• American comedian and writer, Larry David, appears on stage at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards last year. (Invision/AAP)
Comment: What does it mean to be Jewish? You might have a Jewish mum, go to Temple regularly and avoid pork? Nope. There’s a lot more to Judaism than you think, and often, it doesn’t even involve being religious.
By
Alana Schetzer

30 Jan 2017 - 1:28 PM  UPDATED 30 Jan 2017 - 2:30 PM

I grew up Jewish. Sort of.

There were certain customs my family followed - celebrating Passa (that’s Passover to you), eating incredible Kosher food and drinking wine out of dainty silver thimble glasses that my grandfather had brought with him from his home country, Poland.

But other than that, my family’s idea of maintaining a Jewish identity involves eating Matzo ball soup at least once a week and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I rarely go to Temple, I make an inappropriate number of Hitler jokes and I once accidentally ate pork. Also, the only time I speak Yiddish these days is to swear at people.

I grew up feeling Jewish, but to outsiders, I’m not really Jewish; I rarely go to Temple, I make an inappropriate number of Hitler jokes and I once accidentally ate pork. Also, the only time I speak Yiddish these days is to swear at people.

I’m a 'Cultural Jew', or Jewish Diet - all the flavour, with none of the calories.

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Although it sounds like I’m hanging onto a label without doing any of the hard work, cultural Judaism is a real and vibrant thing. It means that I have the things that are important to me - the food, humour, music and language - and discard the bits that bog me down.

The Australian Jewish population is relatively small, about 112,000 people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. There’s no further breakdown as to how many of those self-identifying Jews are divided - Orthodox (super-strict), Conservative (traditional), Progressive (the name is fairly self-explanatory) and Cultural, which is the Jewish version of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’.

It’s a bit like being a Christian who only celebrates Easter and Christmas, but I’d argue that we have better food.

“There are so many different ways of being Jewish, and one can be and feel very Jewish without believing in God." 

But however you carve it up or which bits are important to you, there’s no “right” way to be Jewish, says Dr Jordy Silverstein, an academic in Judaism at the University of Melbourne.

“There are so many different ways of being Jewish, and one can be and feel very Jewish without believing in God. There’s no one thing that a Jew needs to do to be Jewish, which is one of the things that makes it incredibly rich and joyful,” she says.

“The cultural Jew is someone who does some sort of Jewish practise, who participates in the culture of being Jewish, and who thinks about Jewish history and memory.”

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Melbourne lawyer, Bram Phillips, grew up in a traditional Jewish household that included visits to the local Rabbi and playing in a Jewish punk band. He’s since evolved to identifying as a Cultural Jew and says it’s this expression of Judaism that makes him feel fulfilled.

“When you get older, you question the religious aspect a bit more, so it’s about community, music and literature,” he says. “My Jewish identity has increased, post-religion, actually. I’ve found a lot that I've very excited and proud about enjoy, in the cultural aspect, that I didn’t find in the religious area.”

Although there are no clear statistics to estimate the number of ‘Cultural Jews’ nationwide, Dr Silverstein believes that the number in Australia is growing.

“I think most people who are Jewish or a lot of people who are Jewish on the basis of some sort of historical connection. I think belief in God is pretty low; I don't think it’s the marker of being Jewish.”

I’ve been told many, many times by people that I don’t “look” Jewish, as if having dark hair and a comically big nose is the only aesthetic available. Just for your knowledge, Gwyneth Paltrow is Jewish and she is one of the most Anglo-looking people I’ve ever seen.

“I think most people who are Jewish or a lot of people who are Jewish on the basis of some sort of historical connection. I think belief in God is pretty low; I don't think it’s the marker of being Jewish.”

Jewishness isn’t a look, a country, a race, a language or a - it’s a broad belief system that has a cultural arm as deep, if not deeper, than its religious arm.

As I’ve gotten older, and learnt what brings me joy - the Marie Kondo of religion, so to say - I’ve become less defensive when people question me about whether I’m a ‘real’ Jew or not.

I’m saving my energy for what I care about - Jewish humour and the self-deprecating jokes that run through my veins; studying Judaism's long and rich history and discovering more about my own ancestors. I love dancing in my lounge room to a disco remix of Hava Nagila (a traditional Jewish folk song) and whenever I buy something on sale, I call my mum and crow proudly about my fine money-saving techniques.

Did I mention that jokes about stereotypes also bring me joy?

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @schetzer Facebook @AlanaSchetzer Instagram @schetzercakes



Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.

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