The column | My passage to Jewish identity, reflected in a young man’s journey

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On a hike last weekend at Muir Beach, I started chatting with a young man named Sean. When he heard I was the editor of a Jewish newspaper, his eyes lit up. He told me he’d never been to Israel and had just applied for a Birthright trip. Frankly, I was surprised, both because of his name and — I’m embarrassed to admit it — because he didn’t look Jewish.

Why embarrassed? Because the same thing happens to me so often, and I oughta know better. My blond hair and green-blue eyes come from the English side of my family — my mother’s father, who hailed from Leicester. When I look at the faded photograph I have of Grandpa Charles, his parents and eight sisters and brothers, circa 1925, I see myself reflected in their faces. I remember getting upset on early trips to Israel when people assumed I wasn’t Jewish, especially at the airport when Israeli security personnel would squint at me and ask me to name the Jewish holidays. I’d spit them out, glaring at the interlocutor, who couldn’t have cared less.

Ironically, I’ve also experienced the reverse at Jewish community events where I’ve spoken over the years — people who assume I was born Jewish because I’m a Jewish journalist. More than once, men (it’s always men) have come up to me after my talk to tell me I’m “as pretty as a shiksa” or somesuch. They mean it as a compliment, which it is not.

I converted when I was 19, as I’ve written several times in this space. But it took me years to fully own my Jewish identity. Once I could tell people straight-out that I was celebrating Christmas with my mother and sisters, thank you very much, I knew I was completely comfortable in my Jewishness. A little holiday turkey and a tree or two wasn’t going to change that.

What really cemented it, though, was all the time I spent in Israel — three kibbutz ulpans, stints leading summer teen tours and, finally, making aliyah and becoming a citizen. After that, there was never a question. I was Jewish, and made no apologies for the journey it took to get me there.

That’s why my conversation with Sean made such an impression. He told me he is 25, has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and knows very little about Judaism. He said his only connection came from holidays celebrated at his Jewish grandparents’ house, and an observant high school friend with whom he’s reconnected. Now he wants to know more. That’s why he applied for the Birthright trip, and is hoping to be accepted for this summer.

He peppered me with questions. What’s the weather like in Israel in August? (Uh, hot.) Is it an organized trip, or will he have a lot of free time? (No free time, he should extend his ticket.)

I told him about some of the things he’ll experience: Shabbat in Jerusalem, when the shops begin to close, the buses stop and the siren sounds just before sundown; the vibrancy of beach life in Tel Aviv; the magical desert views from Masada. Those are scenes one can describe. But what I didn’t even try to convey were the human connections he would make, and the impact this first voyage to his own history would have on him.

I remember when the Birthright project was first announced, in late 1999. I was a freelance writer for the Jerusalem Post and I thought I knew a thing or two about building Jewish identity. Free 10-day trips to Israel for every Jewish young adult? What kind of cockamamie idea was that?  My colleagues and I, Jewish media professionals all, laughed and predicted the program would be short-lived.

Sixteen years and more than half a million participants later, Birthright has become part of the communal conversation, a rite of passage akin to bar or bat mitzvah for this generation of young Jews. It’s one of the most important links many of them have with the Jewish state and their own Jewish identity.

How very much more important it is, then, for those young Jews with little Jewish background, especially those from intermarried homes who are looking for their place in the Jewish community. To Sean and all those like him who are searching for who they are, zay gezunt — go in good health.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].