When I was about nine years old I already had a very strong pull toward frumkeit and used to read book after book on Judaism. I remember when my uncle (my mother’s brother) and his wife had a baby girl. The mom was Irish Catholic. One holiday I had a discussion with my uncle about Judaism and he pounded the table and said “Are you trying to tell me that XXX is any less Jewish than you or me?” I responded, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Well, today the proof is in the pudding. My cousin is anything but Jewish. She is happily married to a wonderful Mexican American man and they live their lives as Catholics. She never had any Jewish upbringing or desire to be Jewish. Interestingly, my uncle divorced his catholic wife and remarried to a Jew.
In fact, nearly everyone on my mom’s side are gentiles. They were all born to Jewish men (my uncles and cousins) and non-Jewish women. It is a sad statement but it took only that generation to destroy that side’s Jewishness. NONE of them identify as Jews which is fine since they are not.
On my father’s side I have a much crazier situation. All of the women on his side married Catholic men. All of my paternal cousins were raised Italian Catholic though they are halachic Jews. With open arms my wife reached out to them. We’ve had them over for Shabbos and they learned about challah and lighting candles. One of my cousins just went on Birthright. They now identify with their Jewishness as they have Jewish neshamos unlike my cousins on my mom’s side.
The differences between the two sides of my family are tangible and real. Jews are separate and different from non-Jews. This is our tafkid in the world. When a gentile converts halachically, they acquire a Jewish soul which will never depart from them. This doesn’t make us better or worse than everyone else. Just different because we have a different task in this world.
THIS is Judaism. Not matzo balls, not speaking Yiddish.