Last Sunday, I participated in a Jewish Food Festival. I taught two workshops, one on making jam with honey, and another about quick pickles (the room overflowed in that one). I also sat in the marketplace and sold books when I wasn’t teaching. And I thought a lot about my own connection with Jewishness.
My mother is Jewish, which means I am too. However, she grew up in a family that was strictly secular and so during my childhood, my exposure to Judaism was limited to the All of a Kind Family books and the Passover Seders hosted by our Unitarian church.
When I was 22, I moved to Philadelphia and started to reconnect with my Jewish relatives. I gathered with them for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover, and learned to make the right food (I am our official brisket maker). I still don’t know any of the appropriate Hebrew prayers, but I have always figured that silence works just as well.
Most of the time, I feel like being Jewish is an established part of my identity. The only time I feel less so? When I’m in a large meeting room full of Jews. This is in part because I don’t have any outward markers of Jewishness. I have straight light brown hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. When my sister and I were young, strangers would often ask our dark haired, olive-skinned mother if we were adopted. My last name is McClellan. There is nothing about me that communicates the fact that I am half Ashkenazi Jew.
On Sunday, after I’d taught my workshops and was back at my table in the marketplace, one of the women who had sat through my pickling workshop walked up to buy a book. She chatted excitedly about how much she had enjoyed the demonstration and how much she was looking forward to going home and making pickles.
After she bought a book and I’d signed it, she looked at my quizzically and asked, “So. McClellan. How did you wind up at a Jewish Food Festival?” I explained, “My mom is Jewish. Before she got married, her name was Susan Klein.”
I could see her scanning my face, searching for features that could back up my claim. She must have seen something that satisfied her, because she let out a small Ah! and gave me an even brighter smile.
Of course, the welcome in that smile raises a whole host of other issues for me (chief among them being the fact that I chafe at the idea of one group being a Chosen People), but in the moment a part of me was soothed by the acknowledgement.