump, I’d have said no. But recently I’ve been trying actively to find a new temple to go to, because he has instilled in me a need to be closer to our community.”
For Sigal, being visibly Jewish and Israeli under Trump is a unique burden. She told me, “Nothing Trump has done is good for the Jews or for Israel. It is a strange feeling dealing with [Trump voters] and being talked to like you owe them something for voting for this terrible human being. Being Israeli doesn’t mean I automatically support everything the Israeli government does. I’ve become pretty vocally anti-Netanyahu over the years. So, I am trying to more strongly represent my Jewishness in connection to being open-minded, loving others, loving immigrants, and wanting to effect positive social change. It’s a way of undoing some of the harm that I feel this presidency has done to our society and to the image of Jews worldwide.”
Mine is a reform temple, one my conservative, Orthodox neighbor refers to as “that liberal place in Beverly Hills.” It’s a small temple, with services that sometimes seem like they feature a rabbi for every worshipper. I attend less often than I’d like, and I fail to follow up on invitations to get more involved. I’m still battling impostor syndrome. I haven’t taken the plunge of membership yet. But, for the first time in my life, I’ve begun building a Jewish community for myself.
Autumn, too, has felt uncertain and tentative, yet she’s still seeking a greater sense of connection to Judaism. She says, “Because of my past experiences with anti-Semitism, I don’t wear my Star of David outside of my shirt yet. It’s that privilege I have of hiding it that makes me want to fight for others who can’t pass [as non-Jewish],” she says. “But it also brings a certain level of shame, which makes me feel like I don’t belong anywhere. I haven’t found a temple to attend yet, but I spend a lot of time reading about Judaism and reflecting on scripture. I’ve also grown a lot closer to my grandma by talking to her about our culture and heritage.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from dipping my toe into a temple community, it’s that no one person, no matter how Jewish, has all the answers about how to be Jewish, or who’s really Jewish, or what Jewish people believe. In fact, it seems like the only person who is sure about what it means to be Jewish in 2019 is the gentile in the Oval Office.
Donald Trump spits accusations of anti-Semitism like sunflower seed husks, not caring where they land. Donald Trump wears his Jewish grandchildren like body armor. Donald Trump wraps Benjamin Netanyahu around his shoulders like an ermine robe.
And while he does all that, Jewish people are doing what Jewish people have always done: debating while we work. My new temple recently began fundraising to assist in the resettlement of local refugees, most of whom are Muslim. On the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, the congregation joined a protest against immigration detention and family separation.
Romy put it simply in a recent Facebook post: “The President doesn’t get to tell me how I feel as a Jew and a Black woman.” She elaborated on that sentiment in our interview, saying, “I think he’s trying to pit the Jewish and Muslim religions against each other, because if we’re coming at each other, we can’t come at white supremacism. The way we combat that is by being true to ourselves. After Pittsburgh and after Christchurch, we raised money for each other. We have to show a united front against the problem, which in America is Trump and his administration.”
For my part, I’m just one, insecure, sorta-Jewish woman. I am not qualified to speak for the Jewish people. But I am ready to make one thing clear: Donald Trump is the very farthest thing from “qualified to speak for the Jewish people.” And I will not stand by silently while Jewish trauma is weaponized to push Muslims out of America.
Jelena Woehr is a writer, editor, creative, educator, and businesswoman residing in Los Angeles. Her produced scripted audio work appears on Amazon FreeTime Unlimited (Disney Dailies skill) and on the Parcast podcasts Serial Killers, Female Criminals, and more. Her spec pilots for television have been recognized in major competitions, including as a top-three winner of the UCLA Extension Writers Program TV Writing Competition (2018); semi-finalist, Sundance Episodic Lab (2018); and semi-finalist, Macro Episodic Lab (2018). Jelena’s work also appears in print in publications including Thrice Fiction Magazine and Equus Magazine, and online at sites including i-D (from Vice), Business Insider, CMX Hub, and Medium. She recently completed the “world’s toughest horse race,” the 100-mile Tevis Cup, aboard a 12-year-old Arabian gelding, Aavanti. Follow her on Twitter @jelenawoehr.