After removing the unintentional Neo-Nazi allegiance from my profile, my online dating in Israel improved (see blog post- OkJewpid). I made no mention of my ancestry, and if it mattered to potential suitors, they inquired soon enough.
For example, I received the following message from an American expat:
You sound really neat. Are you Jewish?
I answered no and never heard from him again.
“M” most likely belonged to a particularly insufferable demographic: Jewish American men (usually from New York) who are not religious, but are determined to marry a Jew and come to Israel to find her. Sometimes this goal is explicit and sometimes it is subconscious, but it is always expressed. These guys are not practicing Jews. They don’t speak Hebrew. They usually work at an ill-defined start up in Tel Aviv and live in a posh apartment, financed by their parents. If they are not from wealthy means they live with their cousin in a middling city just outside of Tel Aviv and work at Aroma, the Starbucks of Israel.
What is so obnoxious about their quest is that the Jewish girl doesn’t have to act at all Jewish; in fact they prefer it that way. She could have been raised secular, in total ignorance of the cultural practices and history of her people. She doesn’t have to know how to make matzah ball soup or read the torah. She just needs to have a Jewish mother who has a Jewish mother who has a Jewish mother… all the way back to Abraham—or as far back as anyone can trace.
Insisting on marrying within your ancestry? Doesn’t that seem unapologetically racist and genetically risky? It’s like saying, “I will only marry a white person of Anglo-Saxon descent,” or “I will only procreate with 5th cousins or closer.”
Moreover, the preservation of the Jewish maternal lineage is contradicted by genetic research. Recent studies have shown that on average two Jews will be more genetically similar to each other than two randomly chosen individuals, meaning that Jews are indeed a distinct population. Geneticists could read your DNA and conclude whether you are Jewish or not with significant accuracy. HOWEVER, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is only inherited from the mother, is considerably more heterogeneous than the Y-chromosome, which is only inherited from the father. The data suggest that during historic diaspora, a small group of Jewish men immigrated to Europe and bred with non-Jewish local women (if you’d like to read more see: Costa et al 2013; Ostrer 2012; Doron et al 2010; Need et al 2009; Hammer et al 2000). Jewishness is a quantifiable biological category, but not because of Jewish moms.
But maybe as a non-Jewish evolutionary biologist, I just don’t get it. Part of the reason I am living abroad is to understand and respect other perspectives. Perhaps there is a virtuous rationale behind this need to marry a Jewish woman. Or they are too afraid of their mothers to marry a gentile. Unfortunately these guys never speak candidly on the subject with a non-Jew like me. To get their honest explanations, I had to stage a research mission—some professional, dispassionate investigatory journalism. In other words, I had to go on a date, pretending to be Jewish, and write about it on my blog.
* * * * *
Adam grew up in Brooklyn and his parents now live in Brookline, MA. He went to Brandeis for undergrad, NYU for grad school, and was teaching History at Tel Aviv University. In OkCupid messages he said that he was “loving it in Israel!” His profile stated that he was Jewish and that it was “somewhat important” to him.
I thought—“yeah this is a non-religious American Jew who wants to marry a Jew and came to Israel to find her.”
I haven’t told many lies in my life—not flagrant, through-the-teeth kind of lies. The last times I can remember lying were about drinking in high school and not brushing my teeth in kindergarten, and I got caught for both. I don’t know if I know how to lie.
But I was committed to the investigation and had my story rehearsed. When he popped the question—“Are you Jewish?”—I would say, “Well technically yes. I mean, my mom is Jewish, but I was raised totally secular. I don’t know anything about being Jewish. I’m curious though, and that’s part of the reason I came here. To explore that part of myself.”
Then he would reveal the compelling reason that he must marry a Jew and my worldview would be broadened and enlightened! Or he would reveal himself to be a spoiled racist and my assumptions would be validated. It was a brilliant, foolproof plan.
I was committed to the plan, but nervous.
We decided to meet after my Hebrew Class, which I took in Tel Aviv, 30 minutes from my home, specifically so I would be in Tel Aviv twice a week and could casually meet up with dates after. I texted when class was over and he called in response. I’m not used to talking on the phone, so the added anxiety of my impending deception made me sound jittery and uncertain.
Me—“Hello?” I answered as if I couldn’t see exactly who was calling.
Him—“Hi Annelia. It’s Adam.”
Me—“Hi. Nice to meet you. Or ah, nice to hear you.”
We met at a stylish, but unassuming bar. When I took off my coat he remarked about my sweater, “That’s a nice Christmas sweater.”
It was not a Christmas sweater. A Christmas sweater has a Christmas tree with pompom ornaments and glittery reindeer. My sweater was a red and white geometric pattern that was kind of Southwest Native American. I bought it in an open-air market in Camdentown, London, but it looked like something from a disheveled sale rack in the basement of Urban Outfitters. It was not a Christmas sweater.
I snapped defensively, “What? Why is this a Christmas sweater?”
He was startled by how startled I was by this sweater comment. “I don’t know. Because it’s red?”
“I’m pretty sure this is a Navajo pattern used on traditional basketry.” I had no idea if the pattern was Native American, let alone what tribe or medium to attribute it to. But the important thing is that I was lying and gaining confidence.
We ordered hot sangria (it gets chilly in Israel in January!), and conversed fluidly on the infinite topics one can discuss with a stranger. What do you do for a living? Do you have siblings? Where have you traveled? Bla, bla, bla. I was comfortable and steadfast, but growing leery because he had yet to ask the question.
He was telling some anecdote about an experience with Israeli airport security—a group notoriously harsh toward non-Jews.
Him—“So I ended up missing my flight because they thought I was with the lady in front of me in line who was super suspicious.”
Me—“Ohmygosh that’s horrible.”
Him—“Well you must have a hard time, since you’re not Jewish.”
Me—“Me?” I looked aghast and he looked bewildered.
I did not plan for this contingency. Clearly he didn’t care that I wasn’t Jewish because he was on this date with me, assuming that I was not Jewish.
Me—“I am Jewish. I mean, I’m not. I mean, I am, but I’m not.” I blushed and stammered. He looked more bewildered. I was so mentally prepared to execute the lie that I couldn’t abort.
Me—“Well technically I am Jewish because my mother was Jewish, but I wasn’t raised Jewish so I don’t know anything about being Jewish and I feel dumb saying I’m Jewish, but it helps here for things like airport security, but then I think that’s not fair so most of the time I don’t say I’m Jewish, but yes, technically I’m Jewish.”
Him—“Well, whatever. If it makes you uncomfortable, then don’t say you’re Jewish.” He shrugged and fished some fruit chunks from the bottom of his sangria, which was more interesting to him than my ancestry.
I lied for no reason.
He was a fine guy. I enjoyed his conversation, but felt no overwhelming attraction. Had we met under normal circumstances, I would have gone for a second date to see if our rapport would evolve. However, because of this unnecessary lie, I could never see him again. Not being Jewish was not a deal breaker for him, but lying about not being Jewish most certainly would be.
Costa et al 2013, “A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages,” Nature Communications 4: 2543.
Doron et al 2010, “The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people,” Nature 466(7303):238-242.
Hammer et al 2000, “Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes,” PNAS 97(12): 6769-6774.
Need et al 2009, “A genome-wide genetic signature of Jewish ancestry perfectly separates individuals with and without full Jewish ancestry in a large random sample of European Americans,” Genome Biology 10(1):R7.
Ostrer, H. 2012, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. Oxford University Press.