On finding out more about Jewish heritage

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
My grandfather was Jewish, and I’ve become interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture. But I’m not sure how to go about it, since the rest of my family is Christian and would not be supportive of me converting. There’s a lot to learn and finding a good starting point is hard, plus I don’t want to intrude in any Jewish spaces where I wasn’t welcome.

Realsocialskills said:

There are a lot of ways you can find out more about Judaism and Jewish culture without converting. If you want to convert, that’s fine, but you don’t have to start there. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, especially if you know your family won’t be supportive. 

It may be better to just start from the point of wanting to find out more — you can learn about Judaism and value your connection to it without converting. As you find out more, you may feel like you need to become Jewish yourself, or you may not. That’s not a decision you have to make now. 

So, how can you find out more? I’m answering with the assumption that you’re in the US, because that’s the area I’m most familiar with. (If you’re not, some of this will be wrong. If you’re somewhere else, if you send another ask with your location, I may be able to tell you more accurate things.)

There are some good books and good websites. Some I’d suggest:

  • MyJewishLearning.com has a lot of information about a lot of different things. Some of it is very introductory and could be a good entry point — and there are also more complex articles that will become understandable as you find out more.
  • Hebcal.com can tell you when the holidays are, and what Torah portion (parsha) we’re reading this week. It has links to the full texts of the readings, as well as commentaries from various organizations. This could be a good entry into learning about how Jews understand the Bible.
  • Harry Leichter’s Jewish Humor http://www.haruth.com/jhumor/ is a huge archive of Jewish jokes, and information about Jewish jokes. Humor is fundamental to Jewish culture; learning to get the jokes can take you pretty far.
  • The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem conservativeyeshiva.org has a lot of online resources http://learn.conservativeyeshiva.org in English about Jewish texts. (If you’re able to travel, they also have really good in-person programs)
  • There are also a lot of Jewish movies. Here’s one list. http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-jewish-films

Some books worth acquiring:

  • A siddur (Jewish prayer book) with commentary. Jewish liturgy is really different from Christian liturgy. The Artscroll Siddur (Orthodox) and Siddur Lev Shalem (Conservative) both have a lot of commentary that can help you to understand how Jewish liturgy works. (For some reason, neither is distributed through Amazon, but they’re both pretty easy to get from the publishers and Jewish book stores.)
  • A Passover Haggadah. This is the book used for the Passover Seder, a central Jewish ritual. Understanding it will tell you a lot about Judaism and Jewish culture. I’d recommend A Different Night as a fairly understandable haggadah with good commentary. 
  • Etz Hayyim, or another Jewish commentary on the weekly Bible readings. These are used in synagogues, and can tell you something about how Jews understand the Bible. 
  • If you want to learn more about American Jewish history, “The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000” by Hasia Diner is a good starting place.  “American Judaism: A History” by Jonathan Sarna is also good. They’ve also both written more specific books, which might be good if you know where your grandfather was from or where he and his Jewish family lived in the US.
  • (There are also a lot of “Introduction to Judaism” type books, but they’re all kind of specific to one community, and none of the ones I’m familiar with are better than what you’d find on myjewishlearning.com). 
  • There are also a lot of books about how to observe the commandments — but I’d caution about reading those books before you have more direct exposure to Jewish community. Most of them describe more what the authors wish Jews would do than what most Jews actually do. (A lot of people have made themselves insufferable by reading these books and deciding that the Jews they interact with are Doing It Wrong.)

There’s also a limit to what you can learn from books. Jewish culture is complicated and hard to describe. Attempts to write about Jewishness are always at least a bit misleading. There are things you can only learn from interacting with Jews directly and seeing Jewish things happen in real life. So, how do you do that?

In the US, it’s really normal for non-Jews to be curious about Judaism and want to find out more. It’s especially normal for people with Jewish ancestry. Most communities expect that this will happen from time to time. It’s not offensive. The main thing is that it’s important to respect the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism, and to understand that certain things are sensitive subjects. (Eg: don’t go into Jewish community and try to convince Jews to accept Jesus.) (And to understand that Jews are people trying to live their lives, and that they’re not Jewish culture objects).

In the US, most synagogues periodically offer Introduction to Judaism classes. (In larger communities, they may be offered jointly by a few synagogues.) They’re usually intended in part for those considering conversion, but also for people who just want to find out more about Judaism and Jewish community. Having Jewish ancestry and wanting to find out more about Judaism isn’t the most common reason, but it is a normal reason. Many communities charge for classes (but if you really can’t afford it, that’s usually negotiable).

In the US, it’s usually ok to visit synagogues to find out more about what services are like. (It may not be ok in other places where people are more afraid of antisemitic violence, especially Europe.) A lot of people go to synagogue services to find out more about Judaism, for a lot of different reasons. (Including, some people do it for comparative religion classes).

One thing to be aware of is that there are certain prayers that need ten Jews, so they need to know that you’re not Jewish. It may be a good idea to tell someone at the synagogue ahead of time that you’re not Jewish but you want to go to a service to find out more. (Again, this is a completely normal thing to do in the US.) Many synagogues also have holiday programming that you might be able to go to. (For instance, second night seders for Passover). For that, it would definitely be good to ask first — different communities see that differently.

It’s also worth being aware also that there are different kinds of Jewish communities and Jewish prayer services. (Eg: Orthodox synagogues separate men and women for prayer; most other movements do not.) There are a lot of cultural and religious differences and it would probably be a good idea to check out more than one community.

If there is a Jewish Community Center in your area, there are probably classes and events that you could go to. JCCs are generally not tied to a particular denomination, and often have a lot of programming that is more cultural than religious in nature. (Eg: movie nights, speakers, cooking classes, art.) 

If you google the name of your city/area (or the nearest larger city/town/area), and “Jewish”, you will probably find a page with information about events, organizations, and Jewish resources. There will likely be a lot of different things going on, most of which it’s fine to go to as a non-Jew. If you’re not sure, you can email or call ahead and ask if it’s ok. (Some communities even have things specifically for people from mixed families or people who have Jewish ancestors and want to find out more. It’s not all or even most, but it is something that exists in some places.) 

If you’re in college, you could talk to the rabbi at your college’s Hillel. It’s really, really common for college students with some Jewish ancestry to want to find out about more about Judaism and Jewish culture. You will probably not be the first student they’ve talked to about this. There will likely be a lot of events or classes it would be ok for you to go to, and they can probably give you advice on how to make connections. If you’re a student, it will probably be ok for you to go to most-if-not-all Hillel events, so long as no one thinks you’re trying to convert Jews to Christianity or something. (Again, outside the US, Hillel might work differently).

(A note about Chabad: Chabad is an ultra-Orthodox outreach organization, with presence just about everywhere. Even though they are friendly in a lot of ways, I would advise caution in interacting with them. They look more open and accepting than they really are. They are promoting a particular interpretation of Jewish legitimacy, which is not shared even by most people who go to Chabad. 

If you decide to convert with Chabad, you won’t be able to continue the lifestyle shared by most people who go to Chabad; you will be held to ultra-Orthodox standards. Chabad will say that they accept everyone and that denominations don’t matter, but they won’t accept a Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist conversion as valid. If you rely on Chabad for spiritual support in figuring these things out, it could lead to a lot of pain down the road.) 

If you’re in college, you could also take a Jewish Studies class. Some Jewish studies professors may also be willing to have a conversation with you about this (and have likely had other students in your position approach them about this). In addition to what you’d learn from the content of the Jewish Studies class, you’d also learn from how Jewish students respond to the content. (At many schools, you can also audit classes even if you don’t go there, but it’s less socially comfortable to do so if you’re not college aged.)

This is a list of some of the things I’m aware of; it’s not an exhaustive list. Jewish culture is wide, and there’s a lot going on. The short version is that there are a lot of ways in to understanding Jewish culture, and it’s ok to explore them whether or not you want to convert. If this list has been completely overwhelming, I’d suggest that you start by going to myjewishlearning.com and just click around for a while. You’ll find stuff you can learn from there.

T;dr Someone who has a Jewish grandfather sent an ask wondering how they might find out more about Judaism and Jewish culture. They said that the rest of their family is Christian and would not support them in converting. I suggested that they table the issue of conversion for now, and focus on learning more first. I also suggested a lot of different ways to find out more about Judaism and Jewish culture, some of which are US-specific. Myjewishlearning.com is a pretty decent starting point.