This story is syndicated from The Spectator, the newspaper of Stuyvesant High School in New York City. The original version of the story ran here.
I recently came across the “Russian girl” trend on TikTok, in which artists share a culture that they’ve “lost,” using their art to represent the traditions from which they’ve become detached. It made me think: what would be my rendition of this trend? What culture am I detached from? Despite the hours on end I’ve spent at synagogue services, my many summers at Jewish camp, and my teaching at Hebrew school, the one that came to mind was Judaism. On my first day in Jewish history class, history teacher Robert Sandler posed the question: “What is Judaism?” Is Judaism a religion? A culture? An ethnicity? My answer: It is all of those things and none of those things, but for every Jew to feel welcome, there must be distinctions between each identity.
On a personal level, I’ve only ever identified with the religious aspect of Judaism, feeling isolated from both its stereotypical culture as well as its ethnicity. I do have a culture I associate with Judaism, but it’s not the Matzo ball soup or Gefilte fish. It’s the comforting music at Shabbat services and the Torah chanting I do at the High Holidays. For me, Jewish culture is not based on common traditions; it stems from the memories I was able to make by existing in Jewish spaces—the flickering candles at Shabbat, the moshing to prayers at camp song sessions, the feeling of accomplishment I received from chanting Torah. I felt a similar disconnect with Jewish ethnicity as well. Because only my mother comes from Jewish heritage, I’m not fully ethnically Jewish. Being blonde, blue-eyed, and having the last name Diaz, I grew up knowing that I would never be recognized as Jewish without making it incredibly obvious to everyone around me. As a result, I launched myself into Torah study and services, wore Hamsas and evil eyes as jewelry, and made my religion the biggest part of my life, proving to both myself and others that I am Jewish, that I was not less than just because my dad grew up with a Christian background.
While my personal issues alone make me uncomfortable with the conflation of these identities, on a larger scale, the issues only become more apparent. When considering culture, for example, one forgets that Judaism doesn’t only consist of one culture. It is made up of three main groups: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim, all of which come from different regions, cherish different foods, and celebrate different traditions. While each is equally Jewish, Jewish “culture” is almost entirely represented by Ashkenazim, consisting of Matzo ball soup, lavish B’nei mitzvah parties, and protective grandmothers, leaving Sephardic and Mizrahi culture almost entirely unrepresented. This is problematic for many reasons. Most notably, many Jews have actively tried to separate themselves from Ashkenazi culture. Following the development of Israel, the “New Jew” stereotype was developed, in which Israeli Jews aimed to make a name for themselves separate from the Ashkenazi identity they left behind. They worked hard labor, were muscly and bronzed, and entirely unlike the stereotypical Ashkenazi image they believed were weak. While this belief reflects some level of internal antisemitism, the fact remains that no Jew should be forced to identify with a culture or image they don’t conform to, and thus, the countless Jewish cultures and images cannot be lumped together into one.
Jews cannot be lumped into one ethnicity or nation, because we cannot be thought of as different from anyone else, both physically and with regards to national identity. In the early 20th century, following the discoveries of Charles Darwin, the idea of natural selection began to be considered in the context of human beings, leading to the rising popularity of eugenics. Through false, pseudoscientific experiments, eugenicists used methods like head measurement to prove that Jews were physically different and inferior to the idealized Aryan race. On the level of national identity as well, promoting the idea of Jews as a separate nation also promotes the “dual identity” stereotype of Jews being unloyal to the country they live in. This belief paints Jews as distrustful and conniving and has led to them being scapegoated throughout history for everything that goes wrong in society. Together, these ideologies were what allowed Adolf Hitler to convince millions of Europeans that Jews should be exterminated—that their physical and nationalistic otherness made them different and dangerous. We were thought of as rats, and unfortunately, we cannot be so naive to think that this could not happen again. By intentionally distinguishing ourselves as an ethnicity or nation, we are painting ourselves as other, and we are buying into those same beliefs that Hitler propagated, giving others a reason to distrust or fear us. The world we live in now still contains antisemitism, and if we continue to distinguish ourselves from other religious groups, we are inherently victimizing ourselves in case, god forbid, another Hitler comes to power.
However, it is important to acknowledge that many Jews do come from the same region thousands of years ago—Israel—which is why Judaism is typically considered an ethnoreligion. There’s nothing wrong with identifying with that heritage, but by conflating the “ethno-” with the “religion,” it not only frames Jews as other, but also invalidates both Jews who are not ethnically Jewish and those who don’t identify with Judaism or Jewish religion. Judaism receives many converts each year, but because of the ethnic associations, many feel incredibly out of place in the community, especially Jews of color. Likewise, people who look ethnically Jewish but are not will always have to deal with the stigma of being associated with a religion they don’t identify with. Judaism may be currently classed as an ethnoreligion, but for everyone to feel welcome, there cannot be the expectation that one has to be both ethnically and religiously or culturally Jewish.
These are questions that I was exploring long before the October 7 attack on Israel. That tragedy, along with the rising acts of antisemitism and the great losses of human life on both sides of the escalating war in Gaza have forced many American Jews to protect and weigh the value of their identities. For me, this is a personal inquiry that lies well outside of global politics, even of local politics. However, I encourage readers to strive for more understanding of their Jewish friends. As horrible as the crisis in Gaza currently is, narratives calling for there to solely be a Palestinian state or for Israelis to “go back where they came from” overlook the antisemitism that we face across the world and have faced historically—Israelis cannot return where they came from if they escaped the Holocaust, or Soviet Russia, or were expelled from Yemen or Syria. Jews don’t have a safe haven without Israel, and demonizing Zionism is to demonize our strive for a homeland due to our historical lack of safety. Israelis and Palestinians should not be opposed; rather, the only solution that allows for peace and safety for all is one that provides a home for all peoples in the region.
Finally, Judaism also cannot be thought of as one binary religion. While I identify very heavily with the religious aspect of Judaism, I know there are many Orthodox Jews who would believe me not to be Jewish at all, that the way I dress or pray or live makes me something other than what they believe to be Jewish. Jews can be Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. They can be Kabbalists and believe in mysticism, wear black hats and payos, like many associate with Jews, or they can be atheists and not identify with Judaism religiously at all. Regardless, the expression of Judaism is both personal and valid, but it must be distinguished. Each Jew deserves to be understood and honored for their unique relationship to the Jewish religion, just like Christians in each sect are recognized for being Catholic, Evangelical, or Mormon.
I have never met a Jew who doesn’t feel some sort of imposter syndrome, whether they feel that they should learn Hebrew, that they’re too observant or not observant enough; that they look too “Jewish,” or wish they had more traditional Ashkenazi features. Most organizations aim to solve this problem by promoting unity, but in doing so, they fail to acknowledge the nuances between each Jewish identity. A Sephardic Jew is not the same as an Ashkenazi Jew, just as an Orthodox Jew is not the same as a Reform Jew. There will always be some intrinsic connection between every Jew, no matter how they identify, but solely focusing on togetherness neglects the differences and uniqueness that make us all so special.
Yes, we are all Jewish, but we are not all culturally, ethnically, or even religiously the same. All different representations of Judaism are valid, but for them to be appropriately represented and honored, the distinctions within each culture and religious sect must be apparent, and both religion and culture must be considered separate from ethnicity. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, but each Jew must be recognized for their uniqueness and their own identity, rather than conflated with a group they may not identify with. Looking back on my rendition of the TikTok trend, I know I am not the Jewish girl with Manichewitz in her blood who dances with Todd Yahney, but the Jewish girl with song in her blood who dances with the Torah. And this way, I know my soul will not be torn apart.