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Christmas cups are back at Starbucks as of last week, which would be super exciting — if it weren’t a month and a half too early. But in my current work-addled state, I’m taking whatever fun surprise I can get.

The irony of a Jewish girl getting excited about the Christmas season will come as no surprise to many Penn students, I’m sure, as it’s far from revolutionary. Commonly known as “Christmas Envy” in certain circles, it can include an appreciation for the season and a complete disregard of the religious aspects of the holiday. Festive store windows, holiday-themed television specials and a fondness for the Nutcracker are all acknowledged as positives, while the actual point of the holiday — celebrating the birth of Jesus — is pretty much ignored. Call it what you will, it’s just one more aspect of students’ flexible religious identities.

Religious identity — what a loaded, relative term. And I cringe to use it in print. But there it is, all the same. It’s often hard to explain what it means to us, if it has any part in our life at all, and if so, to what extent. Do we define it against others’ levels of religious observance? Public displays of spirituality? Our connection to some organized religion’s house of worship? At Penn, students are afforded the opportunities to express their religions how they choose. But it is so personal, and such a glaringly major (or insignificant) part of so many students’ lives, that it’s at times hard to define.

If I use myself as an example, I would be, from an outsider’s point of view (and to borrow Andrew Largeman’s words from Garden State), “like, really Jewish.” My father’s a Rabbi at a Conservative synagogue; my mother, a Judaic Studies kindergarten teacher. I spent twelve years at a Jewish day school, six at a Jewish summer camp (not counting previous years at Jewish day camp, or later years working as a staff member), and I’m at Hillel pretty often, especially on Meat Days. And yet, all I’ve really divulged is my background, omitting anything related to what I actually consider myself … because I really don’t know. My personal religious identity is always in flux and hard to define.

Yet governments have tried to pigeonhole citizens based on fixed definition of religion for centuries; recently the court system in England encountered this highly charged question. In Jewish tradition, a child’s religious affiliation is based on matrilineal descent — a child will only be Jewish if his mother is as well, or if he converted. Yet, in a legal ruling handed down in the English Court of Appeals on Oct. 30, the court ruled that Judaism based on ethnicity was by definition discriminatory.

The ruling stemmed, interestingly enough, from that oh-so-tense subject, high-school admissions. A Jewishly observant student was denied admission to London’s JFS school, on the grounds that the school did not consider his mother Jewish. As an Orthodox institution, JFS did not accept the mother’s progressive Jewish conversion. The student’s family sued.

It’s always dangerous when a governmental institution tries to regulate who is a member of any certain religion — just ask anyone familiar with the Nuremberg Laws. While I by no means equate the English court system and Nazi Germany, I always hesitate when religious identity is removed from the personal to the governmental sphere.

While I agree with Judaism’s reliance on matrilineal descent (you have to draw the line somewhere), I still often have trouble when others try to delineate “how religious” or “how Jewish” someone is considered because it is so personal. Am I “less Jewish” to some because I love the Christmas window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue? Maybe, but I supposed at the heart of the matter, I’m alright with that. Religious identity is a personal thing, and so the only person’s opinion that I ultimately care about is my own.

Arielle Kane is a College senior from Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Her e-mail address is

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