About twenty years ago, a man with the surname Murphy stood on the bima of the synagogue that I attended in Connecticut and said, “As of today, Murphy is a Jewish name.”
The occasion was his son’s bar mitzvah service. He himself was a lapsed Catholic; his wife was Jewish.
I thought of that in connection with Mookey Van Orden’s talks to us at the Shabbat Juneteenth services. We are as quick to judge a person’s Jewishness on the basis of a surname as we are on skin color—yet even a person named Murphy could have a Jewish mother and be halachichly Jewish.
Mookey was speaking about the frequent demand that a Jew of color prove their Jewish bona fides every time they enter a Jewish setting. This persists even though one in five Jews in America is a person of color. In the Murphys’ congregation, the shofar-blower was a member of the Apache nation.
The fact is that we very rarely have any need to verify that a person is genuinely Jewish. For attending services, it doesn’t matter at all. For certain ritual roles, it does matter, but there’s no need to be hyper-vigilant. It matters for weddings, because an officiant who performs interfaith ceremonies may structure the ceremony differently when both partners are Jewish, and it matters for burials in some but not all Jewish cemeteries.
In the morning service that Shabbat, I mentioned Rabbi Sandra Lawson’s distress when Jews who meet her immediately demand her full life story. She’s the first Black Lesbian rabbi, but unless you’re hiring her as a rabbi you don’t need proof that she’s a rabbi. If it matters, only one question is needed: where was she ordained?
There is another, more subtle aspect to this. Many of us have a habit of asserting what we think is privileged Jewish status in settings where it doesn’t matter and for reasons that don’t matter. We’re unreasonably proud of having grown up in New York City rather than out here in the midbar (wilderness), having attended Hebrew school three days a week, having grandparents who spoke Yiddish, coming from an Orthodox family… you name it, some of us are proud of it.
Yet none of that makes you more Jewish, or a better Jew, than someone who grew up in Idaho, never went to Hebrew school at all, or is the first-ever Jewish member of their family.
It might mean that you can rattle off traditional prayers with your eyes closed, have fond memories of a certain New York deli, or drop Yiddish words randomly into conversation. So what?
Traditional synagogues try to call a Kohen for the first Torah aliyah and a Levi for the second. Sometimes we do that at Congregation Kol Ami and sometimes we don’t.
I suggest that being “more Jewish” or “a better Jew” comes from how you live. In that congregation in Connecticut, I think of the Navy officer who had no Jewish education as a child but had become quite learned through reading he did during long deployments at sea. I think of his wife, a Jew by choice, who had assumed responsibility for the Jewish upbringing of their daughter and held office in the Sisterhood.
I think of Jews, including many who don’t like to attend worship services, who devote themselves to tzedakah (justice or charity) and g’milut chasadim (acts of kindness). How they look, where they’re from, or what their surnames are just don’t matter.