Should I tell him I’m not a Jew? I wondered this over and over as I sat in the Cal State Long Beach office of academia’s leading anti-Semite.
People make many assumptions about a reporter named Greenberg who lives in Los Angeles and writes for The Jewish Journal. Maybe, I wondered, Kevin MacDonald, a professor whose books on Jews have been compared to “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” would speak more freely if he knew I was, in fact, a practicing Christian.
But then I thought about the personal setback I would be subjecting myself to for the sake, possibly, of a few good quotes.
I’d been writing for The Journal for a year, and while I was open about being a churchgoing Christian — my father, a Jew, and my mother, who was raised Catholic, both converted to Protestantism when I was a kid — I was adamant in my belief that the Jewish story was also my family’s story, that purpose and promise and persecution link my ancestors to Moses and Einstein and the Beastie Boys.
So I kept quiet. I let the professor think of me whatever he was inclined to think. As the interview progressed, I realized the disclosure would not have mattered to MacDonald. But it certainly would have mattered to me.
When, in 2007, I joined The Journal — which I am leaving now to enter law school at UCLA — the impetus was as personal as it was professional. Sure, I saw an opportunity to advance my career — and having received some top honors from the Los Angeles Press Club during my time here, including best blog and journalist of the year, I’d say the Prophets couldn’t have promised anything more. But, maybe more importantly, I thought the move would help me sort out my complicated Judeo-Christian identity.
I typically observe Passover in a church, and growing up in a San Diego suburb, the extent of my Jewish upbringing was being the target of money jokes. Despite having three Jewish grandparents, including both grandmothers, and facial hair that draws comparisons to Matisyahu, I was, at best, Jew-ish.
But at The Jewish Journal I began working on my Yiddish tongue; I went to Yom Kippur services for the first time. I traveled to Israel and even got hassled by El Al security screeners; I observed Shabbat in Sderot and experienced the terror of hearing a red alert and having only a few seconds to run for a bomb shelter; I haggled at a market (OK, I was already pretty good at that); and I learned that I had an incredible amount more in common with the Jews I was sojourning among than the gentiles I grew up with.
There was speculation among a few colleagues that my joining this paper was an indication that a Prodigal Son was coming home. But this had not been my father’s house for more than two decades. And not everyone welcomed me back.
“The ‘Jewish’ journal continues to employ this Christian with a Jewish name to tell us about Jews,” a reader of my blog, The God Blog, wrote in one of a handful of similar comments in 2007. “How ‘bout this: let the JJ change its name to the ‘Apostate Journal,’ and BG can change his name to Christian Berg.”
Those sentiments didn’t surprise me. In fact, I had assumed such opposition would be prevalent, and when Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman contacted me at the Los Angeles Daily News and asked me to lunch, I quickly let him know that he might want to move on to a candidate who better fit the bill.
“It’s OK,” he responded. “Some of my best friends aren’t Jewish.”
Still, I had no illusions about the insider-outsider place I would occupy in the community. Nevertheless, I found that most readers evaluated me by the quality of my work, not by the fact that, much like most L.A. Jews, I didn’t daven daily.
I didn’t struggle with the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life — with discerning JVS (Jewish Vocational Service) from JFS (Jewish Family Service) from JFL (Jewish Free Loan) — but remembering all the holidays ... oy. I also found that there is much more to understanding the Jewish community than just being able to differentiate between an eruv and a mikveh.
Never was this more apparent than when I visited the Jewish State.
Not all Jews, I learned, looked like me: poor-sighted, fair-skinned, curly haired. In Los Angeles you could go years without running into a Jew who wasn’t either from Eastern Europe or Iran. But the breadth of diversity in Israel — where Jews arrive from India and Ethiopia and Australia and China and Argentina — pushed aside everything I thought I knew about who is a Jew, and what it means to be a Jew, and what it is to live a Jewish life.
Whether writing about the fragility of life in Israel or economic pressures on Jewish communal life or L.A.’s Jewish hoops hero, Jordan Farmar, I met Jews who had grown up with a strong identity and those just developing one; Jews who were Jews in name only and others who considered themselves Jewish only when others wanted them to be; Jews who felt a God-given obligation to defend the faith and those who felt just as strong a responsibility to reform it.
Like Los Angeles itself, I found that Jewish life is a vast landscape, ranging from sandy beaches to snow-capped mountains, from hardscrabble desert to dense forest. It’s a place where even a Christian named Greenberg could find a home.
I’m not a Messianic or a Jew for Jesus. I’ve never pretended to be a partial practitioner of Judaism. But I’ve also found that I deeply appreciate Jewish life — the commitment to community-building and supporting the less fortunate, to education and culture, to reading and writing, to remembering God.
Pretty early during my employment at The Journal, I realized how to definitively answer the question I had gotten so used to hearing: “Are you Jewish?”
“Well,” I would say, “that really depends on who’s asking.”
The issue of Jewish identity is, after all, a thousands-year-old debate; I don’t expect to be the answer.
I’m happy to be accepted by those who can accept me, but I understand if you can’t. Personally, I don’t think I could feel more Jewish. Except for that whole faith-in-Jesus thing. And he is kind of a deal-breaker.
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