Funny, You Don't Look Jewish

An Ashkenazic Reform Korean rabbi explores her identity.

Print this page Print this page

As the child of a non-Jewish mother, a mother who carried her own distinct ethnic and cultural traditions, I came to believe that I could never be "fully Jewish" since I could never be "purely" Jewish. I was reminded of this daily: when fielding the many comments like, "Funny, you don't look Jewish," or having to answer questions on my halakhic status as a Jew. My internal questions of authenticity loomed over my Jewish identity throughout my adolescence into early adulthood, as I sought to integrate my Jewish, Korean, and secular American identities.

It was only in a period of crisis, one college summer while living in Israel, that I fully understood what my Jewish identity meant to me. After a painful summer of feeling marginalized and invisible in Israel, I called my mother to declare that I no longer wanted to be a Jew. I did not look Jewish, I did not carry a Jewish name, and I no longer wanted the heavy burden of having to explain and prove myself every time I entered a new Jewish community. She simply responded by saying, "Is that possible?" It was only at that moment that I realized I could no sooner stop being a Jew than I could stop being Korean, or female, or me. I decided then to have a giyur [conversion ceremony], what I termed a reaffirmation ceremony in which I dipped in the mikvah and reaffirmed my Jewish legacy. I have come to understand that anyone who has seriously considered her Jewish identity struggles with the many competing identities that the name "Jew" signifies.

What does it mean to be a "normal" Jewish family today? As we learn each other's stories we hear the challenges and joys of reconciling our sometimes competing identities of being Jewish while also feminist, Arab, gay, African-American, or Korean. We were a mixed multitude in ancient times, and we still are. May we continue to see the many faces of Israel as a gift that enriches our people.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl

Angela Warnick Buchdahl was invested as the first Asian-American cantor in 1999. Just two years later, she made history again with ordination from HUC-JIR, becoming the first Asian American rabbi. Buchdahl served as associate rabbi and cantor at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, and currently serves as cantor of Central Synagogue in New York City.