The New York Times published a story today — How Do You Prove You’re a Jew? I’ve had some problems with the website loading, so be patient. It’s worth the read.
Just when you thought it was difficult as a Jew by Choice (a convert, that is, by any conversion necessary) to make aliyah, you now have Jews by Birth being questioned — especially those who have ties to the U.S., as in this story, Sharon, a woman readying to marry, must prove her Jewish identity, simply because her mother came from the U.S.
More than any other issue, the question of Who is a Jew? has repeatedly roiled relations between Israel and American Jewry. Psychologically, it is an argument over who belongs to the family. In the past, the casus belli was conversion: Would the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew coming to Israel, apply to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis? Now, as Sharon’s experience indicates, the status of Jews by birth is in question. Equally important, the dividing line is no longer between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The rabbinate’s handling of the issue has placed it on one side of an ideological fissure within Orthodox Judaism itself, between those concerned with making sure no stranger enters the gates and those who fear leaving sisters and brothers outside.
The story goes on to tell her family’s history — one that’s overflowing with Jewishness. But it just isn’t enough.
At the court, Sharon told me, the clerk who opened her file told her to bring her mother’s birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “I said: ‘But my mother’s birth certificate doesn’t say “Jewish.” It’s from the United States. They don’t write that. And the marriage license — they had a civil wedding.’ ” After she waited hours to see a judge, he told Sharon to return with “any document that would testify to her mother’s Jewishness.” She asked a court official if a letter from a Conservative rabbi would solve the problem. Her mother has a cousin in Florida who is a rabbi, son of the uncle who originally sent Suzie to Israel. No, the official said, “that won’t help. It has to be someone Orthodox.”
I recently told a friend, who was frustrated by the constant questioning of his Jewishness, that I’m fine with the questioning. Maybe it’s because I have a very close friend who is Orthodox and she sees me as more or less an equal (though we’ve discussed that if she were ever to set me up, she’d have to tell the person I was a Reform convert, which I am entirely okay with). Or maybe it’s because I’ve settled very quickly (if you call a nearly five year period, nearly two of which I have been an “official” convert,” quick) into being Jewish and not questioning my identity. I told my friend, “If someone wants me to jump through 30 hoops to prove I’m Jewish, that’s their problem, not mine. It’s no skin off my back.” And it’s true. If someone wants to question whether I am a Jew, then so be it. I’ll pull out my credentials, spread the beautiful document in scripted Hebrew across the table, and put the rabbi on the line. I live among, as part of the community, I eat at Shabbat tables, I pray in shul, I don a Mogen David around my neck, I say the Sh’ma as I lay down, I recite Modah Ani in the morning, I am a Jew, so much as my ancestors — your’s and mine — were and are Jews. So when did this become a problem, this need to force identification, to screen even those with histories — clearly painted — for the Jew gene?
Trust — or lack of it — is the crux. Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University explained to me that historically, if someone said he was a Jew, “if he lived among us, was a partner in our society and said he was one of us, we assumed he was right.” Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless she really did. The leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz (known as the Hazon Ish, the name of his magnum opus on religious law), held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, “even if nothing is known of his family,” Karlitz wrote.
Several trends have combined to change that. In an era of intermarriage, denominational disputes and secularization, Jews have ceased agreeing on who belongs to the family, or on what the word “Jew” means.
I find it difficult to believe that this is truly a new problem. And if it is such a new problem, when will it be resolved, and how has it become so significant and defining? What I wonder is, why do Jews not realize that outside forces will nary be the destruction of the Jewish people, but rather, we as a whole will be the destruction that we fear from others.
And it seems the TRUE, one crux to the problem, to the mistrust, to what is driving Judaism apart and creating this divisive issue is that no longer are people afraid to identify as Jews — though, after the events in Jerusalem of late one wonders how true this is — but rather that by identifying as a Jew is the best, the only, option to escaping other horrendous conditions.
The traditional willingness to trust a person who said he was Jewish, Ehrentreu asserts, presumed that no one had anything to gain by it. Today, he told me, there are ulterior motives — to be able to leave another country and come to Israel, “to be recognized here as Jewish, to be able to get married.” That is, Israel’s prosperity, its attractiveness to immigrants, is now a reason for doubt.
The idea is that this particular mistrust arose when Russian immigrants began flooding Israel. And I can understand the mistrust, but to what lengths will those in power in Israel go to make sure that the Jewish people remain as “legit” as possible?
And then there’s me. I have no problem with the idea of someday converting Orthodox, not only to secure the future of my children and their children, but because that is where I inevitably see myself going (though more on the Modern side of things). I look at my good Orthodox friend, and she seems to truly make it work; she’s frum, but the most caring, accepting, intelligent person I know. I am not going to get into why or how I identify, but when I consider this, I think — Must I go to Israel to complete such a conversion? Is that *truly* what it would take to secure my future, the future of my family and my descendants? The story says, “Converts, even the children of converts, potentially face greater difficulties, because the rabbinate has also become more skeptical about Orthodox conversions performed abroad.” And my questions are answered.
I wonder if this makes me weak — that I have no problem jumping through hoops and laying it all out to whoever, whenever, so that in their minds, they can feel sufficiently satisfied that I’m Jewish. In my mind, it shows strength, in that, I know I’m Jewish, those around me know I’m Jewish. I am not the goy who converted, I am the convert who converted. Nothing can shake the ground, deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, that I stand on. I think it’s ridiculous, and I think it’s a waste of time that could be spent on strengthening the community. But, like I said, it’s no skin off my back. It’s just, well, frustrating.
So read the story, look at the work and effort of one man who fights for the rights of Jews to be recognized as Jews in Israel, and see whether Sharon turns up a Jew or not. It’s an interesting read.
ChavyJo: The article was published Sunday, March 2,
in the NYT Magazine. But it’s getting LOTS of
attention and sure is interesting….
Thanks for the correction. I hadn’t even noticed! It just got sent my way today …
I will have to check in to this article, it looks interesting. I tend to vacillate a little between being totally confident in my Jewish identity, and being mournful of the fact that I am not able to pursue an Orthodox conversion because my wife is not interested in conversion. If I lived in Israel I have a feeling I’d really want to be able to walk in to any shul and participate as a full member, but I am (obviously) not willing to break up my family to get there. It’s really too bad that there isn’t another way, isn’t it? I mean, when the issue is not about sincerity but about timing. It turns out that not everyone with a Jewish soul in a goyishe body can do an Orthodox conversion.
Having said that, I am happy being a Jew where I’m at now, and maybe some day if I decide to make aliyah as a non-Orthodox convert, I’ll realize there are enough options for me in Israel anyway. Being there as a non-Orthodox convert on vacation completely blew me away :)!
Spiritually speaking, I laughed, I cried, I ran the gamut of emotions. I had heard of R. Seth Farber but didn’t know any of the details of the work he does. Thanks for sharing it.
I thought of a few points that the article doesn’t mention or make completely clear.
1) Everyone has to prove they’re Jewish before they’re married by an Orthodox rabbi, no matter where they live. My rabbi had supervised my conversion, so no documentation was necessary for me, but my husband had to produce his grandmother’s ketubah (marriage contract) since his parents’ non-Orthodox ketubah was not considered sufficient. A friend here in Israel told me that when she was getting married (around 20 years ago), it was possible to prove one’s Jewishness by two witnesses who did not necessarily have to be rabbis, or even male. She claimed to be too frum to speak to any men, and managed to have two female friends vouch for her at the rabbinate with no problems.
2) For a host of reasons, one-third of Israelis reject the standard rabbinate marriage procedure and get married abroad. (Travel agents offer attractive packages to Cyprus, a particularly popular spot.)
3) Although the article mentions it, I just wanted to underscore the fact that people with non-Orthodox conversions are included under the Law of Return by Israel, but such immigrants are still not considered Jewish. Israel defines anyone whom the Nazis would have persecuted as Jewish eligible to immigrate. Incidentally, Israel no longer designates whether one is Jewish or not on identity cards (a pretty tasteless practice anyway).
4) British Jews have an easier time proving they’re Jewish. Whereas Americans tend to be religious without necessarily associating themselves with a shul, British Jews tend to be less observant but more consistent about belonging to a synagogue community. This translates into greater ease in getting their rabbinical structure (which includes a rabbinical hierarchy—also anathema to Americans) to vouch for their Jewishness. Clearly the freedom American Jews insist upon, which includes no official rabbinical structure, comes at a price.
5) Other interesting “Who is a Jew?” situations in history include the Ethiopians, whose situation was dire and who were “Jewish enough” to be brought to Israel en masse, then converted to avoid doubts and problems about their status; and the Karaites (Jews who reject the Oral Torah) who, during the Third Reich, were denounced as Jews by European rabbis not because they were not Jewish, but because the rabbis knew that if the Karaites were believed by the Nazis to be Jewish, they would be killed. Perhaps Americans get fewer breaks in part because they are clearly not in desperate circumstances. Quite the opposite, as your recent post (“When Jews Become the Cool Kids”) indicates.
Shimshonit — thank you for all of the points you’ve made here. You’ve added a lot to the conversation An informed mind, you are! But Cyprus you say? Interesting. I also think the Karaites issue is fascinating. I’ve read about it many times, and continue to read about it.
Yair — that is a difficult (I think that would be the right word) situation you are in with your family re: the possible conversion, but you sound confident in your approach to it. I admire that!
Interestingly — my code word is “salad” … and I just had that for lunch. Just thought I’d share
I have a huge academic interest in this movement, which during the Medieval period accounted for half of the worldwide Jewish population by many scholars’ assessments. Certainly they must have been a formidable opponent of Rabbinical Judaism to have famous rabbis write treatises on why the Karaites were/are wrong (i.e., Judah HaLevi and his Khuzari).
Karaites are interesting in that they readily accept converts, and they are even closer to Islam than we are – they prostrate in prayer, and believe in the universal applicability of Torah. They have a headquarters in the Old City of Jerusalem, which I took pictures of while I was there. While I am and always will be loyal to Rabbinic Judaism, the Karaites are an interesting part of the Jewish world.
I related to the angst in the NYT article because I had my own little “go on, prove it” moment trying to fly to Israel with a birthright group. I had been accepted to a birthright program with them 100% knowing that I had converted with a Reform beit din–that wasn’t the problem. El Al security agents started asking me too too many questions and got it out of me that I was a convert. Among many things, they demanded proof of my conversion. I didn’t have my certificate with me because birthright had told me it was not necessary to bring it.
Chavi: A convert who converted? You’re a Jew – period. Have you seen recent editions of The New York Jewish Week? There’s lots of tzimis about a move by the RCA (the rabbinical arm of the American Modern Orthodox) to have arranged an American rabbinical court to preside over conversions to Judaism that will answer to and be acknowledged by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. R’ Lookstein, R’ Avi Weiss, and R’ Marc Angel are among the dissenters in the Modern Orthodox camp. Chaptzem read.