Whenever I tell a non-Jew that I’m Jewish, they almost always ask,
“Are you practicing?“
I’ve never quite known how to answer this question. How can I practice being something I inherently am? I’m also not entirely sure what it is they’re asking, or if they even really know. I think most are asking if I’m religious. But what does that mean? A belief in G-d? Study of the Torah? Attending temple?
On the one hand, the question exhibits a certain amount of understanding that being Jewish is not just a religion. A quick lesson: “The Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group (an ethnic group with a common religion), tribe, and nation originating in the region of Israel-Palestine” (quoted from @rootsmetals on Instagram). Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, but our culture and religion are deeply connected.
On the other hand, the question feels like an attempt to box Jews into categories, or question one’s level of “Jewishness.” And I could be wrong, but I don’t think people of other faiths/ethnicities are routinely asked this question (although please correct me if I am wrong).
I would say I was raised in a secular household, but we still “practiced” being Jewish. My mom has always been a very active member of the local Jewish community in Wyoming where I’m from, and we always participated in holiday celebrations, went to the occasional service (especially when we had a visiting rabbi during the High Holy Days), and I’ve been to several B’nai Mitzvah.
Within the Jewish community, I generally hear the word “observant” used instead of “practicing,” and this feels like a more accurate term to me. But different Jews observe in different ways, and even being non-observant does not make one “more” or “less” Jewish than another! As we are fond of saying, a Jew is a Jew.
To close, I wanted to share some of the ways I personally observe being Jewish in my day-to-day life. I use calendars and planners that follow both the Hebrew and Gregorian months. I have found so much connection and power in following the Jewish lunisolar calendar and understanding how it works to keep our holidays within their proper seasons. Each Hebrew month also has it's own spiritual meaning, and I love reflecting on that meaning and setting intentions for the month to come.
I draw a daily card from my Lilien Divination Deck, which is a tarot deck featuring Jewish imagery by Jewish German art nouveau artist Ephraim Moses Lilien. It’s a ritual I do over morning coffee, and a lovely way to set my focus for the day.
I observe Shabbat by lighting candles and saying a quick prayer in Hebrew on Friday evenings. I also abstain from social media Friday evening through Saturday. It’s not an actual day of rest, as I usually work on the weekends, but it’s a nice way for me to refresh and feel present with my family.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention food! I’m not even remotely kosher, but food is a central part of Jewish culture and holidays and I always try to make a point to cook or bake something appropriate. For Rosh Hashanah I usually bake some variation of honey apple cake. For Sukkot this year I baked pecan chocolate chip cookies since both pecans and cacao come from trees. Obviously, latkes are a must for Hanukkah. And I always have a box of matzo ball mix in the pantry for when the craving for soup hits.
Finally, I read. Even if it’s just ten minutes a day, I read either from one of my many books about various aspects of Judaism, or educational posts online. I’m constantly learning about Jewish culture, and the rich diversity within, or educating myself about Israel-Palestine, or simply reading about interesting Jewish people. I also have several Jewish podcasts I listen to, usually in the evening while I’m doing my yoga stretches.
So, to answer that question. While these may not be “conventional” ways to practice Judaism, I am still very much a “practicing” Jew.