A non-Jewish friend writes in an email:
"The Harry Potter film series star is Jewish. Radcliffe’s mother is Jewish, which makes Radcliffe a Jew in the eyes of the Halacha [Jewish law]. Plus, Radcliffe considers himself a ‘Jewish atheist.’ Willard is convinced I have Jewish ancestry. He's scheduled a DNA blood test to prove it.”
The question of "who is a Jew?" is right up there with "What do women want?". Womb doctrine is the most enshrined and respected, as noted in the email. Thus, none of my brother's family is Jewish, since they all came from his wife's gentile womb. I never confronted my mother with that one. She made me crazy over my first marriage to a non-Jew but became much more tolerant when she saw how she’d alienated me. -
Genetics is another definition. But "Jews" can have a multitude of genetic makeups, including Oriental and Asian. If the guy gets the blood test, what do Jewish genes look like? The two major gene pools are Ashkenazic (E. Europe) and Sephardic (Africa, Spain, Muslim world). They differ in belief and practice. Two of my wife’s sisters, Orthodox to the hilt, one married to a rabbi, think that the third sister, married to a Sephardic rabbi, has disappeared into “a cult.” Hell, they're all cults.
The genetic argument is murky. In the movie Conspiracy, the Nazi officials gathered in an estate house have a magnificent lunch, after which they begin plotting the destruction of European Jews, featuring exquisite legalistic definitions and degrees of Jewishness so that they could convince themselves that they were being fair. (It was truly a horror movie without chainsaws.)
So what do I have in common with an Ethiopian Jew? And why do some of my E. European/Semitic relatives on my mom's side have reddish or blond hair, ginger complexions and, occasionally, blue eyes? Because a Viking raped a Jewish woman centuries ago -- that's my guess.
The opponents of intermarriage have it all wrong. .A little intermarriage is good for the tribe. Too much inbreeding leads to what I call “Xerox errors” – allergies, weak joints, auto-immune and genetic diseases, and, at the extreme, hemophilia and idiocy. Down through history, the “pure blood” philosophy has put a lot of crazy people in charge of whole countries.
Finally there's doctrine, culture and practice. There are many different degrees of observance and pretend-observance, from the hard-core Orthodox (think black hats and side-curls) who try to obey every commandment...to my three-days-a-year family. And many compromises in between: So-called "Modern Orthodox" (and many who are called "Conservative") drop the costumes and all-Jew enclaves but try to be totally observant while holding down full-time jobs in the real world. Exhausting!
Atheistic Jews, including yours truly, acknowledge genetic and cultural heritage of food, music,holidays, literature, and humor (hey, I chant Kaddish, the Prayer for the Dead when I bury the mice our cat kills) but believe that nothing in the Torah (first 5 books) happened and that Jewish history is something completely different from what the Bible says it is. The most extreme cases (y.t. again) acquire an outright psycho-physical aversion to prayer and worship, considering them unfit and humiliating activities for modern, rational adults.
Who is a Jew? is a question with many answers. I invite readers to offer their own.