A Birthright to Belong: Hereditary Claims and Religious Authenticity Among Converts to Judaism

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 9:00 AM
Room: Harbor Lounge A
Oral Presentation
Adam HOROWITZ , Sociology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
This paper examines individuals who convert to a new religious identity as adults and the ways in which they use perceived sources of external validation to make claims to religious belonging and authenticity.  This study on which this paper is drawn includes 100 in-depth interviews with converts to Judaism in three metropolitan areas representing distinct regions of the United States: New York City (Northeast), Atlanta, GA (South), and the San Francisco Bay Area (West Coast).  Respondents employed various methods of making hereditary or genetic claims to Judaism, including discussing evidence of Jewish ancestry discovered in DNA tests (taken post-conversion) and telling stories of distant relatives who family members believe may have been Jewish.  When paired with respondents’ belief that others often do not see them as authentically Jewish because of not being born into a Jewish family (particularly as stated by those who did not make genetic/hereditary claims), it is clear that the perceived ability to make genetic/hereditary claims is meaningful to converts, providing a sense of having the right to belong to their new religious community.  I further explore how the language of belonging becomes racialized, showing how the conceptualization of race in the United States is applied in a context outside of race (i.e. religion).  The sample, moreover, is notably racially diverse, with approximately half white and half non-white (e.g. African American, Asian American, Latino/a, multiracial) respondents, allowing for a comparison of traditionally recognized ethnoracial identities in the context of a racialized understanding of religious identity and belonging.  By addressing the role of genetics and heredity in making claims to religious belonging, this paper sheds light on the complex intersection of race and religion as categories of identity in American society.