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What Makes a Jew?

A British paper asks, and four brainiacs stumble to answer

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The British Jewish Chronicle asks four known Jews to weigh in on the ever-sticky question of identity. After clearing his throat with the obvious (“We are not just a religion.… Equally, though, Jews are not just an ethnic group”), writer Jonathan Freedland makes the point that the trouble with attempts to “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.” Filmmaker Naomi Gryn’s insights are limited to extolling her own commitment to some amorphously defined Jewishness while bashing the authority of the Orthodox sector, whose members she defines as “anachronistic misogynists who have decided that they have some sort of authority over defining who is a Jew.”

Reliably, writer Howard Jacobson has the most colorful take, characterizing Jews as thinkers and questioners via an anecdote about two Yeshiva boys discussing which prayer to say over toasted bread. “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.”

Although none of these perspectives is apt to rock the world of identity politics, Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen expresses one common view best in praising the merits of Jewdar: “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.” In other words, Jews, at the end of the day, are like pornography: you know them when you see them.

Who Is a Jew? The Great Debate

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What Makes a Jew?

A British paper asks, and four brainiacs stumble to answer

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