How Jew(ish) Are You?


Thank you to Thrive Global for publishing my article, “How Jew(ish) Are You?

Reading Matt Greene’s autobiography, Jew(ish): A primer, A memoir, A manual, A plea, during COVID19 Thanksgiving weekend, I thought gratefully about my relationship to being Jewish. Growing up in Los Angeles, California at Stephen Wise Temple, one of the largest Reform synagogues in the world, I had the idea that most people were like me, Jewish. It would come as a shock to learn that Jews were only a small part of the population when I left my LA enclave.

Greene explains: “We’re very explicit that we’re proud British Jews: we’re proud British people and we’re proud Jewish people.” In fact, his family had been in Britain so long that he had “two great-grandfathers who fought for Britain in the First World War.” 

I remember being asked at Hebrew School, if I was an American Jewish Woman or an American Jew or a Jewish American? They wanted us to answer, “What would you fight for? Which are the most important parts of you?” I went to an all girl’s high school and we talked often about Women’s Rights and the ERA. At Hebrew School, we often talked about the legacy of the Holocaust and importance of dating Jewish and increasing the number of Jews in the world.

About growing up Jewish, Greene says, “I hated being Jewish in the way I hated being short. There seemed to be no advantage to be gained.” Greene participated in temple only as long as was required through his Bar Mitzvah, unlike him, I was mesmerized. I loved services, the songs, Jewish summer camp and being in Jewish youth group.

Like Greene, I went on a teen tour to Israel but my experience changed my life and is the reason that I am a travel journalist obsessed with traveling. He was not as impressed. His dad told him: “The thing about being Jewish is you always need to be vigilant. If you think you’re safe, you’re probably being complacent. That’s why we need a Jewish state, so there’s somewhere we can go if the shit ever hits the fan again.”  Terrible things have happened to the Jews again and again. The question is what is our responsibility in our time? How will we impact our country and our world?

Greene’s book begins with a discussion of his son who is born to a non-Jewish mother. Once he has a child, he contemplates if belonging to the Jewish tradition is important to him. What does it mean to be Jewish? 

He discusses the anti-semitism in England and being the only Jew at college. I went to the University of Pennsylvania in part for the large Jewish community. At Hillel on Shabbat, we had four services going for different types of Jews. Everyone was welcome and I never worried about discrimination there. 

When he returns from college, his family asks him, “And do you tell people you’re Jewish?” It can be challenging to navigate being assimilated into society while being perceived as an other. Greene asks, “What is race? What is whiteness? Gone if not forgotten are the days when Jews were banned from clubs and institutions on the back of their Jewishness and like most (but not all) Jews, I benefit from white privilege in ways too many to enumerate and probably in ways I haven’t even noticed.”

When I first started working on cruise ships, there were very few women on the crew. Later, I would realize that I was often the only Jew on my team or even in a crew of 1200. It was the first time I felt so singled out and different. One British Cruise Director told the rest of my team, “Lisa, can’t do that; she’ll be at snip-dick ceremonies.” It took me several beats to understand that he was referring to Shabbat services. I led them on Friday nights and he was talking about Jews. It was not the only time people said anti-Semitic things to me. One crew member told me that I did believe in Jesus. I said, “No, Jesus is when your religion left my religion.” He told me, “If my dad was here, he would make you understand that you do love Jesus.” I said, “Lucky for me, he is not.”

Mostly when I was traveling or working on ships, no one knew I was Jewish. As Greene describes in his book, I could choose to pass as white and not “different.” It is not obvious from my last name that I am Jewish because as Greene discusses about his family as well, our name was changed. There are many choices we make wandering in the world. When traveling in Asia when President Bush was in office, we often said we were Canadians. We did not want to be embroiled in the political drama of that time. We were able to pass. Some people even sewed Canadian flags on their backpacks. 

Greene explains: “For whatever reason, for any reason, for no reason at all, to be Jewish is to live with the knowledge that no matter who you are or what you do there are people who will hate you.” For his 34th birthday, Greene chose to participate in the March of the Living in Poland. My trip to Poland, after a semester in Israel, was also challenging. It was hard to walk in small towns and see so many former synagogues and Jewish schools and realize how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The area was full of Jewish life which was decimated in camps like Auschwitz and Birkenau. 

As Greene relates, “The year 2020 is a strange time to be a Jew, even, or perhaps especially, a lapsed, secular one. At once we’re witnessing a resurgence of the far right, an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks, a refugee crisis of a scale unknown since the Second World War and, maybe most crucially for the question this book primarily concerns itself with, the end of the generation who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand. In this context it seems important to understand what it means to be Jewish – and personally what it means to me that, technically, my son is not.”

Greene shares his search to find a place for himself and his son. He asks his grandparents, “Is my son Jewish?” and they answer together, “Of course, he’s our family.” 

Matt Greene, author of Jew(ish)

We live in complicated and confusing times and I agree with him that we need to recognize persecution and oppression. Greene closes by saying:

We need to find a way to unite around our common humanity without erasing or downplaying the particularities of any group’s experience. If we’re to confront the challenges that face us as a species and triumph over those who seek to divide and deceive us, we need to realise we’re all in this together. The question of Jewishness is a good place to start. We’re not all Jews but we’re all Jew-ish.

Lisa Ellen Niver

Lisa Ellen Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 102 countries and six continents. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she worked on cruise ships for seven years and backpacked for three years in Asia. She is the founder of the website WeSaidGoTravel which is read in 235 countries and was named #3 on Rise Global’s top 1,000 Travel Blogs. Niver is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, Inc. With more than 150,000 followers across social media, she has hosted Facebook Live for USA Today 10best, is verified on Twitter and listed on IMDb, and is the Social Media Manager for the Los Angeles Press Club. You can find Lisa Niver talking travel on broadcast television at KTLA TV Los Angeles, Satellite Media Tours, The Jet Set TV and Orbitz travel webisodes as well as her YouTube channel, where her WeSaidGoTravel videos have over 1.6 million views. After three months on TikTok, Instagram Reels, Facebook Reels and YouTube Shorts, she had over 500,000 (1/2 million) views. As a journalist, Niver has interviewed Deepak Chopra, Olympic medalists, and numerous bestselling authors and been invited to both the Oscars and the United Nations. She has been a judge for the Gracie Awards for the Alliance of Women in Media, and has run 15 travel competitions on her website, publishing over 2,500 writers and photographers from 75 countries. For her print and digital stories as well as her television segments, she has been awarded three Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and been a finalist twenty times.   Niver has published more than 2000 articles, in more than three dozen magazines and journals including National Geographic, Wired, Teen Vogue, HuffPost Personal, POPSUGAR, Ms. Magazine, Luxury Magazine, Smithsonian, Sierra Club, Saturday Evening Post, AARP, AAA Explorer Magazine, American Airways, Delta Sky, enRoute (Air Canada), Hemispheres, Jewish Journal, Myanmar Times, BuzzFeed, Robb Report, Scuba Diver Life, Ski Utah, Trivago, Undomesticated, USA Today, TODAY, Wharton Magazine, and Yahoo. Awards National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards 2021 Winner: Book Critic: Ms. Magazine “Untamed: Brave Means Living From the Inside Out” 2019 Winner: Soft News Feature for Film/TV: KTLA TV “Oscars Countdown to Gold with Lisa Niver” 2019 Finalist for: Soft News, Business/Music/Tech/Art Southern California Journalism Awards 2022 Finalist: Book Criticism 2021 Winner: Technology Reporting 2021 Finalist: Book Criticism 2020 Winner: Print Magazine Feature: Hemispheres Magazine, “Painter by the Numbers, Rembrandt” 2020 Finalist: Online Journalist of the Year, Activism Journalism, Educational Reporting, Broadcast Lifestyle Feature 2019 Finalist: Broadcast Television Lifestyle Segment for “Ogden Ski Getaway” 2018 Finalist: Science/Technology Reporting, Travel Reporting, Personality Profile 2017 Winner: Print Column “A Journey to Freedom over Three Passovers” Social Media Presence YouTube Channel: We Said Go Travel (1.6 million views) Short form video:TikTok, Instagram Reels, Facebook Reels, YouTube Shorts Twitter: lisaniver (90,000 followers) Instagram: lisaniver (24,000 followers) Pinterest: We Said Go Travel (20,000 followers and over 70,000 monthly views) Facebook: lisa.niver (5,000 followers); We Said Go Travel (3,000 followers) LinkedIn: lisaellenniver (9000 contacts)

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