My 8-year-old son Seth and I were out at a baseball game on Saturday when he suddenly turned to me and said, “Mom, I feel like a goy.”
I was horrified. It never, ever occurs to me not to feel like a Jew. I feel like a Jew the same way I feel like a woman–it’s who I am. When I left the Hasidic community three years ago, people called me a shiksa and said that wasn’t Jewish anymore, that I looked like a goy. It had no meaning to me. It was like telling me I’m not a mother. You can’t tell me that. You can’t tell me I’m not who I am. In fact, since I left Orthodoxy, the more I’ve learned and expanded my horizons, the more I identified with the Jewish feminist movement, the Jewish progressive movement, Jewish literature, Jewish humanism, Jewish values, Zionism, and the Jewish yentas at my Jewish gym.
So I nuzzled Seth’s hair and said, “Honey, why would you ever feel like a goy?”
Seth shrugged and said, “Because we are moving away from the culture more and more and doing less and less. I have no yarmulke, it is Shabbos and we came to a game. It feels like I’m a goy.”
He wasn’t sad, but he had this familiar tone that belied guilt or a feeling that you’re doing something wrong. Because he is around so many Orthodox friends and relatives, he absorbs messages about Judaism being rooted in Orthodox ritual. I wanted to argue, “Why does that make you a goy? Why does a piece of fabric on someone’s head define if they are a Jew or not? Why does spending a pleasant Saturday with your mom waiting for fireworks and eating too much popcorn mean you are any less a part of the Jewish people? Why? Why did Judaism get reduced to a set of restrictions and instructions?”
But I didn’t say that, because it would ignore my son’s very valid concern: that being Jewish is traditionally associated with ritual and tradition, and that moving away from the tradition can feel like moving away from Judaism. I know that for a child, the very tangible and visible manifestations of Judaism are so strong, and that when the symbolism goes away, the feeling can be that Judaism goes away too. I know many adults who feel the same way, too.
Yet, to me, being Jewish seems to be simply about an identity. I don’t need to wear a pink tutu to the baseball game to know I’m a woman and I don’t need to wear a sheitel (wig) to know I’m a Jew. Yet, yet, I have no way to explain why I am Jewish. Why, if I don’t observe Jewish tradition, am I any different from non-Jews? How do I explain what makes me any more Jewish from my Lutheran neighbor Bill or my Catholic neighbor Jerry or our Protestant friend Fred?
When I discuss this question with my friends and I ask them to help me explain what makes me Jewish, they shrug and say, “Why does it matter? You are Jewish. Do you really need to be able to reduce everything to identifiable parts? Can’t you just be Jewish without being able to explain it? Why does it matter?”
Because it matters. Because I have a child who is entitled to feel as Jewish as any other Jew, yet I don’t know how to impart that identity to him when I am not reinforcing the strongest visual associations to Judaism. How do I impart to my child that we are a committed part of the Jewish people, that everything I do is influenced by my Judaism–my work, my reading, my lifestyle, my community–when we sit at a baseball game on Saturday and high five a home run instead of going for a walk in our finest Shabbos dresses?
How do I explain that I feel so much more Jewish when I dress in a way that makes me look less so?
I didn’t have the answer.
I wish I’d believe that over those four endless hours in the stadium of yelling “yahhhh!” and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and getting our faces on the big screen with desperate yipping, I’d made enough comments on the subject to make my son understand that Judaism is not about the number of ways you express it, but in how meaningful each action is. Or that it isn’t about following some particular traditions but about the important things that make us good humans that make the Jewish people a community to be proud of. But when we left, he’d long forgotten his simple remark, or cared about my answers. He only gushed that our team had won the game, that the fireworks were spectacular, and that it was far past our bedtime. And I wasn’t anywhere closer to understanding why I am so Jewish, so very proudly Jewish, and why my son must understand that in the same innate way I do.
Perhaps another Shabbos, perhaps at another game.