In this post: Defining Identity / Revisiting Identity / Despite Identity / At LongLast
A number of recent news items provide insights into various aspects of Jewish identity.
One was a recent ruling in the UK on who is a Jew, at least for the purpose of attending government-funded Jewish schools (British High Court Says Jewish School’s Ethnic-Based Admissions Policy Is Illegal, Sarah Lyall, New York Times, December 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/europe/17britain.html?ref=education). A boy, who actively practiced Judiasm and had two Jewish parents, was refused admission to the school because his conversion of his mother was not recognized by the school’s administrators.
Given that the traditional definition of who is a Jew is determined by whether the mother is Jewish, the child was not recognized as Jewish and, as a result, refused admission to the school. The school only recognized Orthodox conversions. The mother of the child at the center of the lawsuit had converted to Judaism, but in a Progressive conversion (Progressive is the name of the Reform movement outside of North America and, technically encompasses the Reconstructionist movement). Progressive, Reform, and Conservative conversions are often not recognized by the Orthodox community.
Because the school receives its funding from the UK government, the child’s parents brought the matter to the courts, who sided with the family. Response to the ruling seems to appear along party lines: traditionalists aren’t happy, progressives are.
The Jewish community isn’t the only grappling with identity issues. Martin Fackler reports that a “Baby Boom of Mixed Children Tests South Korea” (New York Times, November 28, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/world/asia/29babies.html?hpw=&pagewanted=all).
As the result of a shortage of Korean women (especially in rural areas), many Korean men are marrying women from other parts of Asia, such as China and Vietnam. For a society that’s been homogenous for centuries, integrating children of mixed ethnic heritage is proving a challenge. Given that this boom is relatively new and the first children it produced are just entering school, Korean society faces many challenges in the years ahead—some likely to be similar to the one that the Jewish community in the UK faced.
Moreover, the who is a Jew? debate isn’t necessarily a new one. David Brooks’ “Hannukah Story” (New York Times, December 10, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/11/opinion/11brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion), reframed Hanukah for me—from a struggle between ancient Jews and an outside conquerer to a struggle about who is a Jew and, more fundamentally, what constitutes living a Jewish life. His Macabees aren’t the heroes presented in Hebrew school; they’re fundamentalist leaders fighting secularists as much as the occupiers. Brooks puts the situation in a good light: he calling them “complex ironies.” For what it’s worth, I’ll never look at Hanukah the same way again.
If some of the recent stories made us think, others made us feel. A Mideast Bond, Stitched of Pain and Healing (by Ethan Bronner, New York Times, December 30, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/world/middleeast/31children.html?ref=world), tells about the friendship of two children—a Palestinian girl left paralyzed by the bombing in Gaza and a Jewish boy who lost half his brain in an air raid. Their friendship, developed as neighbors in a long-term convalescence center for children, has spilled over to their parents, who have also formed a strong friendship. It reminds us that, even in the worst of circumstances, something beautiful can grown.
At Long Last
And on the quietest of nights, entertainment can still be found. Following the leads of many other cities, Montreal finally has had its own version of the Matzo Ball, the Christmas Eve dance for single Jews (Matzo Ball coming to town at last, Jean-Sebastien Marier, Montreal Gazette, December 23, 2009, http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Matzo+Ball+coming+town+last/2372712/story.html).