“Are you Jewish?”

It’s a girl I sit next to in my English class. She is now sitting across the table from me at Bowdoin’s Passover Seder. 

I give her my standard, terribly long-winded response:

“Yes, well, I mean, my mom is Jewish, so technically—I use big air quotes—I’m Jewish. But I never went to Temple and I never was Bat Mitzvah-ed and we celebrate all the Jewish holidays but also Christmas because my dad is Christian—well, technically—more air quotes—he’s both because his dad was Jewish but they weren’t religious so it’s more of a cultural thing I guess. So, yeah. I’m half-Jewish—or, like, three-quarters. But basically no. Not religiously or anything.”

And like everyone else I tell that to, including most likely the reader of this article, my classmate doesn’t care all that much.

“Oh. Cool,” she says.

And yet, it’s important to me, every time that question is asked, to clarify my level of Jew-ness, to emphasize that, though non-practicing, I am a technical Jew. It’s a surprisingly central aspect of my identity. I feel like I owe some strange, intangible allegiance to my Jewish heritage, which I simultaneously know almost nothing about and have never felt any interest in exploring.

Inexplicably, I also feel like I’m part of some invisible global Jewish network. When I’m outside of my home in the greater-New York-metropolitan area—which one-third of the Jewish population calls home—I feel an immediate connection with other people I meet who are Jewish. It’s like their Jewishness automatically makes them comforting, safe, friendly—even if they’re complete strangers. Not that I’d pick up an ominous-looking hitchhiker carrying a lead pipe and smelling like formaldehyde if he told me he was Jewish, but I guess I have to admit that it wouldn’t hurt his case. After all, he could turn out to be, like my Grandma thinks of Aaron Sorkin, “a nice Jewish boy”…right?

I’m thinking about this in Moulton Union while members of Bowdoin Hillel recite Hebrew prayers I’ve heard every year at my family’s Seders that still sound entirely foreign. I’m mouthing along, pretending I know more than I really do, and thinking about the forthcoming meal, which is also my habit at Seders. Last year, Bowdoin served roasted root vegetables. I wonder if they’ll serve them again. I snack prematurely on the matzo in the center of the table; I eat the charoset (sweet apples and cinnamon) but skip the maror (bitter herb).

Looking around the room at faculty, students and community members, I wonder why my Jewish identity is so inextricably tied to the person I believe myself to be. Especially when considering I care so little about observing the religious traditions of this holiday (I skip the hardboiled egg, too).

“It’s so interesting to see all the people who are Jewish at Bowdoin,” my friend comments.
“I think that most of these people aren’t Jewish,” I say. But I don’t mean it as a judgment at all. That observation is, in fact, precisely what I like so much about Bowdoin’s Seder. Open to anyone, including my redheaded Irish Catholic friend sitting diagonally from me, the Seder is far more about community than anything else. 

Yes—it’s about celebrating a Jewish holiday. But it’s also about not caring if a fellow student skips over the difficult Hebrew words in the Haggadah (the Jewish guide for the order of the Seder). It’s about amending the Haggadah so that the story of Joseph, my knowledge of which is limited to the plot of the musical “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,” includes him “committing himself to the Common Good.” It’s about coming together with a group of peers and enjoying each other’s company over a delicious and bountiful meal (thank you, Bowdoin Dining!). 
Having grown up in a vaguely-Jewish household, I feel relatively confident in claiming that nothing is more Jewish than that.

So I can take from my Jewishness what I want—I can value it while also denouncing my religiosity. I can eat the charoset and not the maror because I am in a position to ingest what I want from this experience and leave the rest on the table. 

The time comes for the closing remarks. It’s my friend’s turn to read from the Haggadah. This is the second Seder she’s ever been to, (the first was the Bowdoin Seder last year.) She comes to a Hebrew word, and stumbles embarrassingly. Someone a few seats down murmurs the pronunciation. I suppress laughter—partially because of my friend’s mistake, but mostly because I have no clue how to pronounce the word either.