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Rebecca Klass: What Being Jewish Means to Me, a “Non-Practicing” Jew

By Rebecca Klass, June 16, 2016

I identify as a Jew, despite not having entered a synagogue in the last decade. At a dinner this past week, I was asked how I could consider myself Jewish, given that my mother is not Jewish by blood,[1] and that I do not practice the religious aspects. I felt immediately defensive. I rushed to justify my identity: “It’s simple, my father is Jewish, I had a naming ceremony, I had a Bat Mitzvah, I learned to read Hebrew”.


Having my identity questioned, an identity that I have come to accept as my own, and one that literally millions of people before me have died to protect, came as a shock, a total and unexpected assault on my self. I returned home, crawled into bed, and cried real tears of discrimination for the first time in my life. Why was I so shaken?


Identity is the condition of being oneself. My definition of “self” is derived from my connection to my family. My grandpa, the true patriarch of the ‘Klass Clan’, was a Jewish immigrant who fled from Imperial Russia through Ellis Island to Canada with his family in 1912, looking for a better life. Once, on a fieldtrip to Ellis Island with my Sunday school, I scanned the thousands of recorded names, looking for evidence of my family’s passage. I expressly recall a deep sense of connection when I located our name. Seeing it in the archives provided a sense of relief, which is difficult to explain now, but if I had to try, it was as though I had tangible evidence of our existence – “I’ve found it” – we remain connected to who we were.


My grandpa passed away in the early winter of 2000. I can still feel the tears freezing on my cheeks and the wind whipping through my double layer of tights, standing outside in the Jewish cemetery on North Main in Winnipeg. There he was buried beside his wife, my dad’s mom, who I never knew, but whose latkes and matzah ball soup recipes had been lovingly mastered by my mom, and enthusiastically demolished by my brothers and myself every Hanukah and Pesach. I vaguely remember my cousin Bobby pointing out other relatives laid to rest in our plot.


Sitting in the front row of the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, I saw my dad cry for the first time as the Kaddish was recited. The congregation was full of grey haired Winnipeggers, mostly family by some definition. It never mattered whether you were an aunt, third cousin five times removed, or someone who came over to grandma and grandpa’s for dinner on Friday nights, you were a leaf on our family tree. And they were all there that day.


When I think of my childhood home in Pennsylvania, I can picture myself standing in our dining room, carefully opening and examining the treasures my parents kept in the display case: a shofar, my grandpa’s elephant collection, sedar plates, a blue and white stained glass Star of David. My grandma’s gold-rimmed China set, an assortment of menorahs, both professional pieces and those skillfully crafted by us kids.


We grew up in a “waspy” neighbourhood – I had very few Jewish friends as a child, and I admit to feeling like an “other” during our years in Pennsylvania. I only invited a select group of close girlfriends to my Bat Mitzvah (certainly no boys!) and remember feeling practically humiliated while chanting my Haftarah. During that time, I always explained that I was “half-Jewish”, and made sure to clarify that my family celebrated both Hannukah AND Christmas. I now recognize that that feeling, although uncomfortable to acknowledge, only further informs my Jewish identity.


We moved to Toronto later, a few months after my Bat Mitzvah. Dad and I ventured to Yitz’ on Eglinton just days after our arrival, and stocked up on corned beef, knishes, and other Ashkenazi treats to nosh on. Being Jewish in Toronto was like being a Torontonian in Toronto. At least half of my new friends were Jewish. My parents had not yet joined a synagogue (and in fact, never did while we lived there), but during our first fall in the city, I optimistically strolled into Holy Blossom during the High Holidays with my friend Maddie, hoping to get free tickets for the Yom Kippur service. We were disappointed to be denied. This introduced me to another side of Judaism, its tendency to be exclusive.


My sense of Jewishness remained throughout the rest of my teens and twenties, and up to today, although it waxes and wanes. I still am comforted by the mezuzah on my parents’ door, and am a stand-in judge of my dad’s “Dr. K’s Kosher Pickle” operation. I felt buried by emotion on a visit to Poland, can “Baruch atah” when called upon, and have a cat named Norman Steinberg. I have Primo Levi on my bookshelves. My family and their traditions, both of which are born from Judaism, live deep in my heart.


I find myself somewhere between being “not really Jewish” according to my dinner partner, and “not really Jewish enough” according to parts of my community. But I know who I am. I am my grandpa, an aficionado of all cultures, and an entrepreneur. I am my dad, from whom I have inherited my high level of nostalgia, and my social skills that could be described as “aggressive”. I am my mom, a worker, adapter, and our family’s glue, who still regales us with stories of the months she and dad spent in Israel as though they were the best in her life. I am the little girl who got her first few buzzes off too much Manischewitz on Shabbat, I am the difficult teenager in hysterical fits of tears over fighting with her Rabbi during Bat Mitzvah training, and am forever the youngest child who asks the questions during Passover. I am a protector of my family, my culture, and my identity.



[1] It’s worth noting that, in Judaism, once an individual has formally converted, they are considered Jewish. Full stop. To recognize them as such is considered a mitzvah.  

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