Ancestry Lesson v.3
Understanding Ethnicity and Religion
In the first two volumes, I explored my patrilineal ancestries through my mother’s and father’s sides. Issues of racism, sexism, cultural appropriation, inconsistencies in recordkeeping, trustworthy sources, and hearsay were discussed. In this volume, I look to my father’s matrilineal line and attempt to understand what it means to be a descendant of Jewish peoples through my father.
When I was little, my grandmother told me that when our ancestors came over they had changed their name. The current surname is a common one, “Alexander” and the previous surname, “Sender” a shortened version of the current. At the time, I thought it silly. I was a child who had not yet been exposed to world history and did not understand why the shorter previous surname was not the one that remained in use. As an adult remembering this moment, I automatically thought that it had something to do with religious persecution and that my ancestors fled to the United States to start a new life and escape the Holocaust. However, I have found that this was not the case. My ancestor was alive in the 19th century before Hitler, before World War I and II, and moved to the U. S. for reasons that did not involve a religious exodus.
I decided to look into the previous surname further. The ANU Museum of the Jewish People helped illuminate confusion I had between the former and the latter surnames used by my Jewish great great grandfather. The former surname is a diminutive form of the latter. In Jewish history, there was the practice of adopting Greek names since 70 BCE. The adoption of Greek names turned into using a non-Jewish name with the Jewish name around the 12th century. In the 12th century, it was important for Jewish males to have their Jewish name and their non-Jewish name for “civil and business purposes.” I have seen in some genealogy records the combining of “Sender Alexander” or “(Sender) Alexander” for my ancestors. Finding this bit has aided in trying to figure out more about my great great grandfather.
The passing on of Judaism stopped with my great great grandparents. My grandmother’s father (my great grandfather) was their son. I am unaware of my great grandmother’s religious affiliation nor do I know if my grandmother and her siblings practiced their faith in the local synagogue. Though, I imagine if my grandmother’s family did practice Judaism I would not be here on Medium trying to make sense of these things, let alone be here.
Questions About Jewish Identity and What It Means to Have Jewish Ancestors
Last year, I did a DNA saliva kit. Since, I have had results of my ancestral make-up shared with me. In those results, it said I was 22% Ashkenazi (European) Jew. I have wondered how I can be Jewish if one’s being Jewish is determined by whether their mother is Jewish. I have also stumbled over how being Jewish is a faith, but also an ethnicity.
I started by looking up what makes someone “Jewish.” The first articles I found told me mostly what I already knew. A follower of Judaism is Jewish, this happens in one of two ways: 1. your mother is Jewish — a follower of Judaism or 2. you convert to Judaism. These beliefs are from the orthodox/traditional standpoint, but also Jewish law. Based off Jewish law, I am not Jewish, nor a follower of Judaism, nor currently a convert.
In 2013, Pew Research Center conducted a research study to dig a little deeper into “Who is a Jew?” Through concept mapping and a decision tree they came up with four categories and groupings of people in the study:
- Jews by Religion — people who say their religion is Jewish (and who do not profess any other religion);
- Jews of No Religion — people who describe themselves (religiously) as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, but who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and who still consider themselves Jewish in some way.
- Non-Jewish people of Jewish background — people who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish but who, today, either have another religion (most are Christian) or say they do not consider themselves Jewish;
- Non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity — people who identify with another religion (in most cases, Christianity) or with no religion and who neither have a Jewish parent nor were raised Jewish but who nevertheless consider themselves Jewish in some way. Some say, for example, that they consider themselves partly Jewish because Jesus was Jewish, because “we all come from Abraham” or because they have Jewish friends or relatives (Pew Research Center 2013).
Out of these categories, I feel that the fourth category listed, Non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity most closely aligns with how I would identify. Somewhere along the family line the Jewish faith was dropped but the Jewish ethnicity/bloodline has persisted.
The Pew Research Center study scratches the surface of Jewish identity from a science perspective but what of the religious perspective? In an Atlantic 2016 article, Chris Bodener explores “What Makes a Jew a Jew?”. Bodener interviewed their Jewish readership and got their perspectives on Jewish identity. Bodener first shares quotes from a reader, Esther who begins with quoting Jewish law (as I did above). For the most part, Esther’s opinion seems to be one of tradition/orthodox Judaism, but the last part of their quote stuck out to me:
“To those who have shared their stories, please understand that God made some people Jews and some people non-Jews. Non-Jews can lead good holy lives; God does not expect them to become Jews, and Jews don’t either. Maybe this is hard for followers of other religions to understand because it is so different than other religions. For example, Christians believe that their religion is the right path and universal, but Judaism is unique in that we believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and not everyone has to follow our religion — only the members of the Jewish family do” (Bodener 2016).
These ideas are beautiful to me. I have been too often enmeshed in religions that seek to convert others and/or to force their faith, their ideologies, and their religious propaganda onto non-followers. This quote also supports the category of Non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity. Another reader, Evan goes a bit further in talking about Judaism and identity:
“One of the hot topics nowadays (or at least on college campuses) is how people ‘identify.’ At first I heard it applied to sexual orientation, gender, or political stance. But I have increasingly heard people apply this paradigm to religion and even race. To me, the sentence ‘I identify as Jewish’ is bizarre. Identity has nothing to do with it. As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying ‘I identify as Korean,’ regardless of one’s actual heritage. I think this stems from a larger trend of radical individualism that is such a prevalent attitude nowadays” (Bodener 2016).
Evan elaborates further by talking about Judaism through a communivistic lens vs. an individualistic lens. The way Evan describes Orthodox Judaism is a religion that centers around community. Honoring community is an integral part of Judaism in this sense. Evan’s viewpoints combined with that of Esther’s help me to see that Judaism as a religion and faith is unlike any other religion as well as American culture. From Evan’s perspective, they see American culture and individualistic ideologies seeping into how Americans frame Judaism. That is Americans see Judaism as an identity rather than a way of life and practicing one’s fealty to God. Judaism then is more susceptible to becoming weakened as well as appropriated by individuals seeking to collect an identity/label.
This is exactly why I sought to do some research of my own. On one hand, I do not want to deny that I have Jewish ancestry. On the other hand, I do not want to claim being Jewish or call myself Jewish without understanding what exactly that means. Thus far, it seems fair to say that I have a Jewish affinity or more aptly I have Jewish ancestors and leave it at this. These connections to the Jewish faith and ethnicity say nothing about me being/not being Jewish but can open me up to discussion about what it means that my ancestors were Jewish.
What Judaism Means to Me Culturally
In the little bit of digging I have done around Judaism, what makes a Jew, who is a Jew, and so on, I have come to see that for me Judaism offers a lot that is appealing to me as a non-Jew. The community mindset and being communal, as well as giving back to community is a huge part of who I am and how I see myself in the world. The article, “Studying community: Culturally Jewish — proud of heritage but not religious” the reporter interviews Lewis Braham who refers to themselves as “culturally Jewish.” Braham highlights a few things about Judaism that also appeal to me, “admires Judaism’s commitment to activism, its encouragement of intellectual curiosity…” (Tabachnick 2020). For me, being in a community committed to activism and encouraging learning is where I feel at home. Surrounding myself with a group of people who want to back up what they learn with action is a community I want to be a part of. But as Braham indicates, the God worship is also where I fall out for some of the same reasons Braham lists and some of my own. Like Esther stated above, I feel the pressure to be Jewish and/or commit to the Lord is lifted for me as it is not expected for the non-Jewish or non-follower to convert. And as Ethan also addresses in the same article from above, I do not want to get into berry-picking the things I like and do not like, the Jewish laws I will abide and will not, and the “type of Jew” I will appropriate — will be and will not be. This is why I hesitate to go further. For me, this is not an all or nothing response and for the Orthodox Jew this is not up for contemplation for me being a non-Jew and non-follower.
In close, I now have a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish and who is Jewish. I respect that at this time in my life this is not something I am willing to practice, commit myself to the laws and beliefs that guide Judaism, nor become my way of life. Additionally, I have deep respect for the tenets and laws of Judaism and its followers. If nothing else, I have learned what it means to be Jewish and practice Judaism in the current day but I still have much to learn about what it meant to be Jewish, practicing Judaism when my great great grandparents were alive.
ANU Museum. (1996). SENDER Origin of Surname. DBS ANU Museum. https://dbs.anumuseum.org.il/skn/en/c6/e247109/Family_Name/SENDER
Bodener, C. (2016). What makes a Jew a Jew. The Atlantic. Retrieved June 3, 2021 from https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/04/what-makes-a-jew-a-jew/478161/
Freeman, T. & Shurpin, Y. (2021). Why is Jewishness Matrilineal. Chabad.org. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/601092/jewish/Why-Is-Jewishness-Matrilineal.htm
Pew Research Center. (2013, October 1). Who is a Jew?. Pew Forum. https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/sidebar-who-is-a-jew/
Tabachnick, T. (2020, February 20). Studying community: Culturally Jewish — proud of heritage but not religious. Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. https://jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com/culturally-jewish-proud-of-heritage-but-not-religious/