Culture

The Dish on Being Jew-ish

As a born-again Christian with Evangelical beliefs who grew up in a Protestant household—three reiterations of my faith should be enough to establish it—I jumped on the chance to write this story when it was presented to me. I mean, how often does one meet a Jew in the Philippines, especially in Cebu City, the home of the Roman Catholics’ Sto. Niño, and actually get the chance to ask about it? It made for an illuminating conversation, to say the least. 

I’m going to be real enough to admit that the word “Jew” triggers an image of an early 2000s Matisyahu—he actually looks like an edgy metrosexual DJ now. The concept of a non-Israeli Jew never occurred to me until I met someone who describes himself as “contemporary Jew-ish.” The weighty hyphen signifies his lenient process of identifying as Jewish and his adamant refusal to claim that he is an authority on Judaism and being Jewish. This caution comes with feeling like a fraud as a Filipino, “but the Jewish community, in general, is very welcoming,” he shares. 

His gender will probably be the only identifying factor that will be revealed here. Aside from not wanting to be seen as an expert on Judaism, he is also faced with the possibility of being threatened. Crazy, right? His anonymity should serve as the disclaimer for this article in that this is in no way a research paper about Judaism, but rather an account of his experience with the “world’s oldest monotheistic religion.” For the sake of reducing some of the ambiguity, let’s refer to our Jew-ish dude as Amos. 

I wasn’t surprised when Amos said there’s not a lot of non-Israeli Jewish converts like him in Cebu. The desert-like Jewish community here consists of a handful who are trying to be Orthodox Jews; the Bnei Noach (sons of Noah) who are neither Jewish nor Christian and follow a different set of guidelines; and Israelis on vacation after military service or those married to Filipinas. We’ll stick to our Jew-ish guy for now.

Kinda Like Harry Potter?

“It’s kind of like Harry Potter. You discover this hidden world,” is how Amos describes the early stages of his journey toward Judaism about eight years ago. It started where most spiritual odysseys usually begin: at rock bottom. From financial to relational problems, nothing went right in every aspect of Amos’ life. “One day, I got down on my knees and I just prayed. I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what else to do,’” he shares. So, God told him what to do. “God impressed upon me that I needed to go to Israel,” Amos says. Growing up, his family, despite being raised Catholic like every Filipino, wasn’t religious to begin with, so he was met with resistance when he told them about this supposed instruction from God. He himself had no interest in heeding this command, but the thought never left him. Without anything to lose and with his family’s support, he flew to Israel and stayed there for no less than three weeks.

Amos found his first few days in Israel to be strange and challenging simply because of the drastic cultural differences. Nevertheless, he immersed himself in Judaism, studying their laws, traditions, and practices, and came back home with a refreshed spirit. The question of “Now what?” came up. It was a case of “snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity,” and he was brought way back down to the “real world.” 

It didn’t work like magic. Amos would slip in and out of practicing Judaism until a Jew told him, “Don’t fight it. Your soul was with us in Mount Sinai.” (Mount Sinai is where God appeared to Moses to give him the Ten Commandments, and is considered to be the principal site of divine revelation in Jewish history.) He says to himself, “Let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes,” and adds, “I simply took that huge plunge. My family began to see the change in my life. I would only have good days when I would go back to being Jewish.” On that note, I guess it did work like magic.

What’s in a Name?

So, did Amos go through a rigorous process to become a Jew? And can you actually call non-Israelis who practice Judaism Jews? The answers aren’t so simple. 

Conversion to Judaism depends on the denomination you want to be part of. Orthodox Judaism requires a series of lessons with a rabbi, who would subsequently make the decision whether you can be Jewish or not. The contemporary approach, which is what Amos took, is much more forgiving: “You don’t have to be a Jew in order to be Jewish. If you have fallen in love with the God of Israel and you have come to see the light of the Torah and the beauty of the practices, nobody is gonna say to you, ‘Hey, don’t do it.’” 

“There’s this strong belief in Judaism that there are people who cannot fight it—that they are actually Jews; they just don’t know it,” Amos expresses his belief in belonging to this creed. Referring to a rabbi he spoke to, Amos adds, “He is amazed to find that suddenly, in different parts of the world, people just wake up one day and say God wants them to be Jewish.” Amos did some digging up on his ancestry and found out that his father’s surname comes from an Asian province near an area where early Sephardic Jews allegedly settled. Plus, his mother’s maiden name was one of the surnames belonging to a group of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism. Lastly, he also discovered his father’s brother kept Shabbat (Sabbath) and kosher in his youth, which Amos’ uncle never explained to the family. He admits that while he has these connections, he is not claiming that they are conclusive.

No matter how welcoming some contemporary Jews are, identifying as Jewish when you’re not a Jew in terms of lineage doesn’t mean you earn the right to “make aliyah,” which is the “act of going up” to Jerusalem and becoming an Israeli citizen. This is in reference to the 1950 Law of Return, which ​​gives Jews the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. However, the question of who is a Jew comes up again. I know, it’s like a broken record. Bear with me. In 1970, the law was amended to include all non-Israeli Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism. Converts who wish to marry in Israel, however, must prove they were converted under the supervision of an Orthodox rabbi approved by the country’s chief rabbinate. Everything’s fine and dandy, right? No. According to my research—yes, I said it; thanks Google—there is still much debate to this day on the right definition of “Jew” in this particular law. The opinions of different rabbis range from conservative to inclusive, with their arguments being layered and complex. You can read more about it here so we can move on.

Not unlike Christianity, there are several other denominations and groups under Judaism, such as, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), Modern Orthodox, Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazi, Karaite, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Messianic Jews, to name a few. The latter, however, is actually not recognized by major Jewish denominations to be a form of Judaism. It’s a necessity to include them in the list as they are still part of the Jewish narrative. In a nutshell, Messianic Jews believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah while observing some Jewish practices. It’s sort of a paradox to me because the core belief of Judaism is that Jesus is not the Messiah, nor the Son of God because there is no Holy Trinity. According to Amos, Jews do not doubt Jesus’ existence and consider him as the most influential Jew. It would probably make more sense to consider it a Christian sect instead.

Christianity vs. Judaism

I don’t mean to make it sound like a boxing match, but you knew we’d get here eventually. This will be less—much, much less—about Christianity and more about Judaism, of course, since that’s the main focus of the article.

If Christians have the Bible, the Jews have the Torah and the Talmud. The Torah contains instructions, while the Talmud explains those instructions and how they are applied. “It is a lifelong discipleship program,” Amos expounds.

He also highlights that being Jewish is more of a socio-cultural lifestyle than a religion: “Being Jewish is not being part of a religious movement, but being part of a family and the community of Jews. Unlike Christianity, being Jewish is not necessarily about faith. It’s not so much about belief; it is more about action. You can say, ‘I believe that Shabbat is important, but that doesn’t count as much as you keeping it.’ In Tel Aviv, an atheist Jew will keep Shabbat because it’s part of being a Jew. If you tell a Jew to stop doing all of that, then he ceases to be a Jew.” It’s similar to how some Catholics in the Philippines still go to church even if they don’t necessarily believe anymore simply because it’s a cultural practice. That or a family member forces them. 

Like Amos said, much importance is given to actual action in Judaism: “Keeping of the laws, the mitzvahs, Shabbat, and the observance of kosher.” Let’s break it down a bit. Mitzvah is a religious duty or commandment and kosher is a Hebrew word that means ‘fit:’ “It’s not a word that you can necessarily find in the Hebrew Bible, but what it really relates to are the laws regarding what you can and cannot eat in what Christianity would refer to as the Old Testament.” In general, you cannot eat anything considered unclean like blood, pork, insects, anything from the ocean that does not have fins and scales, chicken that is not slaughtered properly, animals found dead or ravaged on roads (roadkill), dairy, etc. There are varying degrees of strictness when it comes to observing kosher. Amos says it depends on who your rabbi is and which denomination you belong to. He personally takes a more practical approach: “We try to stick to the basics, but we go beyond if it can be done. Outside Israel, due to unavailability, strictly observing practices simply cannot be done. You do what you can.”

Shabbat or Sabbath for Jews begins Friday evening and ends Saturday evening. On the Jewish Day of Rest, Jews do just that: rest. They observe Shabbat in many ways with some in Tel Aviv even going to the beach, which Orthodox rabbis are not so happy about.

On the topic of the afterlife, Amos stresses he is no authority, but shares a little about what he knows: “Judaism does not believe in the Christian hell. I agree with what rabbis say that it’s a sickening thought.” He adds that he has not yet encountered anything about a literal place for condemned souls in his studies so far: “What it does teach is that if you don’t do your best to keep the mitzvahs here while you’re alive, you’re gonna suffer right here.” Amos has always wondered why there is so much emphasis on the devil and Satan in Christianity. He says that in Judaism, satan is a common, all-encompassing word, which means ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary.’ It is not necessarily synonymous to a single entity, the devil, and can even be used to refer to a human being. Cebuanos would know.

Regarding the existence of a heaven, Amos shares, “In my limited understanding, most Jews believe in the fact that there is shalom. There is peace that God wants us to grant.” The incentive basically is being a good Jew while on earth: “Your priorities are not about saving the world from damnation. Judaism has no mandate to convert. It’s about being there for your fellow Jews and upholding the responsibility that HaShem (God) has left for Jews to fulfill.” That responsibility is to be Or Lagoyim, or a light unto the nations: “God has fulfilled His word through the generations even after the Holocaust with 6 million Jews dead, massacred. We find the state of Israel established and strong. We find the Israeli forces to be one of, if not, the mightiest and most feared army in the world despite the small population of Jews.”

Ultimately, Amos does not want to act as judge and jury on who is right or wrong between Christians and Jews. Coming from a predominantly Christian upbringing, Amos had to learn the art of letting go: “You will never understand Judaism completely if you don’t let Christianity go. For me to understand why Jews don’t agree with Christians, I had to fully embrace Judaism.”

The Holocaust, Jesus, and Peace 

While we’re on the topic of disagreement and disparity, let’s talk a little bit about the Holocaust. Amos admits that apart from what he’s seen from the media, he didn’t know much about it. So, he bought Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf from a book store after receiving God’s divine whisper in his ear, he says. He makes it a point to read it regularly with his family too. There’s an article on Esquire titled, “Why You Should Read Mein Kampf on Holocaust Memorial Day.” The author concludes, “You should read it because the impulses that Hitler exploited to meet his dark ends still exist. […] Mein Kampf isn’t just the story of a man, or a country, or a time. It’s a diagram of how the psychotic can be made real — a type of politics that must be understood, because it has long outlived its author.”

The psychotic becoming real is probably how Jews, including Amos, perceive all the atrocities committed against them. It just so happens that Jesus is involved in these heinous acts: “You must understand that when a Jew looks at the cross, they see the Inquisition, they see the Holocaust, they see all of the times wherein because of Christians, Jews were killed. In fact, during the Spanish Inquisition, so many Jews were tortured and killed just to force them to convert to Catholicism.” I never thought about Jesus’ death and resurrection from the Jewish perspective, so this was mindblowing to me. While I believe it’s sick people who perform these egregious offenses, and not God, who is also Jesus to me, I can’t invalidate how they feel at the same time. Amos adds about Jesus, “What the Jewish world finds very dangerous is the worship of a man and the belief in sacrificing human flesh to atone for the sins of man, which is one of the issues that the Torah is so against. That is a very dangerous concept.” To him, using “Jesus” to call on God is taking God’s name in vain. Despite all the differences, Amos clears the air, saying, “It’s not that Jews hate Christians. There is just this core set of principles and beliefs that’s just very difficult to shake.”

The deeper he studied Judaism, the more it brought him clarity: “I found answers to Christian questions in Judaism that I never found in Christianity. There is less guilt and fear of condemnation.” Amos adds that the lessons he’s gathered from very non-fanatical rabbis has made the most sense to him and brought him so much practicality. Gaining this peace and comfort has made Amos more steadfast in his pursuit of Judaism. At the same time, when it comes to possible changes in his belief system, Amos is maintaining the same open mind he started with: “God, for me, is more important than any label. I don’t care about being Jewish; I only care about being on God’s good side. If there is any reason that God would tell me right now, ‘Okay, this now has to stop.’ Then I’m gonna stop.” 

I don’t think I’m alone in believing that there is a God-shaped hole in our hearts that we do our best to fill. We shove many things into it like dream jobs we die for and people we sacrifice for in an attempt to make them fit seamlessly. When they don’t, our hearts break into tiny pieces of disappointment that make their way into every nook and cranny of our bodies, disturbing our peace. Like many of us, Amos’ pursuit of God is a way to avoid the pain of disillusionment. His quest looks a little different from what we’re used to seeing, but it’s brought him joy and peace, and that’s all we can really want for each other. 

I may have more questions than answers leaving our tête-à-tête, but that’s okay. Not all questions are meant to be answered in this lifetime. However, I can answer the one that’s on your mind right now. Amos celebrates Hannukah instead of Christmas.

author-avatar

About Micah Almazan

Micah collects tattoos and is on a full body suit journey, but is terrified of the dentist. Music is a constant in her life, but she’s not a master at playing an instrument or singing. She loves the beach, but can’t swim. She’s a Leo but abhors writing about herself. Her writing voice is either painfully neurotic or deliciously sarcastic depending on what floats your boat. As a Cebu City lumad, Micah is slowly growing into becoming a (music) scene tita who silently judges everything and everyone with love.

author-avatar

About Micah Almazan

Micah collects tattoos and is on a full body suit journey, but is terrified of the dentist. Music is a constant in her life, but she’s not a master at playing an instrument or singing. She loves the beach, but can’t swim. She’s a Leo but abhors writing about herself. Her writing voice is either painfully neurotic or deliciously sarcastic depending on what floats your boat. As a Cebu City lumad, Micah is slowly growing into becoming a (music) scene tita who silently judges everything and everyone with love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.