Converting to Judaism, but secular / atheist?
July 25, 2008 2:39 AM   Subscribe

Converting to Judaism, but secular / atheist?

This idea has been growing in my brain for quite some years now, but in recent months it has started to push itself forward quite insistently. I feel absolutely ripped off that I was not born a Jew, and I want to be one.

The catch is I am strongly atheist, and have no plans to change that. But there are a lot of Jews who don't believe, right?

Would it be possible to find a Rabbi that would let me into the tribe? I've read most of the top Internet resources on the subject, but it seems like even for Reform Judaism I'd have to believe in God to get started, and Humanistic Judaism seems pretty fringe, and I don't think it would qualify me for the right to aliya if I wanted to do that at some point in the future.

I am sorry because I know this sounds like I am just riffing and goofing off here but I am serious. Any ideas or advice?
posted by Meatbomb to Religion & Philosophy (52 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I think it depends on what your goal is - what do you feel you would gain/achieve by converting? Do you want to participate in religious/ritual aspects of Jewish life? Are you into any of that or do you just want to be able to claim the identity of being Jewish?
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:00 AM on July 25, 2008

Response by poster: I think it's more the identity / culture aspect, nmc, to be recognised and accepted among Jews as "one of us". I would likely not be participating in the religious aspects, but I'd be consciously and purposefully not doing them as a secular Jew, rather than not doing them because I am not a Jew - if that makes any sense.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:10 AM on July 25, 2008

You ask for ideas and advice, so I hope the following dismissive response won't seem too inappropriate - I'm sure it will be deleted if it is.
What you are proposing is an impossibility. Conversion to Judaism would be a religious act; in itself it would change nothing about your cultural heritage. The multifarious aspects of the various Jewish identities emerged with religion as one factor but also a whole host of other shared personal, historical and cultural experiences that you will not magically gain access to by the act of conversion. If I were feeling as you were I'd look behind the desire to identify underlying motivations that could be addressed and deal with them instead.
posted by Abiezer at 3:22 AM on July 25, 2008 [12 favorites]

If you don't want to participate in any of the religious aspects of a religion, why do you want to convert to that religion? Doesn't make much sense to me.

Jews are, as a rule, pretty accepting of people, especially due to the shit we've gone through over the past few millennia of not being well-accepted ourselves.
So why don't you just hang out with some Jews and occasionally light Chanukah candles with them?

Doesn't seem like studying the Talmud and going to a mikvah are going to help you here.
posted by jozxyqk at 3:26 AM on July 25, 2008

P.S. ...and getting circumcised as an adult, if you aren't already.

Think seriously about this decision.
posted by jozxyqk at 3:34 AM on July 25, 2008

I have a friend that is doing exactly this. She is after the ritual and the community aspect - but not the theology (she is also an atheist). Her rabbis are helping her and she finds comfort. So I can say that it is possible in at least one case.
posted by divabat at 3:53 AM on July 25, 2008

If you think religion is BS, then pretending to believe in a particular one just to "join the tribe" isn't much an ethical dilemma. So fake it, if it's that important to you. God knows dozens of US politicians have.
posted by mpls2 at 3:59 AM on July 25, 2008

to be recognised and accepted among Jews as "one of us"

Do you really think thats going to happen? Actual practicing Jews probably won't accept you as 'legitimate' if you are not prepared to recognise the religious aspect.

And non-practicing Jews (which you aspire to be) are either disillusioned by their faith and/or apathetic about it enough that they probably couldn't care less if you are Jewish or not.

With respect, it sounds like you are wanting to have your cake and eat it too.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 4:06 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Essentially, no. Part of the typical conversion asks you if you believe in God. It's fine to be an atheist once you're a Jew, but not while you're trying to convert. Obviously you can just lie about this; I'm unsure how convincing you will be, but I know that often Christians who convert because of their spouse fumble on the no Jesus question and still convert. At the very least when asked you'd have to have a definition of god that is acceptable to you. (The laws of nature or some such.) You do not have to believe in a personal god who intervenes in daily life, and many rabbis of my acquaintance do not believe in that kind of god.

Israel in particular only recognises Orthodox conversions, if making aliyah is a goal. If you're talking about aliyah like standing up in synagogue and chanting -- well, those are generally honours restricted to people who are involved in the synagogue (or who are related to the bar/bat mitzvah kid).

I don't know how you think other Jews will recognise you as a secular Jew if you're not participating in any of the rituals -- frankly, most secular Jews I know *do* participate in the major ones. They have seders especially. And you will be missing a lot of the background cultural bits if you convert just to ignore them all. If you say you're a Jew, converted as an adult, but don't go to synagogue, have never had a seder or eaten matzah for a week, don't fast, don't even have some version of a shabbat dinner, I'm going to roll my eyes at you.

So I am missing something, I think. What precisely do you like about Judaism? Have you spoken to other Jews about this? What are you missing, and how is a conversion going to get you there? It's not a short process, and it really doesn't give you the cultural heritage, which comes from doing and having done Jewishy stuff. Do you have friends who are Jewish and will invite you to holidays?

Officially Reform Judaism in the US doesn't require anything of you except the desire, but you're going to have trouble proving you're a Jew to any religious official who isn't a reform rabbi in the US if you go that route. Otherwise conversion is generally after a period of study and a circumcision.
posted by jeather at 4:23 AM on July 25, 2008

As an atheist Jew, I think you can expect people to be insulted. There is Judaism the religion, and the Jewish ethnic group/cultural identity. You can change your religion, though many of the more Orthodox might not recognize it. But guess what, you can't really change your ethnic group. Sure, you use more Yiddish in your everyday speech, but that doesn't make you more or less Jewish. It's like deciding one day that you want to be black because you really the superficial aspects of African-American culture.

I'm a Jew by birth and lineage. I was ever Bar Mitzvah'ed. But I came to my atheism honestly. Culturally, ethnically I'm Jewish and religiously I am not.

You want to feel more Jewish? Move to New York City, everyone is a little Jewish there. Otherwise you're just acting like a jerk and trying to appropriate some larger cultural nonsense about what it means to be Jewish.
posted by X-Himy at 4:29 AM on July 25, 2008 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Otherwise you're just acting like a jerk and trying to appropriate some larger cultural nonsense about what it means to be Jewish.

Ow! No need to be so nasty there dude. I don't want to have to go really deep in this forum, but there are a number of aspects of my life, my life experience, my approach to things that makes me feel like deep down inside I actually am a Jew, or should be, and it is a little difficult to express it openly and publicly here. So you'll just have to take my word for it that I am very much not just "acting like a jerk" and this is not just superficial.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:14 AM on July 25, 2008

It's like deciding one day that you want to be black because you really the superficial aspects of African-American culture.

This is exactly the way this question strikes me and I hope the OP can jump back in to clarify. (Note: I am neither black nor Jewish. I wish I were taller, though.)
posted by desjardins at 6:14 AM on July 25, 2008

there are a number of aspects of my life, my life experience, my approach to things that makes me feel like deep down inside I actually am a Jew

But you see, you're not. There are really only two ways to be a Jew, by birth or belief. Anything else is just play-acting.

And yes, many Jews would be insulted by this. And despite divabat's atheist friend having found a rabbi willing to help her, she will wind up no more jewish than you are.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:33 AM on July 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

X-Himy (how eponisterical) comments from pretty much the same position as me, and says more or less what I would say, although more harshly.

I also view Judaism as a religion, an ethnic group, and a culture. The problem is that conversion addresses the religious aspect, and you want the cultural/ethnic aspects. So I suspect that you'd go to all that trouble and find that you hadn't gotten what you really wanted. I could be wrong. Perhaps going through that process and going to temple just as a matter of going through the motions would have the effect of embedding you into your local Jewish community, leading indirectly to the outcome you wanted. But it definitely does seem to be the indirect route.
posted by adamrice at 6:39 AM on July 25, 2008

I would Nth the idea to just hang out with more Jews, but to be honest, I think most people would be sorta creeped to know their new friend only liked them for their charming ethnic heritage.

It seems like your issues go to a deeper desire for community and belonging. There's nothing wrong with that, it's sadly normal. But maybe you could focus on building a community of like-minded people, regardless ofbackground.
posted by lunasol at 6:44 AM on July 25, 2008

Well, I am an atheist Jew and I think what Meatbomb wants to do is really kind of nice and not insulting at all actually but I would like to second everything jeather said. What matters is your practice, and you can practice without believing in God. Nobody is going to care whether you are "technically" Jewish or not and the ones who do care wouldn't consider your conversion to be legitimate anyway, even if you did find someone who would do it.
posted by phoenixy at 6:48 AM on July 25, 2008

I don't really see the point of it, to be honest.

You might be interested in Reconstructionist Judaism. You said you thought that the humanistic arms of Judaism seem a bit "fringe" to you - but did you really think you'd find a sect of Judaism that was somewhat nontheistic that wouldn't be fringe?

You mentioned making aliyah. You have to be able to "prove" you are Jewish to them for the Right of Return, and Israel's religious authority is Orthodox. They are so stringent that some Orthodox conversion courts in the US have had problems, no doubt they wouldn't accept a Reform or humanistic conversion. If you want to go to Israel, visit or immigrate the regular way.

Judaism is a religion. If you're not interested in the religion itself, there is no point to converting.
posted by lullaby at 6:50 AM on July 25, 2008

Judaism tends to discourage conversion, and traditionally, if you want to convert, the rabbi is supposed to say no to your first three requests in order to discourage you. For that reason alone, I think that if you want to convert, you are going to have to show a real commitment--to attending services, studying Torah, and behaving Jewishly--BEFORE you can begin conversion classes. This also isn't a quick, hourlong ceremony. Conversion generally takes months of study, homework, and effort.
posted by j1950 at 6:50 AM on July 25, 2008

You can't convert to a culture.
posted by amro at 6:55 AM on July 25, 2008 [8 favorites]

Marrying a Jewish woman might help. Then you could have bona fide Jewish children and bask in the reflected glory.
posted by BinGregory at 6:58 AM on July 25, 2008

You can't convert to a culture.

Exactly. Or more to the point, you can, and you do it by just doing it. Nobody's stopping you hanging out with the people you feel you were born to hang out with, eating the foods you feel you were born to eat, consuming the cultural products you feel you were born to consume, listening to the music you feel you were born to listen to... all the (non-religious) things that make up a culture, in other words. The conversion thing is a red herring.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:02 AM on July 25, 2008

Thanks for liking us Jews so much! As j1950 said, conversion is a LOT of work and it doesn't sound right for you or your beliefs.

That said, there isn't much that you can't do as an unofficial Jew. Want to go to a seder? Check community boards in your city or ask some Jewish friends. Want to go to temple? Go for it, just make sure you don't go to an Orthodox one. Want to keep kosher for Passover? Do it. Most Jews are cool with non-converted Jews doing all of that stuff.

I grew up in a pretty Jewish neighborhood, and one of my best friends was Chinese and not Jewish. But she went to Temple almost as much as I did and came to our seders and family celebrations. She was always welcome, and random people in Temple would say how happy they were that she was there and wanted to learn more.

There is a lot of Jewish stuff you can do and identify with without converting. I don't think you need the official Jew title. If you want, try to get in good with a Jewish family and they can bestow upon you the title of "Honorary Jew" like we did with my friend.

Or, try out a couple conversion classes and see if they are right for you after all. The rabbis will be discouraging to test you, so maybe first go to a community service event or something else that the temple sponsors that isn't so religious and see if you want to do more.
posted by rmless at 7:07 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have some ideas but you may not want to pay attention to them, because I was raised secularly and there are plenty of Jews who would consider my goy-marrying and bacon-eating self about as Jewish as Anita Bryant.

First, it sounds a little tough, but: if you are serious, you need to reframe your approach. Right now your emphasis is on you, and finding a casual Rabbi to slip you under the velvet rope while God isn't looking. To be frank that's selfish. You're being called to this for some reason, and instead of dictating the terms of it from the get-go, you should try to examine why that is first. Instead of approaching this from a militantly atheist perspective, start out as an open and honest seeker.

If you can do that, I think your next move is spending time with a community, and I don't know how hard that is to find where you are. You may have been around Jewish people or had Jewish friends but until you get yourself to a temple (better make sure it's Reform) and spend serious time in a Jewish community you have a tourist's eye. Attend services as an observer. Approach the rabbi and tell him (or her) what you told us, but with all the details you can't share here. Be very respectful -- now is not the time to practice your Catskills patter. You are there to learn. Be humble.

I don't know how much reading you've done in the Torah or Talmud but I'd say along with spending some time in temple you need some time with books. There are good resources suggested at and they specify that you can email them with questions. Start with their "Should I Convert?" page.

If at the end of it all you're still an atheist, you can't in good conscience undergo a formal conversion. But what you will have is a deeper understanding of the religion and culture and perhaps a richer spiritual life. That is a good thing.
posted by melissa may at 7:11 AM on July 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

If a sense of community is what you're after, then some of the responses here should be your guide as to the community that awaits you. Many Jews I know are not crazy even about converts who believe, and I can picture clearly in my head some unflattering things which would be said behind your back (or maybe even to your face) if it came out that you converted without believing in the religion. That said, this atheist Jew finds it silly, quixotic, charming, and entirely inoffensive that you wish to become Jewish.

Your best bet would be to get in touch with a Reconstructionist Rabbi and to be frank with him or her about your desires. You should also start volunteering for Jewish (or Jewish-run) charities. Become a valued member of the community, and then stick around. I'm going to second the suggestion that it would be more worth your while to start up a community of your own than to try to belong to a community which may accept you only grudgingly and with much eye-rolling, no matter how unfair that my seem to you now. There's a reason why many atheist Jews have very little to do with "their own" community, after all.

On the other hand, maybe the way to look at it is to think of the Jewish People as the Jewish Nation, and you would like to become a Gentile Expat in the Jewish Nation.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:12 AM on July 25, 2008

Alot of the above is way off sad to say...
Many Christains know far more about Jewish culture than the Jews themselvs, because non practicing Jews are really considered (at least to God) as being "heathans"
I think it might benifit you to understand why a Jew is a Jew in the first place...
See Abraham..who is in the good Genesis.
God arbitrarily called a man Abraham and said, I will make you my people and I will be your God and thus the seed of Jewish culture was sprung.
The culture of the Jew is the ONLY surviving culture that was not changed since the "beginning", Israel (but as a people and as a nation) have seen countless societies (Persian, Greek, Turk, German) rise and fall and Israel HAS been the ONLY culture to strive...its proof in God's choosing and his hedge of protection even in the most dire of times.
My advise brother, stay an atheist, because a Jewish person who does not accept or believe in the God who has guided them, is ALSO an in reality, they are more like you than you think.
If you have any serious questions I encourage you to get a book by a renoun Jewish arthor Alfred Edersheim called Sketches of Jewish Social Life. This book will answer about 95% of what you need to know.

God bless you man
posted by TeachTheDead at 7:13 AM on July 25, 2008

Alot of the above is way off sad to say... non practicing Jews are really considered (at least to God) as being "heathans"

Uh, rrrriight...

So anyway, these are the kinds of views you're going to run into if you insist on undergoing a religious conversion because of a desire for a cultural affiliation. Just pursue the cultural affiliation instead!
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:27 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

...these are the kinds of views you're going to run into if you insist on undergoing a religious conversion

Agree! Try converting to Islam or Buddism or, heck, the "culture of Atheism" is growing for as being a Jew, this is just not the right way to go about it...
posted by TeachTheDead at 7:34 AM on July 25, 2008

non practicing Jews are really considered (at least to God) as being "heathans"

TeachTheDead, I'm presuming you're not Jewish? Because that's beyond's actually quite the opposite of the reality of things. Heck, if a Jew converts to another religion, they are still considered Jewish according to everything we are taught.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:35 AM on July 25, 2008

Have you considered the downside to being Jewish?

The fact that my father and grandmother were Jewish was only revealed to me in my teen years, due to the stigma associated with Jewishness and outright prejudice directed to Jews among some in my family's cohort.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Jews continue to be scapegoated for many of the world's ills. And subtle, snide remarks targeting Jews are relatively common, even in the US.

Being Jewish, either religiously or ethnically, is a blessing. I'm glad that I have a small quantity of Jewish blood in my veins. But you'll need mettle to counter the anti-Jewish sentiment in the world.
posted by Gordion Knott at 7:42 AM on July 25, 2008

I vote for this being non-insulting, and that you should speak to a Reconstructionist rabbi about attending services at a synagogue - Reconstructionism is sort of the Jewish version of Unitarian Universalist. Meet people, take some classes, get involved in community work, make friends, and you will start to be part of the life of the synagogue and its community.

Is that conversion? Probably not - as someone said, you can't "convert" to an ethnic group. But it is a way to be a part of the "Jewish community" as a whole.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:47 AM on July 25, 2008

Jewish culture, like every other culture ever, has changed over time.

Lots of Jews are atheists. Personally, I am not offended if someone converts to Judaism and is an atheist. I think it's weird -- and, yes, mockable -- if you convert because you feel Jewish (fine) and would like to be able to ignore Jewish rituals as a Jew instead of as a non-Jew (bizarre). This may well have internal changes, but from the outside, I can't tell the difference.

I think melissa may has it right, partially: I don't think you need to open yourself to belief. But you do need to open yourself to acting like a Jew who participates in Judaism. (Messianic Judaism, for the record, is not Judaism as the large majority of Jews would recognise it.)
posted by jeather at 7:50 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

TeachTheDead: Are we really busting out our Jewish credentials here? I've been an Orthodox Jew my whole life, and...?

I haven't said a thing about entry to heaven. You've been using the word "heathen" here.

The afterlife is not determined by a "how many commandments fulfilled" checklist. The Torah doesn't really contain a huge emphasis on acting a certain way so that you will go to heaven.
posted by lullaby at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - answers that are not addressing the OP need to go to email or metatalk, thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:18 AM on July 25, 2008

I have a good friend who is (like me) a half-Jew on his father's side and therefore a Jew only by Reform standards, and who had never previous to his children's births been anything but an atheist, but who converted then (along with his wife), in the interest of inculcating his children in Jewish culture and morals. He has been welcomed as a Jew by observant Jews, without becoming particularly religious in his philosophies, because he celebrates Jewish culture and he studies and participates in Jewish tradition and ritual.

Ignore TeachTheDead; Alfred Edersheim was a Jew by birth but a Presbyterian minister by conversion; he has little to say about Jewish culture after the year 33 — and nothing at all after 1889.
posted by nicwolff at 8:39 AM on July 25, 2008

Another thought I had after posting my response: you call yourself a "strong atheist," but are you sure you still are? This may get me flamed, and I know atheists are always plagued by well-meaning religious folk who assure them it's just a "phase."

But I wonder if this desire to convert is a sign that maybe you're looking for something different, spiritually, than atheism. Something to consider, can't hurt to at least think about it. Sometimes our desires are so unexpected, and they manifest themselves in ways that are difficult to understand at first.
posted by lunasol at 8:46 AM on July 25, 2008

Seconding what rmless said. I'm a Jew by birth and culture (not by belief), and I'm not stopping you from eating lox, drinking Manischewitz, listening to Matisyahu, reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, and basically participating in overall Jewish culture as much (or as little) as you want. Conversion is an explicitly religious act, so if you're not interested in that aspect of Jewish culture, then don't do it - there are lots of other ways to become involved in the culture.

Put another way: my girlfriend is very European (Irish/English/Welsh/German/Norwegian/&c - there's a genealogist in her family). I am totally into the history and culture of all those places, and the fact that I'm not a part of that culture doesn't stop me from being interested in that. Nobody's going to come to my house and say, "Hey, you're not European enough. We're taking away your copies of the Mabinogion and the Tain, and we're also taking all the Guinness out of your fridge."

Also, thanks for thinking we're cool!
posted by Cassilda at 8:48 AM on July 25, 2008

I have to admit to an immediate negative response to this (as a gentile who grew up around a lot of American Jews and lived in Jerusalem for five years). You want to become a secular Jew (presumably with the cultural aspects of those who come from an Ashkenazi background) and become immersed in Jewish culture and identify with Jews and get that sense of community and belonging. The problem is that, as other posters have mentioned, you have stumbled out of Judaism as a religion at all and into being Jewish in a cultural and ethnic sense. You can't become ethnically Jewish. In all seriousness, the above poster who suggested marrying a Jewish woman and basking "in the reflected glory" of her and your offspring is probably the best plan (although it might weird out her out a little if you fetishized, and I don't mean sexually, her Jewishness, although I'm sure most Jewish women would be happy if you *one* of the things you loved about her was that she was Jewish...better than the opposite). You could generalize that in some sense. Most Jews would love it if you had a genuine interest in secular Jewish culture (really, cultures should be the term, but I think we're using it as shorthand for Ashkenazi Jewish culture in its North American form, although I notice your profile says you're located in Bulgaria now). It might be weird if you were really, really, really into it and constantly talked about it, but if it was one of your primary interests and they felt you liked them as human beings too, it'd be all okay.

Of course, there's the other option, which is so fucked up it kind of makes my head hurt. Fake being ethnically Jewish. Take a Jewish name, (your current one sounds way WASPy) particularly the surname, do your homework (but not in a way that sounds like you did your homework), and just go through life pretending. Get circumcised too, obviously. Mainly get some culturally Jewish childhood experiences down (relatives, food, family stories), but, uh, claim they're all dead now or that you're estranged. No need to even have a Bar Mitzvah document or something, just claim your family was that secular. You won't be able to make aliyah, but whatever. Jews aren't going to check up on you if you have the right amount of chutzpah (but not a crazy amount, don't become a prominent member of a prominent Jewish organization). They might play "Do we know people in common?" but just make that sort of a fail, unless it's some Jewish friend you've made after this disguise. I guess you'll have to actually legally change your name, since it should appear on everything. Or I guess you could go the other route and claim your name was WASPed up at Ellis Island or something. (I am assuming you're American and not British or something). A Swiss guy did this for a while in a particularly fucked up way (he wrote a well-received "memoir" about how he survived Auschwitz).

Anyway, that's fucking crazy, especially when the nice Jewish girl you married finds out somehow and your fake life gets exposed to ridicule and shock.

This question makes makes me think of the Irish Catholic converted to Orthodox Judaism comedian Yisrael Campbell. He actually claims to believe all the stuff, follow the 613 mitzvot, and he still makes me uncomfortable in a way that screams "Jewface" when he does his act. Especially this bit. I always think, "But Yisroel, you don't have a bubbe or a cousin Moishe, unless you mean your wife's family".
posted by Gnatcho at 9:09 AM on July 25, 2008

Oh and Jared, I guess I answed your "question"

You sure did. But somehow I doubt that Meatbomb, who I think we can all agree is looking for a more reformed Jewish experience than Messianic, is well served by those kinds of answers.

Meatbomb, for the record, I live in a neighborhood with a large population of Orthodox and even Hasidic Jews and it's my understanding (as much as a heathen like myself who'll apparently be turned aside by Heaven's bouncer can understand) that they don't share this extreme viewpoint of the Messianic Jews. Most of them are happy to talk about Judaism, Jewish culture and the Torah with all comers, Jewish or non-, lapsed or practicing, so you can certainly get part of the "Jewish experience", whatever that means, without converting.

And who knows? Enough discussion of the Jewish faith, you may come to believe. Even if that never comes to pass, there are many important lessons imparted by the Torah for believers and non-believers alike.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:16 AM on July 25, 2008


I am pretty sure that Jews affiliated with Jews for Jesus lose their Right of Return.

OP: Find a Jewish partner. Start from there. What you're trying to do, by itself, makes as much sense as one wanting to become black. You can only go so far and still no self-respecting black person would see you as "one of our own". Or you could try to review if atheism is right for you. This is another point people are ignoring.
posted by falameufilho at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2008

Best answer: Meatbomb baby,

If you kinda feel like you're Jewish already, deep down, as you said, then you've already arrived at what you want. I know how you feel, I don't have any Jewish blood as far as I know, but my grandfather (New Jersey Irish) worked in the Benrus watch store in Lower Manhattan, where he picked up tons of Yiddishisms and the demeanor of many of his Jewish coworkers. He passed that on to my father and my father to me, it's part of my life, the expressions, some of the outlook, the sense of humor. I grew up in New York, so many of my friends are Jewish, I've been to hundreds of Bar Mitvahs and seders, I was on a first name basis with the cantor of Temple Brotherhood because I was always there waiting for my friends to get out of Hebrew school.

Point being, part of my culture is Jewish, I don't consider myself Jewish in any way shape or form, but I feel a strong kinship for Jewish people and that culture (New York version) is part of my life. I don't think you have to do anything really and anything you could do isn't going to make you feel anymore the way you want to, just lean into it a little.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:19 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Point being, part of my culture is Jewish, I don't consider myself Jewish in any way shape or form, but I feel a strong kinship for Jewish people and that culture (New York version) is part of my life.

This is a good point. One of my sorta-father figures was English, and to this day I have a very strong anglophilic streak. I can say with a straight face that I'm more familiar and comfortable with some aspects of English culture than I am with much of American culture (especially American culture west of Schenectady). That said, I ain't English, and even if I moved to England, I'd still, forever, be an American expat. I've also made the acquaintance of more than a few knowledgeable, practicing Christians, and I've picked up probably more New Testament philosophy than many Christians have. That said, I ain't Christian, and while I could convert, I don't believe in the religion as a religion, so it would be dishonest to say I've got much more than a Christian influence.

It's very easy in this era to have many cultural influences, so no, it's not ridiculous for a non-Jew to identify with the Jewish worldview and experience - the only kink of it is that that doesn't make you Jewish, and trying to become a Jew may be you being less true to yourself than your realizing that, for reasons unique to yourself, you have a strong Jewish influence. Why not adopt those aspects of Judaism which you treasure for yourself, as part of your own personal mythology?
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:37 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who answered this (everyone). I have randomly marked "best answer" to people who have said nice things that helped me think this through better, but obviously the situation is unresolved and I have no idea if their advice is "correct".

Quite a long time ago my mother looked seriously into converting, and that's something I need to follow up with her.

The idea of marrying a Jewish woman is off the table, as I already have a good woman that I intend to keep. Talking through this with her in recent days has turned up something interesting, though - her maternal grandmother was sent to Central Asia by Stalin, and this woman's ethnic background seems to have been an uncomfortable and not to be discussed issue in the family. So maybe in a liberal interpretation of reality I've already got a Jewish wife. :)

Thanks again for all the answers, people.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:46 AM on July 25, 2008

I'm with ya, Meatbomb. If you look up shiksa in the dictionary, my picture's right there. But starting at an early age, I felt an affinity for something, the humor, probably, in Jewish culture, and had very positive spititual experiences at Rosh Hashanah services and Passover Seders. I was raised loosey goosey whichever church is pretty Protestant, and though I like the tenets of Christianity, the tradition that is so much more at the center of Judaism seems to me to be the whole point of religion.

My partner is an atheist Jew, so I use him as my pass now. His mother converted despite being an atheist of similar stripe to myself. I've been told by several Jews in my life over the years that I should convert, given my feelings, but my reply has always been that I didn't think that was right since I was still an atheist and there wasn't a personal point.

However. If I am to have children, I might convert. I am enough of a Jew that I believe in the value of passing this on to children despite my philosophy, for the good of the culture. Until then, it's personal, and any nice Jews are going to treat me as well now as they will if I converted. Especially if they've had my charoset. I can't foresee any appreciable change.

In other words, you're being neurotic. Congratulations.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:18 AM on July 25, 2008

You are aware that Stalin wasn't much of an anti-semite, and that your gf's maternal grandma was more likely part of one of the USSR's many ethnic minorities he deemed troublesome.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

It seems you're just in it for you, and not actually part of the team, but want team benefits -- like getting legal citizenship in a country you refuse to visit. You may have the title and it might look spiffy on paper, but you'd essentially be an agent provocateur. Nobody else might now, but you would =/

I'm unsure how convincing you will be, but I know that often Christians who convert because of their spouse fumble on the no Jesus question and still convert.

Biblically, Christians are Jews. They're adopted Jews, whereas the regular sort is by actual lineage. The NT has so many references and contextual citations that knowing the family you're actually being spliced into is practically a requirement if growth is intended. Jews, if they heed their own writings, trust in Jesus indirectly already -- whereas the as-yet-unappeared messiah (Jesus by name and identity being an imposter, although the OT cites Jews will reject Christ as the messiah) is still to come and to be relied upon for salvation. There are Messianic Jews who revere Christ as that person. So forgoing Christ-belief to be a Jew is not a requirement.
posted by vanoakenfold at 11:33 AM on July 25, 2008

I read that this kind of thing is common. Its like a watered down version of the Jerusalem syndrome. I suggest you speak to a rabbi, truthfully, about your desires. Chances are he's heard it before.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:32 PM on July 25, 2008

her maternal grandmother was sent to Central Asia by Stalin, and this woman's ethnic background seems to have been an uncomfortable and not to be discussed issue in the family.

Oh, well, she's in luck if it's her directly-maternal line, her mother's mother's...mother's line -- she can always drop $129 on a mitochondrial DNA test and see which ethnic group she matches...

/ token genetic genealogist in the house
posted by Asparagirl at 12:55 PM on July 25, 2008

Best answer: Meatbomb, I know where you're coming from. I'm completely goyisch on both sides as far back as can be traced (lots of Brits, Micks, and Norwegians, a little Cherokee and Welsh, but no Jews), but many friends and lovers have been Jewish all my life, I learned a little Hebrew from a cute sabra in high school and bought a Tanakh, and at one point I was so enamored of Yiddishkeit (I was reading Israel Zangwill and Mendele Moycher-Sforim and G-d knows what all) that I seriously thought of converting. But I finally realized that since I was an atheist, it didn't make any sense. I continued to be philo-Semitic and immersed myself in the culture (I was known in a certain circle as The Rabbi, and a girlfriend was lectured to by her father thus: "Your boyfriend is a better Jew than you are, and he's not even Jewish!"), but I accepted the fact that being Jewish is a destiny, for better or (so often) worse, and it's not mine. I think your life will be easier and more enjoyable if you come to the same acceptance. Don't worry, you can still enjoy dark bread and dark humor, and toss plenty of Yiddish into your conversation!

You are aware that Stalin wasn't much of an anti-semite

Yes, actually, he was. Check Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953.
posted by languagehat at 2:46 PM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

How about being a fan of Jewish culture? I know a lot about Jewish history and culture, more than many Jews, and I feel comfortable because I know there will never be pressure to convert.

I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but when you're on the outside of a group looking in, you imagine a warmth and affinity that isn't necessarily there. Most Jews I know-- and I know a lot-- have the same mixed feelings about their heritage as I do about mine. Part of being Jewish is a sense of responsibility to remember the sufferings of ancestors. Survivor guilt is nothing you want or can really share. Family is another crucial element that you can't really create. I'm not sure how yiddish (as charming as it is) will ever evoke childhood memories.

But there is no reason not immerse yourself in Jewish culture.

Stalin actually killed more Jews than Hitler, but then again, he probably killed more Soviets than Hitler did. He began a systematic persecution of Jews as soon as he came to power. Of course, he wasn't really nice to anyone.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:09 AM on July 26, 2008

This brings up a question I've always wondered about. If I wanted to emigrate to Israel, just how would I go about proving I'm Jewish? No one in my family ever had any "paperwork" about being Jewish. We just, you know, are.
posted by Joleta at 11:40 PM on July 26, 2008

I just realized that I asked you for clarification and then never returned to the thread. Here goes:

I would likely not be participating in the religious aspects, but I'd be consciously and purposefully not doing them as a secular Jew, rather than not doing them because I am not a Jew.

I don't think this will work. From an observant perspective, if/once you're Jewish ya gotta follow rules and commandments. Whether or not you or I agree with that, a rabbi in any denomination does. And basically, you're asking them to cause/enable you to sin, since most of those commandments that you will be neglecting don't apply to you right now as a non-Jew. That's a pretty big spiritual/mental burden you're placing on this person who'd potentially help you convert.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:36 PM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

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