Lifshitz is a decidedly, very Jewish last name.

Growing up in a mostly Catholic town, people assumed my “Jewishness” without really questioning me about my background unless it was to ask some token Jewish question.

“What’s the story of Passover?”


“What do those Dreidel symbols mean actually?”

Most of the times, I mumbled a general answer partially because as kids, they weren’t too invested in my answer and partially because sometimes, I didn’t know the answer to their Jewquiries.

And it was awkward.

How could I own this Jewish name and identity, yet not understand enough of what this association means? As a child and teenager, I brushed these things aside but as an adult it bothered me.

Who am I? Who was my family? What am I?

There are so many questions, and now as an adult with a young daughter, the weight of my mumbled responses (or now clear responses with the honesty that “I think I’m right but I am not positive”) is a lot heavier.

I started to Google the unknown answers to my questions. Some of which, were confusing to me and others were simple. I started to wonder if perhaps it was time to take a class, maybe “Judaism for Dummies” to understand the importance and history around my Jewish identity.

It’s not only my half-correct responses that bother me, but the feeling as if I am in a foreign country when someone Jewish or someone obsessed with all things Jewish speaks to me, assuming I understand what he or she is saying.

Gallivanting around the Garment District one day with my father (Dad is the Jewish half of my family equation; Mom is a convert), we ran into a friend of his who started sprouting Hebrew. I had no clue what the man was saying yet somehow, even my own father (proud owner of a Jewish education) forgot that his daughter knew zilch Hebrew.

At best, I know a smattering of Yiddish phrases, all passed down to my mother from my paternal grandparents. Speak Yiddish and I’m more apt to understand.

The most offensive however of these Jewquiries are the ones involving my appearance.

“You don’t look Jewish.”

“You’re very pretty for a Jewish girl.”

I asked myself, ‘What do these statements mean? Are Jews not pretty? Are all Jews dark-haired? Do I need to look Jewish to be Jewish and what exactly does Jewish look like?”

I know full well my flaxen hair and pale skin are borrowed from my mother’s definitively non-Jewish side of the family, but the connotations around beauty and “Jewishness” were so offensive.

Worse still, I grew up on the East Coast. It’s not like no one had ever not met a Jewish person before, but these statements were thrown at me repeatedly through my young adult years into womanhood.

What was my response when they said I was pretty for a Jewish girl?

I stuttered a thank you and when pushed further about my religious identity I revealed my mother and father’s heritage. This was always met by a knowing “of course your Mom is Irish and Scottish” kind of look. I almost felt as if I was committing a crime by responding, but I didn’t know what to say.

Besides, do I belong to Judaism or do I half-belong? Is there a way to quantify this? I don’t know, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel complete and as if I am somewhere I don’t quite belong. Yet the first time I did stand-up comedy in a club amongst many other Jewish people, I felt at home. I wish I had the words to explain why I felt that way, or what it was exactly that made me feel like a “tribe member,” but the feeling of familiarity was there amongst these strangers I had just met, and it wasn’t because we all have the deep desire to go on stage with the hopes of making a crowd of people laugh at us.

Maybe one day I will sit down in a room of adults and learn about what Judaism today and then means. Until then, I still travel “between countries” metaphorically of Jews and Non-Jews seeing parts of me everywhere and in-between, owning my own version of Jewishness with pride.

  1. I was brought up reform, but didn’t know much. There are classes you can take, check out offerings through Federation, or the synagogues in your area. If you are lucky enough to still be in NYC there are some wonderful opportunities for you. I knew very little (still don’t have the hebrew),but over the last 10 years I have become more involved and my Jewishness has grown to be a large part of my identity.

  2. Many jews are fair skinned, Ashkenazies especially – think Barbara Walters, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Billy Joel, Albert Einstein, … And judaism is a religion, not a race nor nationality. Even more, its a culture, a way of seeing the world, that has spread to most countries including places like China. It is defined by its values and not limited to sephardic nor caucasian. True, many jews have dark hair. But there are many blond and redheaded jews.

  3. My story as well. While it may not make headlines, it can be helpful in the search for one’s identity
    and the realization that laughing is the only way to say., “vive la diferance.”

  4. Hi Laura, Your story resonates with me although my mother was not a convert. I was adopted. Irish, French and Metis background. Always felt like a Jewish fraud but wanted to belong. We all have our place. We don’t need to fit someone’s preconceived version of Jewishness.

  5. Laura, I so identify with your experiences even though I am first seen as an African American from the deep southern part of the US and not Jewish. My great great grandmother and father on my mothers side fled Europe at the onset of the wars in the 1940’s.

    They ended up in Canada then Louisiana with my grandparents coming to Texas. Jews hear act leery and uninviting which truly comes with the territory. But better yet I’ve found a much accepted and enjoyable solution. I meet several times a week online for Torah classes with others all around the world.

    All praises to the G-d of Israel for his compassion on us and providing the blessing of connecting that vast number of us who where fragmented by war, history and lack of family to now being a family.

  6. I believe being Jewish is just a small, personal part of us. I do not invite comments about my “Jewishness” and instead re-direct them to more individually related information. Religion is very personal to me and I only discuss it with friends.

  7. Very interesting read. Almost as if I was talking within. I am the only Jew in my field at work ( Police Officer) and everyone asks me all the same questions all the time about being jewish and why we do this and what does this mean and why do we wear this and that. I am not frum nor am I kosher, however I too also feel as if a part of my identity is missing, yet I am at times pulled away from heritage for not understanding the traditions in whole. Makes me feel at times awkward to be a jew who really does not understand his roots or history. I do shabbas with family 1-2 times monthly and the high holidays, but other than that, lost in translation. But I did learn jewish cooking from my bubby…lol.

  8. I grew up in the Bonx new york, It seemed like all my neighbors were jewish. Very few ever went to the shul, maybe one family in my apt, building… my grandparents in the next building did go on saturday,s… When I got married & lived in staten island which at the time was not jewish at all. I decided to give my children a jewish education which I disn’t have..So what did I do I enrolled them in a jewish day school..They got a wonderful educucation…I’ m not sorry at all…p.s jewish woman are also known to be beautiful & beautiful inside as well….

  9. I have a similar background having a Jewish last name from my father (whose entire family has been Jewish coming here from Europe in the early 1900’s) and a non Jewish mother who had no religion or true cultural identity of her own. To top it off, I attended and graduated from a highly regarded private Catholic school. I always wanted to Iearn more of what I had learned from my father so after the age of 50 I began going to adult learning classes starting with “A taste of Judaism” at the Reform Temple where the Rabbi is a dynamic woman near my age. It is a welcoming congregation and I too felt a sense of belonging from the start. I now go to some Shabbat services and continue to learn there and on my own. I have accumulated a nice collection of books on Judaism, its history, customs and practices mostly written by Conservative Rabbis. All of this gives me a connection that seemed to be mysteriously missing until I took the initiative to learn about my roots, my heritage, or you might say my tribe!

  10. I am proud of my Jewish heritage. I believe that the values that my parents instilled and taught me , have value in my everyday life.
    Yes, it is true that when I was Bar Mitzvahed in an Orthadox Temple, I didn’t understand or know much about my religion. I still today
    am not as versed as a learned Jewish person might be, however I attend friday night services and celebrate our wonderful and meaningful
    holidays and memorial events. Today, I belong to a Reform Jewish Temple, and share in the blessings and the responsibilities that come
    from what our religion and our G-D has taught us. No matter what religion one might be, being a Mensch — standing up for — and defending
    the values of our Torah, is what is important to me.

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