On Sept. 13, 27-year-old Julia Salazar, a self-identified democratic socialist and proud Latina, won the Democratic primary for the New York state senate’s 18th district, which covers a wide swath of Brooklyn. Her victory reflects a rising tide of progressive opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, as well as a leftward tilt in the Democratic Party.
Salazar’s victory should not be particularly controversial. Yet she has become a media sensation not because of her political views, but because of her backstory, and the possibility that she fudged the truth about her place of birth, childhood socio-economic status and other details about her life. In particular, she has made a splash because of her Jewish identity – and some are calling that identity into question.
Policing identity, Jewish or otherwise, is unacceptable. If Salazar says she is a Jew, she should be accepted as such. Nevertheless, her case does raise questions about how the Jewish community should think about its conversion process, as well as more nebulous concepts like boundaries and identity.
Salazar was born in Miami to a Colombian father and an Italian-American mother. She was raised Catholic, though she claims her father is of Sephardic ancestry. She began her undergraduate education at Columbia University in New York, where she first identified as conservative and pro-life, and was active in the student organization Christians United for Israel. She eventually began exploring Judaism, attending Hillel regularly, partaking in Jewish rituals, keeping kosher and taking Reform conversion classes. As she moved to the left politically, she came to identify as a Jew of colour. After college, she joined the activist group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
She also became highly critical of Zionism, contributing to the anti-Zionist website Mondoweiss. This has led some commentators to question her Jewishness, which is ridiculous. Many Jews, from Noam Chomsky to the Satmar Rebbe, are highly critical of Zionism. Their Jewishness is not questioned, and neither should Salazar’s.
By her own admission, Salazar never had a formal conversion ceremony. For this reason, some Jews will reject her on halakhic grounds. Of course, the Orthodox reject all non-Orthodox conversions. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible does not contain any account of a formal conversion process or ceremony. Rules about the beit din, the panel of judges that render a verdict on the conversion, and the mikveh, the ritual bath that sanctifies and formalizes the conversion, first appear in the Talmud. But today’s post-modern, post-denominational world brings even more fluidity to the concept of conversion.
What’s most important about the Jewish conversion process is that it is a process. One cannot simply declare oneself Jewish. One has to learn the religion, and then one has to live it. Salazar clearly knows about Judaism, identifies as a Jew and lives a recognizably Jewish life, professing Jewish beliefs, performing mitzvot and actively participating in a Jewish community. She is Jewish in her own eyes and in the eyes of many of her Jewish and non-Jewish peers, who are more impressed by her daily adherence to the religion than the details of her conversion.
This is not to diminish Jewish conversion ceremonies, which are powerful and can have great value to those who partake in them. But at their core, the ceremonies are, well, ceremonial. By virtue of living a Jewish life, Salazar has embraced Judaism far more than many Jews by birth, as well as converts who receive a beit din’s approval, but never set foot in a synagogue after leaving their first mikveh.
In 2018, very few people convert to Judaism independent of a romantic relationship with a Jewish person. There’s plenty of room in the Jewish community’s big tent for Julia Salazar.