Who is a Jew? The great debate

The recent Court of Appeal ruling over school admissions has brought the issue of Jewish identity into sharp relief. Four thinkers, from across the communal spectrum, tackle the issue in a round table discussion with Gerald Jacobs.

September 30, 2009
Naomi Gryn

Naomi Gryn


● Jeffrey Cohen, emeritus rabbi of Stanmore United Synagogue
● Jonathan Freedland, writer and journalist
● Naomi Gryn, filmmaker
● Howard Jacobson, novelist and broadcaster
● Chair: Gerald Jacobs, JC literary editor

Gerald Jacobs: Let me start things off by offering opposing definitions of Jewish identity. At one end of the spectrum, you are Jewish if you are born of a Jewish mother or converted by a respected Jewish authority. At the other end is Sigmund Freud’s definition of his own Jewish identity: “Since I don’t believe in any religion whatsoever, including Judaism, and since I despise all forms of nationalism, including Zionism, it may be asked what, then, is left of me that remains Jewish — to which I would reply, a very great deal and probably its very essence.” So, with those contrasting notions in mind, I am going to ask each of you to give your own short definition of Jewish identity.

Jonathan Freedland: I grapple with this question all the time, and did so in the book I wrote — Jacob’s Gift — about what I was giving my child, whether it was a burden or a blessing, because they are inseparable.

The Israeli novelist David Grossman plays this game of defining yourself with three things. He says: “Jewish first, male second and Israeli third.” It struck a chord with me because I am Jewish, male, British.

We are not just a religion. I wrote in the JC recently about the Woody Allen test — when you read in an interview that he says: “I am an atheist,” you don’t throw down the paper and say: “I could have sworn he was Jewish.” Equally, though, Jews are not just an ethnic group. While you can’t just convert and become black, you can become Jewish.

We don’t fit any of the usual boxes and that is why we have so many problems explaining ourselves to other people, as well as to ourselves. So you end up with a case like that of the JFS, where the judges are trying to put us in one box or another and they can’t because we are sui generis.

In the end it is a blessing and a gift, even with all the encumbrances, because it gives you this key to an extraordinary civilisation. That is the word I would end on. We are neither, narrowly, a race nor a religion. We are something like a people, a civilisation.

GJ: Jeffrey, before you give your personal view, can I ask you first: where does this matrilineal definition come from?

Jeffrey Cohen: In the talmudic period, 2,000 years ago at least, there was already discussion about how we interpret identity. Certainly when Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism came on the scene, a few centuries before the common era, matrilineal descent was already well established.

The question of identity is difficult. Ben Gurion, the founder of the Jewish state, apparently wrote to 400 scholars and asked them: “Who is a Jew and what is a Jew?” I’m sure that he got 400 different answers.

A Jewish sage says a man is conditioned by his deeds. So, for me, the spiritual and ethical heritage of Judaism is something in which I take enormous pride and by which I am inspired. In the famous story in the Talmud of the would-be convert who came to Hillel and said: “I want to become a Jew, teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot,” Hillel answered: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” I think it is very significant that Hillel selected an ethical maxim. He didn’t tell him: “You’ve got to keep Shabbat; you’ve got to keep kashrut.” He chose an ethical maxim.

Jewish identity is the crucible in which I was formed. It is one of my greatest sources of inspiration.

Naomi Gryn


Unfortunately, rabbinic Judaism today is so concerned with halachic matters, which, however important from an Orthodox perspective they may be, without the ethics and the morals are meaningless.

I think the unity of the Jewish people is vital. We can be on the other side of the world and the presence of a Jew is something that doesn’t take us more than a few seconds to determine. It is the shared heritage that is so much part of our Jewishness. It is a familial thing. We do try to find what links us together. Generally we find something. I think that is far more important than our political differences.

Naomi Gryn: Jewish identity is the crucible in which I was formed. It is one of my greatest sources of inspiration. Jonathan talked about the three parts of identity. I think of mine as four-part — feminism, socialism, Zionism, Judaism. Certainly, the first three have been terrifically challenged and the fourth, Judaism, is also constantly under attack, mostly from fellow Jews.

I think about how I spent today preparing a programme about the Jews of India for the BBC World Service; looking at some radio scripts of my late father [Rabbi Hugo Gryn] for a book I am publishing; and being asked if I would work on a series about Jews. Jewish culture is what I do, and I love it. On the other hand, I am repulsed by the anachronistic misogynists who have decided that they have some sort of authority over defining who is a Jew.

Howard Jacobson: I found it difficult to go to shul when I was a little boy because it was full of old men who would turn around and say: “Shush”. Whenever I go back to shul now — and I would only go back to shul because it is an aufruf or a barmitzvah of somebody I know — the same old men turn around and say: “Shush”. The difference is I am older than they are now, but they still frighten me. I am not a kosher Jew. I do none of those things which an Orthodox Jew would say are the things that define you as being Jewish.

I love the story of the standing on one leg. I like the ethical part of the story — the “rest is commentary” — because that, I think, is where I locate my Jewishness — in the love of commentary. It doesn’t matter what you are commentating on, it is the love of “go learn”. That is what it is for me to be Jewish.

Growing up in Manchester, where all my friends were Jewish, I lived a Jewish life in the sense that we spoke a bit of Yiddish and we were all conscious of the fact that we shouldn’t really go out with non-Jewish girls, but it was not a shul-going life in my case. When I left to go and study English with F R Leavis, I thought of that as a kind of escape, partly from the provincial life. It was only years later that I realised studying English literature with F R Leavis was an utterly Jewish thing to do. Jews are critics. We love exegesis, we love the text. We love dreying our kops around an idea.

I remember years ago, going to a yeshivah in Jerusalem and seeing Jewish boys arguing about what brochah you could say over toast. Was it the same brochah that you could say over bread? Was toast still bread or philosophically had bread changed its texture in the process of becoming toast? That seems to me wonderful, that there is a culture in the world that would spend money to say: “Go study the difference between bread and toast and it doesn’t matter how long you take.” It is my passion. I earn my money essentially arguing about the difference between bread and toast. That is what it is to be a Jew.

I have a suspicion that every Jew remains a religious man somewhere. Jews pursue their secularism with a religious fervour. Think of Marx, think of Freud himself, think of all the Jewish socialists that you know. Think of the anti-Zionists you know. Some of the most fervently Jewish people I know are anti-Zionists.

Try opening up Jewish anti-Zionism to reason. It crumbles in seconds. There is something else operating. What is it? It is not that first thing that I was talking about. It is not that passion for philosophical disquisition. It is a sister thing. It is religious fervour.

JC: So you are saying that the passage in the Shemah — you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and your might — it is those attributes. Is that what you are saying?

HJ: Yes it is.

JC: That is Judaism.

HJ: Thank you. Yes it is. I think — to our great credit, but often to our great misfortune — that we are incapable of doing anything in a lukewarm manner.

JF: I am really drawn to all this stuff. This is the poet in me. But I can’t help but come back to the more prosaic. The trouble with these definitions that locate the Jewish essence in some sort of sensibility, even a very broad, capacious one, is that there will always be some Jews who are not quite like that. Do you remember in the first intifada there was video footage of what appeared to be Israeli soldiers bulldozing live Palestinians? George Steiner said at the time: “No Jew could do that. Those people are not Jewish by definition. It is impossible for a Jew to do that to another human.” He was wrong. Some Jews can do that. You can’t locate a Jewish essence. I want to. There is a thread of Jewish life that loves questioning, that likes study, that likes difference — l’havdil is such a Jewish thing — this, but not that. It is about separation.

HJ: Havdalah?

JF: Totally. That is core to our identity. Shabbat from the rest of the week, milk from meat — I get that. But then you could say the Brits are phlegmatic but you can’t say: “If you are not phlegmatic, you don’t get a passport.” We are in a much tougher game now, because of the High Court, where we actually have to be prosaic about it rather than poetic.

People look at us and say: “The Baptists don’t have their own homeland so why should Jews, if you are a religion?” If we say we are an ethnic group, the question is: “In that case, why is there conversion?”

Last updated: 3:05pm, September 30 2009