Thoughts on Being Jew-ish

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.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Being Jew-ish

  1. Ellen

    I new to the blog. As matter of fact, this is my very first blog.( I am not fast on joining the technology era). I am Jewish … I avoided telling anyone I was. I usually skirted around the religion issue, by saying “All religions are valid and good. Religions will keep mankind in line, and install good morals.”I was embarrassed to admit my religion. Not sure why, maybe I felt that many people condemned the Jews during WW One… Old habits(hating others) don’t die easily.

  2. Liz

    I can relate to part of this. I, too, am the product of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, although he had converted before I was born. I look almost exactly like my dad – light brown hair (it was blond in the summers when I was a kid), blue eyes, wide (not narrow) nose – and when I was a baby people would apparently ask my mother (who looks like her Austrian-born father) whose child I was.

    But with all that, I did grow up very strongly Jewish – probably because it was important to my mom and her parents (although I didn’t know that until much later). We attended Shabbat services somewhat regularly, I learned Hebrew, had a bat mitzvah, kept a dairy kosher home, strictly observed Pesach every year, etc. I’ve always felt very comfortable as a jew, and I think that has in many ways “counteracted” my not-traditional-look. But I have definitely found myself explaining that the “Chesser” comes from my father, and my mother was(is) a “Steinberger.”


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