Jew are you?

Thankfully, mankind’s two greatest contributions to world peace and advancement – Google and Wikipedia – can set one’s mind at ease with the stroke of a key.

US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff salute as they walk during the Inauguration Day parade, on January 20.  (photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff salute as they walk during the Inauguration Day parade, on January 20.
(photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)
Who is a Jew? “Oh no,” I can hear you groan. “Not again. Aren’t we over that finally?”
Not to worry, I won’t dredge up that controversy again, which pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore apart families. No, I have committed to keeping this column lighthearted, and am in no mood to stir up any pots or continue any futile arguments.
So when I ask the question, it is innocent, made to be taken at face value. A game of “Jew or not Jew,” if you will. C’mon, I know we all play it. The actor with the Semitic features who just won the Golden Globe – Jew or not Jew? The MVP baseball player with that last name – Jew or not Jew?
Thankfully, mankind’s two greatest contributions to world peace and advancement – Google and Wikipedia – can set one’s mind at ease with the stroke of a key. There is even a website I just discovered called JewOrNotJew.com that ranks celebrities according to their Jewishness. Their “Jew Score” is based on three factors: “How Jewish they are internally, how Jewish they are externally, and how much we want that person to be a Jew in the first place.”
There seems to be something ingrained in every Yid, no matter how much he/she identifies with the religion itself, that wants to identify other Members of the Tribe (MOT). This has certainly been true for me personally. In my last column, I wrote about my excitement searching out fellow Jews – dead or alive – whenever and wherever I travel. And some of the responses I received, from readers sharing stories of Jewish connections from the places I visited, confirmed that our roots are indeed both deep and wide.
AS A rock and roll fan, musical Jews have always fascinated me the most. Not so much the obvious ones – Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Mighty Max Weinberg (though sadly, not Boss Springsteen himself) – but the ones that require a little more digging, to scrape off the gentile veneer (or, in the case of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS – aka Gene Klein and Stanley Eisen – the gobs of makeup). Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib) from Rush. Perry Farrell (Peretz Bernstein) from Jane’s Addiction. Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) from... you get the picture.
And the stranger the connection the better, even once-removed. How Elvis’ maternal great-great-grandmother was believed to be Jewish, and how when he was 13 and living in Memphis he would act as the Shabbos goy for his upstairs neighbor, Rabbi Fruchter. He even had a Magen David put on his mother’s tombstone, and was believed to be wearing his favorite Chai necklace the night he died.
And although none of The Beatles were Jewish, my personal claim to fame is that their manager, Brian Epstein, was a very close relative – my mother’s aunt’s first cousin was Brian’s mother, Queenie. I could go on forever….
But what has really brought the Jewish connect-the-dots back into the news has been the recent US election, oh-so full of Jews and wannabes. Past president (first time putting that in writing, no comment on how good that feels) Donald Trump’s grandchildren are Jewish, after daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism to marry Jared Kushner. New POTUS Biden’s grandkids are all Jewish, as each of his three children married a Jewish spouse.
And Vice President Kamala (affectionately known as Mamaleh by her family) Harris is married to “Second Gentleman” Jew, Doug Emhoff.
A recent article in The Forward calls the incoming administration “one of the most Jewish ever,” and says that they are “normalizing Jewishness in The White House.” Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has a daughter married to a Jewish man, and has talked proudly of her “Jewish grandkids.”
Uh oh. That last set of quotation marks did not need to be there. They are of my own choosing. Am I letting my own feelings, beliefs and prejudices slip through after all?
Every single one of these aforementioned political Jews are part of an interfaith family. Not surprising; according to the most recent Pew Survey, 72% of non-Orthodox Jews marry a non-Jew. While many of us and likely almost all of our grandparents would find this statistic shocking and extremely disturbing, even more of us feel that this should be celebrated, pointing to the fact that because of this, more adults are identifying as Jews, and, as a result, the Jewish population in the United States has been steadily increasing over the years.
But I promised not to get us all hot and bothered with yet another “Who is a Jew?” debate. So instead, let’s focus on the even more important “Why is a Jew?” question. Whether one believes that only an Orthodox-approved halachic Jew is one of the “chosen” people, or whether one chooses for him/herself to become an MOT, the “why” should and must remain the same: to be a “light unto the nations,” holding high values of morality, kindness, justice and charity – within our families, our communities and throughout this much troubled world.
We are needed.★
The writer is Toronto-based and can be reached at ken.gruber5@gmail.com