Ever since I can remember, whenever anyone asked me how I self-identified, I would answer Canadian and Jewish. The Canadian part was easy for me to understand: I've lived here since I was two, I went through the Ontario curriculum, English is my mother tongue, and western values dictate my moral code. To explain my Jewish side, I would answer that I was born in Israel. And that was it. It ended there.
The only person to ever dispute this is Kat, my long-time friend. We've known each other since we were six, and we’ve never been afraid to offend one another. We are always open to consider new perspectives. Kat firmly believes that I am not Jewish because I am not religious.
To me, Kat’s argument was logical and rock-solid. When the issue of my Jewish identity was later raised in conversation with my mother, and I informed her of Kat’s argument, she fervently disagreed with this point of view. Kat was right. I'm not religious. Not only do I not follow a single Jewish tradition or custom, but know very little about any of them. I recognize the words ‘Purim’ and ‘Rosh Hashana’, but I don't know when they're celebrated or why. I know that Shabbat is Saturday, but I don't know why this specific day is considered holy. I know that religious men wear the kippah and religious women wear long skirts, but I fail to grasp their significance.
Despite being born into a Jewish family, I know more about Christianity than I do about Judaism because I grew up in a western country with a culture and history steeped in the Christian tradition. My (albeit rudimentary) knowledge of Christianity was gathered in a passive way through movies, TV shows, books, etc. I understood the moral significance of biblical stories, such as Genesis, Noah's Ark, Moses (Prince of Egypt), Joseph (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat). I’m familiar with the Christian holidays, and I can name a handful of saints. Some might argue that Bible stories can be found in parts of the Old Testament, which is shared by the Jewish Tanakh, or Hebrew bible. Yet, I learned these stories within a Christian context, not a Jewish one.
Like me, my mother is also not religious. However, having lived in Israel for nearly a decade before my birth, she accumulated a working knowledge of the Jewish religion and its traditions, even within a greater context of agnosticism. Despite her lack of religiosity, my mother was very surprised and upset by my aforementioned remarks. She reiterated that I was Jewish and that Kat was wrong. She told me that a person doesn't need to follow the Jewish faith in order to be a Jew. She repeatedly hammered this thought into my head: I was born in Israel and into a Jewish family, so I was unequivocally Jewish.
Later that night, as I went to bed, both contradictory arguments somehow made sense to me. As I woke up the following day, the conundrum had vanished. The idea of being or not being Jewish didn't affect my day-to-day life. Whether or not I self-identified as Jewish did not affect my schooling, friends, homework, camps, etc. Since I don't observe any Jewish traditions, they don't guide my life.
So the question remains: how do you define a Jew, exclusively by religion or by culture too? And if by culture, then what is it? The Jewish diaspora covers multiple climates and time zones. Since every part of the world will have their own culture, how is there a common Jewish culture? If religion is not primarily used to define the "Jewish Race", then how can different cultures accomplish this? Of course, there is always Israeli culture: most Israelis are Jewish, but Israeli culture is limited to the land of Israel and cannot include the rest of the Jewish diaspora. And besides, although Israel is known as the Jewish State, it is not entirely Jewish (20% of Israelis are listed as non-Jews).
Then maybe by a language? Hebrew is known for being the dead language that was revived; a testament to the endurance of Judaism. But many Jews outside Israel don't speak Hebrew (I, for one, do not). For quite some time, I have ceased to consider myself Jewish. Instead, I view myself as a Canadian who was born in Israel, and who has Jewish ancestry. Although I feel tied to my relatives in Israel and Skype them once a week, I speak to them in Russian, not in Hebrew. I feel tied to them because they are my family, not because they're Jewish.
Note: while I have decided on my non-Jewish identity, I am still exploring what being Jewish means. Is there really a Jewish race? What are the differences and similarities between being Jewish and being Israeli? Between Zionism and Judaism? The relationship between Jews and Palestinians? How are they different? How are they similar? If you have any ideas about these questions, or anything related (being Jewish or not) and you would like to share them with me, please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.