I'm A Jew
BY HANNAH MORITZ
May 1, 2022
I suppose I always have been, but to be honest, up until recently I didn’t think about it much. I certainly didn’t rate it high on the list of my defining characteristics.
I was living in LA’s west side, where despite being less than one-quarter of one percent of the world’s population, Jews were everywhere (and I do mean everywhere - Beverly Hills is 70% Jewish!). There were so many Jews, that no matter what “Jewishness” meant to you personally, you could easily fall in with others who felt the same way.
Some Jews, like the Ultra-Orthodox defined themselves by dissociating from the world at large. The rest of us lived very much in the world, integrated (or assimilated if you prefer) into the larger community of Los Angeles. So much so that children in public school would learn and perform Hanukkah songs along with Christmas classics at the annual Holiday Pageant.
So there I was, living in LA: A non-religious (atheist in fact) culturally Jewish person, participating in some of the rituals, enjoying the food and the inside-jokes but leaving the heavy-lifting of maintaining, representing and defining Jewish culture to others.
Then in December 2014 I moved to Auckland, New Zealand. A cosmopolitan city to be sure. All the kiwis I met seemed to have spent significant time traveling overseas and not unlike myself, many people I encountered had started their lives elsewhere. It’s a great place full of interesting people - I loved it here from the start!
Hold up, where are the Jews?
Fast forward a few months to March 2015. We’re coming up on the Jewish holiday week of Passover. It’s a big one. Not unlike Easter for Christians, even non-religious Jews will usually mark it in some way. Passover has some dietary requirements, several special foods to eat and others to avoid. In LA that meant popping into any decent sized market and grabbing what I needed, no planning required. Auckland was a whole other story. People had never even heard of Matzot — the unleavened bread we eat at Passover — and they certainly didn’t know where to get it. I found myself thinking for the first time “Hold up, where are the Jews?”
I had moved from one of the most densely Jewish places in the world, right into a veritable Jew desert. I found my Matzot (I asked a guy who asked another guy and eventually I found the source). But I got the message: I couldn’t take Jewish culture for granted anymore, if I wanted to participate I was going to have to make an effort.
I won’t bore you with the details, but over the next several years I found myself doing things I would have never remotely entertained in Los Angeles. Not only did I join the only reform temple in Auckland — a scrappy place run by a passionate group of volunteers — but I sat on several committees, organized events and taught at the Sunday school. I never became what I would call “religious” but I ended up understanding the value of Jewish culture in my life.
It’s a lot of pressure to be someone’s first real-life touchpoint for an entire culture.
One of the most unexpected aspects of moving to New Zealand was occasionally (and not on purpose) becoming the face or representative for the entirety of Judaism. This would happen randomly and without warning when in conversation someone would say “Wow, you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met”.
Photo: Jewish flatbread also known as Matzot - Cottonbro
In those moments, Judaism grew from just a small part of what makes me “me” into my entire identity. It’s a lot of pressure to be someone’s first real-life touchpoint for an entire culture. I considered myself deeply unqualified, but I took it seriously and I got pretty good at answering questions in a way that was balanced and non-threatening. I never fault someone for asking questions. I’m genuinely interested to learn about people’s perceptions, preconceptions and how they developed them.
Other than the ultra-orthodox, we don’t generally wear long beards, ankle-length dresses or funny hats.
Most of these well-meaning people held at least some image of a Jew in their mind, a composite, cobbled together from sources ranging from the news and pop-culture to history class. Jerry Seinfeld, Fiddler on the Roof, Krusty the Clown, Unorthodox, WWII Newsreels, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, Larry David, Shtisel, Ross from Friends and (my personal favorite) Dirty Dancing. None of these references are wrong per se, but none of them tells the whole story. If you live in a country like New Zealand with, at last count, only about 5,000 Jews, it’s understandable that your picture of us might be a bit patchy. Despite our tiny numbers, you probably have met a few of us without realizing it - we blend in. We don’t all go around wearing long beards, heckling the butcher about the price of brisket and peppering our speech with “Oy Vey!”.
So…from my totally non-scientific, completely anecdotal experience, I’ve rounded up some of the FAQs and my answers. I hope this will be a helpful primer and give you all a fuller picture of an absolutely ancient, loosely-organized, utterly non-homogenized culture: The Jews.
Wait, you’re Jewish? You don’t look/sound/act Jewish!
Here’s the thing. For thousands of years, the Jews had no homeland. They wandered. They settled everywhere from Northern Europe to Africa to The Middle East and parts of Asia. Despite intermarriage being largely frowned upon, they somehow, over time began to resemble the surrounding populations. There is no Jewish set of physical attributes. As for the rest of it - Other than the ultra-orthodox, we don’t generally wear long beards, ankle-length dresses or funny hats. We don’t all have New York accents, crippling anxiety or ambitions to marry a doctor. We’re literally just like everyone else…with a slightly higher affinity for hummus.
How are you Jewish but you’re not religious?
This is actually a great question. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. So you can be of Jewish ethnicity with or without observing the religion. Traditionally all the Jews practiced the religion, but in modern times many of us have moved away from the religious side while still identifying as Jewish. You might hear someone describe themselves as a “Secular Jew” or “Culturally Jewish”. That means they consider themselves as ethnically Jewish without identifying as religious. Of course, all of this varies from person to person. Me? I’m an atheist - I don’t believe in the Jewish god or any other, still I enjoy many of the traditions, rituals and values of Jewish culture.
Do you support the actions of the Israeli government?
Sigh…ok, this is where I truly cannot and should not speak for the Jews. I could tell you my own views, but that’s not the point. What you need to know is that there is absolutely no consensus on this topic among Jews. Many of us have little to no direct relationship to Israel. We have never lived there and we don’t vote in the elections. Jews don’t recognize any central authority, certainly not the Israeli government. You may hear the term “Zionist” thrown around. Many assume it implies total support for the actions of the Israeli government. What it actually means is support for the state of Israel to exist (which it did not until 1948). My advice…make no assumptions and feel free to ask.
Do you have sex through a hole in a sheet?
To be honest, I’ve never been asked this directly. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to clear the air. The answer is no.
Where can I get a decent bagel in Auckland?
(With apologies to Al Brown) You can’t!