Jewishness and Gender

When I get asked, “Sam are you Jewish?” I often go, “Do you mean culturally, religiously, or genetically?” Why? Because I’m a pedant, but also because my answer depends on what the person wants to know.

– I’m somewhat culturally Jewish. I had a bar mitzvah and know my way around a seder.
– I’m somewhat genetically Jewish. Both my father and grandfather married non-Jews. (I followed the time honored family tradition and married a non-Jew too.)
– I’m not at all religiously Jewish. I assign a very low probability to God existing, and I don’t go to temple.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the things a person could be asking me when asking if I’m Jewish. For example, there are also the questions of how I self-label and how other people tend to label me.

It’s a little bit odd to discuss my Jewishness without clarifying the question. There just is no answer to the question of whether “I’m *really* a Jew.” In some senses I’m a Jew. In other senses I am not. It depends on what you mean by Jewish.

I think some of these lessons carry over to gender. Here are some things a person could mean by gender:

– Gender as self-label
– Gender as what chromosomes you have
– Gender as macroscopic physical characteristics
– Gender as mental characteristics, i.e., having interests, preferences, emotional dispositions, and/or intellectual habits that are labeled feminine or masculine
– Gender as behavioral characteristics, i.e., dressing and doing things that are labeled feminine or masculine
– Gender as hormone balance
– Gender as your mind’s mental map of your body
– Gender as a hard to pin down “feeling that I am a specific gender”
– Gender as social role you tend to be placed in
– Gender as social role you prefer

I think a lot of discussions of gender would be a lot much more productive if people clarified themselves in this kind of way. If they deconstructed what people could mean by gender and ignored questions of their “true gender.” That being said, I can see why people don’t do this. What gender you are matters in society: People treat you differently. There are different social expectations. There are different bathrooms, dressing rooms, and sports leagues. So I can see why people would want to say, “No I really am gender X” as opposed to saying, “What gender I am depends on what theory of gender we are using in this context.” If there were actual social or psychological consequences for being Jewish, I wouldn’t be so unconcerned about how I was labeled.

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