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It’s Time to Move Away from Outward Markers of Jewish Belonging 

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“One thing I chose not to do was circumcise my child. While many of my secular compatriots still feel an affinity for this practice as a ‘tribal marking,’ I find it intellectually and ethically difficult to defend.”

Recently comedian Sarah Silverman made news when she criticized Hollywood for casting non-Jewish actor Kathryn Hahn in the role of Joan Rivers. Silverman went so far as to coin a name for such cross-casting as “Jewface.” Ugh.

It is the Jewish new year 5782, and, as far as I am concerned, it is time for all of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, to move away from Jewish stereotypes based on outward appearance.

Throughout my life, I have been told that I look Jewish. As a child actor, I was frequently sent to audition for specifically Jewish roles and was even typecast as the Jewish kid in a couple of films. In college, it was often incorrectly assumed that I belonged to one of the Jewish sororities. In law school, I recall someone I had just met asking whether I had grown up in one of “the five towns,” neighborhoods on Long Island with large Jewish populations.

Assumptions about my Jewishness, generally made by fellow Jews, did not strike me as wrong at the time. My prominent nose, kinky hair, and given last name, Schwartzman, were part and parcel of my Jewish identity.

Today, I am less comfortable with the idea of Jewish belonging tied to physical traits, a Jewish-sounding last name, or growing up in a particular neighborhood. Jews come in all colors, from all places, and in more iterations than ever before.

But for a Jewish person like me—one who is not devout—if we let go of the outward markers, what is left?

Like most Jewish Americans, I do not consider myself religious. I come from a long line of secular Jews, going back at least as far as my great grandparents. I warmly embrace the cultural aspects of my ancestry, finding joy in our shared traditions, intellectual pursuits, diverse communities, and achievements. I also engage in some activities many associate with religiosity, such as studying Jewish texts, marking holidays, and often lighting candles and saying blessings on Shabbat.

One thing I chose not to do was circumcise my child. While many of my secular compatriots still feel an affinity for this practice as a “tribal marking,” I find it intellectually and ethically difficult to defend. Why subject a baby to the physical and emotional trauma? Why deprive someone of the body they were born with? I support the right of adults to alter their bodies however they want, for whatever reason, but altering a child’s genitals for religious or cultural purposes is a violation, regardless of how well-intentioned and time-honored the tradition.

I feel that circumcision is a skin-deep marker of Jewish identity we would be better off without, especially since many of us feel distinctions based on biological gender are generally irrelevant and perpetuate stereotypes.

Many in society are questioning the entire male/female binary. This is playing out even within the context of religious Judaism. Jewish prayers and rituals are being created or reimagined in ways that acknowledge and include Jews of trans experience. Even cisgender Jews (those who identify with their given birth gender) often prefer inclusive, genderless religious practice. Jewish parents are among those at the forefront of the current societal shift to raise children in gender-neutral ways or in ways that affirm their childrens’ self-identified genders.

There is no getting around it. Infant circumcision requires us to assign a gender at birth. It is rooted in notions of physical appearance that many of us are moving beyond. Parents who believe that gender is largely a social construct and who aspire to raise their children in non-gendered ways might recognize that male-only circumcision is fundamentally incompatible with this way of thinking.

It is also a little-known fact that male to female gender affirmation surgery is much easier and has better outcomes when there is foreskin tissue with which to work. While probably not on the minds of most parents-to-be, it is worth considering the implications of infant circumcision for those who might one day choose to transition to a self-identified gender and desire such a procedure.

Without superficialities to fall back on (what our bodies look like, surnames, neighborhoods, etc.), we are challenged to delve much deeper into what being Jewish really means—or should mean. Not the Jewishness of a thousand years ago but now, in the new year 5782.

To be Jewish means to go beyond the surface of things as we navigate life, to leave no stone unturned as we question, and ask, and question again. It means not taking things at face value, even our most revered traditions. It means leading by example, protecting the defenseless, and doing our part to make the world better, even when it makes us unpopular. These are the things that have significance for me. They are also the kinds of things that I feel have the best chance of keeping Judaism alive and well—and relevant—as we move away from Jewish identities built upon outward appearance.

Rebecca Wald is Executive Director of the new Jewish nonprofit Bruchim, whose mission is to foster welcoming spaces for Jews who feel differently about the circumcision tradition. She is a graduate of The George Washington University and Brooklyn Law School. 

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