On Being Not Quite Jewish

It was a cold winter’s Saturday morning, and I’d walked from my flat up to the school playing fields. Normally I’d have jogged up in my refereeing kit, but this was a special Saturday morning: there were fewer rugby fixtures than usual, so there was (for once) a surplus of staff; my colleagues being selfless and generous people, one had agreed to referee my game for me, so I could watch the boys and concentrate on managing replacements.

On the touchline a mother came up to me.

“Mr Grumpy! Good morning. How are you? I saw you walking up and I said to my son, I didn’t know there was a shul around here! And he said no there isn’t, that’s just Mr Grumpy. And I said I didn’t know Mr Grumpy was Jewish! And he said, well, I don’t know if he is or not. So I said I must go and talk to Mr Grumpy, and he said please don’t, but you don’t mind, do you?”

Now it so happens that not only do I have a name which Jews usually recognise as being Jewish in origin, but I also have a somewhat rabbinical beard and a very fetching black fedora, in which I’ll have you know I look amazing, and which I was wearing that day.

“So Mr Grumpy I have to ask you, are you Jewish?”

Well.

And at that point every Jewish person knows that the answer is going to be one of two things: either this is a bona fide Jew who has decided to repudiate the faith and culture of his ancestors, or it is someone with a Jewish father but a Gentile mother. The latter applies to me, which is what I said to this mother.

“Oh,” she said, briefly showing her disappointment before pulling herself together, “but were you brought up Jewish?”

I wasn’t. Old Man Grumpy was an atheist who certainly wasn’t about to waste his time taking his son to synagogues. I didn’t quite say that to her.

“But Mr Grumpy. Do you feel yourself to be Jewish?”

Tricky one, I told her. On the one hand I’m certainly not embarrassed or ashamed of my Judaic heritage; on the other hand I don’t practise Judaism, nor am I in any sense a part of any Jewish community. (The State of Israel considers me to be a Jew, and I’m eligible to make aliyah; but many Jews would, I know, object to me claiming a Jewish identity, and as Yiddishkeit belongs to them more than it belongs to me I wouldn’t want to press such a claim.)

“Oh.”

There was a pause. We watched the boys warming up. She was about to leave: her son wasn’t in my team, and kick-off was just a few minutes away.

“But Mr Grumpy…

…surely you had a bris?”

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