I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating exactly how Jewish I am. I promise, I am bringing this up for a reason.
I contemplate how Jewish I am because it’s not exactly a clear cut answer, as it it for most people. My mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, so I would be 50% Jewish, right? Except Judaism traditionally is passed down through the mother’s line. So I’m 0% Jewish. Except that alongside Christmas and Easter, my family celebrates Hanukkah and Passover. My last name is very Jewish; it roughly means “date branch” in Hebrew. The vast majority of my family migrated to the United States long before the Holocaust, but not all. I will never know who those distant relatives were, or if I would have ever gotten the chance to meet them. They would have been so, so distant, but I still wonder.
My family, both sides of it, is frequently obsessed with genealogy. We can trace my mother’s family all the way back to the United Kingdom and Ireland. In fact, a fun anecdote I was told as a child is that not only were my ancestors on the Mayflower, my great-great-great-however-many-greats grandfather fell off the Mayflower and had to be rescued. With my father’s side, however, it’s not so easy.
We can trace my father’s family back decently far for a Jewish family. Inevitably though, as many Jewish families do, we end up hitting a dead end: we simply have no idea what country we are actually from. Not only that, those places we would be from have changed throughout the years. Depending on when you look, I could be Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or Latvian. With my mother’s side, we know most of my relatives were from Scotland and Ireland. We can trace exactly where they were and where they went. With my father’s side, however, all I know is that I am vaguely Eastern European. That’s it. I have no more information.
Towards the end of Exit West, friction between Saeed and Nadia starts up as to exactly how much they want to stay connected to their homeland. As Nadia becomes more and more separated, Saeed in turn yearns for connection with other Middle Eastern migrants. This friction is a part of their inevitable conclusion, which I won’t say because we’re not supposed to have finished the book yet. Despite their different reactions to migration, however, one thing is clear: their home is not their home anymore, no matter how much they may or may not want it to be.
I never got to choose how much I wanted to connect with my roots. I wear green for St. Patrick’s Day. My parents went and visited the place in Scotland my mother’s family comes from. I even chose a Celtic name for myself. But I don’t get those same things on my father’s side.
For all it matters, I’m a practicing Unitarian Universalist who is an active and passionate member of Unity Temple’s youth group. UUism is neither Christian nor Jewish; indeed, it was chosen by my family because it is a religion where my parents can still exist in the faiths of their childhood while still attending the same church.
I don’t know how Jewish I am. I’m not even sure it’s my decision to make. I’m stuck in a strange limbo between Jew and goy. I’m both and neither at the same time. I’m less Jewish than my Jewish friends, but more Jewish than my friends of other faiths. I’m not not Jewish, but what does that really do for me? At the end of the day, though, it’s not really a question of how Jewish I am. It’s about this sense of home that I don’t get to have. It’s about the fact that I more-or-less get to choose whether I am affected by anti-Semitism. It’s about me playing three-way tug-of-war with religion while not believing in a God. I can see it Saeed and I can see it in Nadia, being pulled every which way, not knowing which direction is right for you, endlessly straining to stay in the middle and always, always failing.