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.