Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

To Be or Not To Be a Jew?

By Gad Nahshon

We live in an era where mixed marriages are a social norm: 53% of the Jews tend to marry a gentile. Often we face the question of whether the children of these mixed marriages are Jewish or not. Well that's a decision they have to make for themselves. But at the same time we face the opposite social trend in America: people who decide to become Jews although they have the choice to do otherwise. Furthermore, there are people who have lived their lives as gentiles and suddenly, they find out about their Jewish roots. These Jews tend to ask themselves: should I be a Jew or not?

Many Jews who have up until a certain point lived their lives as gentiles do prefer to join the Jewish nation or the Jewish religion. Sadly, it is a painful and emotional decision because it is hard to be a Jew. Ten years have been dedicated by Barbara Kessel, Director of Administration of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and a free lance writer, to challenge this tribe of Jews. Recently, Brandeis University Press was happy to publish the fruit of her uniquely fascinating research under the title "Suddenly Jewish - Jews raised as Gentiles Discover their Jewish Roots."

Kessel asked, "what is it like to find out you are not who you thought you were?" Her research is based on 166 individuals who answered her query in the New York Times and the Internet. She was also able to find these Jews through other means. The researcher remembers that "not everyone {she} interviewed was happy to have discovered his Jewish ancestry." Nonetheless, all were willing to share their feelings and qualms with the author about their identity struggle.

Kessel's research is a journey into the world of 'who is a Jew?' Essentially, Kessel in her 127 pages provides the reader with the human-interest aspect of these stories, stories of persons who suddenly were Jewish. The author divided this "tribe" into the following categories: 1) Crypto-Jews, 2) Hidden Children, 3) Children of Survivals, and 4) Adoptees. But most of the research was dedicated to the topic of the Crypto-Jews. The author explains, "once they made the connection to the past, the experience of their forefathers was very real and meaningful to them." They do not care how they discover their link to Judaism, "what mattered was knowing who they were and where they came from" Kessel elaborated.

For many learning of their roots and then absorbing their new religious identity was not simple: Marcel Pierre Nakache was born in Paris and grew up as a young Catholic person. Later, he discovered his Jewish roots and thus became an observant Jew. However, Marcel confessed to the author that "to this day when the congregation is singing 'Sim Shalom'...{he} hear{s} in {his} head the Latin version, 'Dona Nobis Pacem'. That happens with a lot of prayers. They are singing in Hebrew and I am hearing a Catholic choir!"

As to the issue of Hidden Children one should read the case study of Vera Frank. She grew up as a Polish girl in the 1940's. Like thousands of other Jewish children during the Holocaust era, that was her way of survival. One day her father who did survive discovered her and took her to Palestine. "I was terrified. What does this Jew want with me? I did not understand his language. I did not understand why he was kidnapping me. All I could think was that it was almost Passover and he needed a gentile child's blood to make Matzo" remarked Vera.

Another case worthy of review is the case of the famous Abe Foxman of the A.D.L. who also grew up as a Catholic, as a hidden child. He informed Kessel that "had {his} parents not survived {he} would have stayed Christian. {He} was five when they came back for {him}...{he} cried when they called {him} a Jew." Foxman told Kessel later that he always used to greet priests and kiss their hands. Little by little he took off his cross and adjusted to his Jewish identity and its related ceremonies.

The author described the thousand and one ways of getting back to Judaism; each way is a great human story. Kessel tells the terrible story of 'Maria', a woman who found out that her aunt contracted a Jewish genetic blood disease. She explains, "that disease was the first clue the family had of its Jewish ancestry." Kessel further documented through her project the various hesitations of the 'Back to Judaism' journey and the many dilemmas for those who would like to go back to their roots. One example is Margarita Hernandez, a typical Crypto-Jewess from New Mexico, told Kessel that she and her sisters and brothers would like to do the right thing 'Back to Judaism' but one brother refuses. Margarita laments, "we don't want this new information (Jewishness) to create a family rift." Margarita "was eager to know what it is like to turn a corner and - boom! - Come face to face with a wall of Jewishness. The wall is high, and many people were overwhelmed. Some turn away, some scaled the wall and some looked for a way around it."

The author reviewed the case studies and concludes her illuminating book with a quotation from Paul Goldriech who remarked to her once that "nine times out of ten, finding out who you are is the most life-affirming adjustment you can make."

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