I am Jewish. Even though Jewishness really doesn't and shouldn't lie on a spectrum, people have called me "very Jewish." I go to synagogue. I work at a synagogue, leading services with a rabbi. Sometimes people in the subway ask me if I'm Jewish. The Jews handing out Shabbat candles and propaganda booklets on campus used to stop me every time I walked by. I attribute this to my big nose and curly hair. Judaism is a much more diverse group than it's given credit for, but I just happen to fit a lot of the old ashkenazic stereotypes. This results in me getting checked out a lot by yeshiva students, especially when I'm wearing a skirt that covers my knees. I also once got harassed by a bunch of giant, blond guys in a parking lot by the beach. They kept yelling things about money at me. In my bikini, shaking from the cold and from anger, I screamed back at them. I don't know what I said.
I'm getting married in less than a month, to a man everyone assumes is Jewish. His name sounds Jewish. He looks like he could pass for Jewish. He comes to services, and he sings the prayers. But he is not Jewish. He grew up in a family that celebrated Christmas but didn't otherwise participate in Christian practices. He doesn't bother to define himself religiously or call himself an atheist. He isn't interested in entering the debate, or getting tangled in all the messy rules of identification. When he moved across the country for a job and couldn't celebrate Christmas with his family, he worked through Christmas day instead.
I always figured I'd marry a Jew. I dated about an equal number of Jews and non-Jews, but marriage was always far off, and it implied other things, like the rest of my life, and kids who would require bar and bat mitzvahs. My mother wanted me to marry a Jew. My grandmother wanted me to marry a Jew. When I joined a dating site, my mother kept trying to convince me to switch to JDate. And it wasn't just her. I got the sense from so many people that I had to marry a Jew.
Why a Jew? Because our numbers are shrinking. At least, that's what they keep telling us. Because Jewish men are just...different. Not that other men aren't sensitive, but Jewish men are maybe more likely to be sensitive. Maybe more likely to be smart. Maybe more likely to be attentive. Jews as a group have historically valued study, logical ability, artistic prowess, and social justice work. Jews win a lot of Nobel Prizes. We write a lot of books. We become concert pianists more often than you'd expect. We make a mean gefilte fish. We score better than almost everyone else on the latest Pew test to gauge how much Americans know about religion. There are one or two of us who have become famous athletes. In other words, we're a very accomplished little group of people. But beyond that, another Jew might better understand me, on a deeper, spiritual level. He might have the same commitment to our people. He would almost certainly be better able to raise Jewish children, because he'd be prepared to teach them scales and arpeggios on the piano and the blessing over the challah. He would have a special way of looking at the world that would match my special way of looking at the world. And we would live happily ever after.
One of the Jews I dated made it very clear that he looked down on me, just a little, for not being quite the right kind of Jew. My prayerbook was too egalitarian. God was not called "he." Another Jew I dated thought I wasn't devoted enough to Israel. Another thought I was too involved in ritual observance. I dated two devout Christians who thought my Judaism was perfect, fascinating, and sexy, and a Jew who agreed. The data confused me, so I tried not to think about it.
My fiancé can only play one thing on the piano. It's a snippet of the Moonlight Sonata. He can't play scales or arpeggios (so it's lucky that I can). He is extremely smart, and exceedingly attentive. He has not yet won a Nobel Prize. I fell in love with him so smoothly that I couldn't stop to wonder about his religious identity. But when I think about it, I realize that our relationship feels Jewish to me. My family emphasized study, logic, and creativity. They taught me to care deeply about social justice issues, and to be sensitive to other people's needs and situations. This was a part of our Jewishness (which is not to say that all of these things aren't also a vital part of other people's religious and cultural identities). My family taught me to value community, to treasure family, and, above all, to always question the norm. I chose a partner who is logical and studious, kind and sensitive, creative and invested in family, and, above all, able to question the norm. I questioned basic assumptions and expectations by choosing him. I exercised a skill that I consider a profound part of my Jewishness and an integral part of Judaism as a system. And I made the best Jewish match that I possibly could. My mother and grandmother seem to agree.
One day, if my partner and I have children, we will raise them Jewish. And I see no reason why his knowledge and abilities won't make their Jewishness that much richer. Who knows -- maybe they'll rebel by marrying other Jews.