What to Answer When an Israeli Asks, “Are you Jewish?” - A Guide (to the Perplexed)

By Jasmine Granas, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv - Jaffa 2013-2014 participant
"Are you Jewish?" As soon as as someone asks me, the exasperation starts to build in my stomach. Sometimes I just want to scream, ‘I don’t know! Stop asking me!’ Am I the only person in the world who doesn't have an immediate answer? To most people it may seem like a simple, black and white question with a simple, black and white answer. Okay, there is the issue of whether one’s mother is Jewish, and other considerations that can make the answer complicated for some people. But ever since I landed in Israel to participate in Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a volunteer & study program run by BINA & the Daniel Centers, everyone around me seems so sure that they are Jewish -- which I admire and wonder about, yet at the same time makes me uncomfortable, because in my mind I don’t fit in.
If someone were to ask me this question a year ago in the US, my answer would be some long-winded explanation of how my father is Israeli, so technically I am half Jewish, but I grew up in a religionless household and I most closely identify with atheism -- Does that make me Jewish?? This answer is characterized by a lot of information-giving without actually committing to a conclusion… and answering a question with another question (clue #1 that I might be Jewish). Vagueness and indecision about self identity is the standard in San Francisco, so this answer was perfectly acceptable there and did not require the discomfort of digging deep within my soul.
Since I arrived in Israel, I began to realize that my answers to such heavy questions depend almost equally on two things: my own perceptions of myself and also the societal norms of the place in which I am being asked. Ideas about our personal identity often include information pertaining to the social constructs of the societies we live in. Because of the multitude of cultures, religions, sexual orientations etc. in San Francisco, questioning one’s identity has become somewhat of a norm and is even celebrated. In Israel, though, people seem to know where they stand, at least on the subject of religion. Whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or ‘Other,’ knowing one’s religious identity seems more important here. It’s a Jewish state, after all.
My vague, non committal answer doesn’t make as much sense in Israel as it did in San Fran. It looks like I’m going to have to do some soul digging. In a way, I guess that is part of the reason I came to Israel, this place that makes up one half of my origins but which I know very little about. I’m happy that the Tikkun Olam program includes an element of Jewish studies because another thing I’d like to develop during my time here is my relationship (or lack of) with spirituality. My aforementioned claim to relate most closely to atheism is the stock answer I’ve been giving people since high school, but recently I have been learning how to meditate and feel a deeper connection to the world around me -- it’s too early to tell where this notion will take me, but I am open to finding out. The BINA folks tell us wisely, “Don’t expect to find too many answers, just more questions!” Maybe instead of seeking the answer, I will just learn to be more comfortable with not knowing it. I can always adopt the Israeli answer to everything: ‘It’s complicated!’
Jasmine Granas grew up in Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area, raised by an Israeli father and a non Jewish mother. She studied Marketing at the University of Texas in Austin, then worked in the non profit sector in Melbourne, Australia for two years. Most recently she worked at a technology startup in San Francisco, before leaving the US again to backpack through Europe on her way to starting Tikkun Olam in Jaffa, in hopes of learning about her Jewish heritage and building a connection with Israel.  
Originally published in the BINA Thanksgivukkah newsletter

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