Jewish Journal

Look Who’s Jewish!

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

June 11, 2014 | 8:22 am

A redneck walks into a bar in the deep South. He grabs a few beers and guzzles them down. Looking for a fight, he yells: “All right now, who’s a Jew?!!!!!!!”

Dead silence.

The redneck yells a little louder. “I just asked y’all – who’s a Jew?!!!!!!”

Still dead silence.

The redneck raises his voice several more decibels: “I’m gonna ask y’all one last time. I want to know! Who’s a Jew?!!!!!!”

An old man in the back of the bar stands up, clears his throat, and says: “You know, dot’s a very interesting qvestion…..”

So, who’s a Jew?

First, there’s Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, one of the Church’s most beloved senior statesmen. It turns out that his grandfather, Gustave Gumpel, was a ritual slaughterer and rabbi in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and that his mother converted to Catholicism. This makes the prince of the Church, at least halachically, Jewish. (Six hundred years ago in Spain, that knowledge would have been very dangerous). http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/nyregion/cardinal-john-joseph-oconnor-jewish-mother-genealogy.html?ref=nyregion&_r=0

There’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry’s great-grandfather, Benedikt Kohn, was Jewish. Kerry is descended from the famed Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague, the Maharal, the creator of the legendary Golem.  (Note to self. Idea for novel. John Kerry channels the Maharal; asks him to re-create the golem; golem gets involved with peace talks, and succeeds in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.) 

And then, there’s the former Hungarian right-wing anti-Semitic leader of the Jobbik party, Csanad Szegedi. Szegedi found out that his maternal grandparents were Jewish. He has taken intensive classes in Judaism, was circumcised, and his wife is now preparing to convert to Judaism. http://www.timesofisrael.com/former-hungarian-anti-semite-describes-jewish-awakening/ (Coming soon in a Jewish charitable event near you: Szegedi as guest speaker. Expect it.)

My friend Elizabeth is a “cradle Episcopalian.” She can trace her ancestry back to William Tyndale, who was the source of the King James Bible. That’s one side of the family. On the other? You guessed it. Her grandfather was Jewish – an Austrian Jew who hid his identity.

“So that makes me kind of Jewish?” she asked me shyly.

“Why not?” I answered her. “Join the club. You are now a Jew-by-surprise.”

The Jews by surprise are the largest growing sub-movement in Judaism today. Consider all of those people who have recently (or not so recently, as the case might be) discovered that they are Jewish, or sort of Jewish, or almost Jewish. There was Madelyn Albright, of course.  There was the African tribe, the Lemba, who are genetically Jewish.

There are people in the Caribbean who have discovered that their ancestors were Jewish. I once converted an elderly Cuban man to Judaism; he had remembered that his grandmother had told him that her grandmother had told her that on Friday evenings the family would light a candle in the basement – meaning that they were descended from conversos, Spanish Jews who were forced to outwardly convert to Christianity and who were expelled from Spain. There are the descendants of the Spanish crypto-Jews in the American Southwest, whose ancestors had fled from the Inquisition and who are now re-embracing their Jewish roots. Spain just said that it was opening its doors to all descendants of the conversos. Y’all come home!

If and when Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, someone will mention, once again, that she had a Jewish grandfather. Well, sort of. As you might recall, Hillary’s grandmother, Della, married a Russian-born Jew, Max Rosenberg, in the 1930s – well after the birth of Hillary’s mother, Dorothy Emma Howell, in 1919.  But, still, the “hidden Jew” collectors, both Jews and anti-Semites, will have fun recalling that piece of trivia.

Several things.

First, this feels like that old game that our parents and grandparents used to play: “spot the Jewish celebrity (or, shamefully, criminal).” They must have thought that the more famous people we could “rack up,” the better off we were.

Second, rather than chasing famous people’s lineage back into the nether reaches of their family trees, let’s ask again: “Who is a Jew?” – and let’s hearken to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s answer.

For Heschel, a Jew is someone who is:

  • A witness to the transcendence and presence of God
  • A person in whose life Abraham would feel at home
  • A person for whom Rabbi Akiba would feel affinity
  • A person of whom the Jewish martyrs of all ages would not be ashamed
  • A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people
  • A person in travail with God's dreams and designs.
  • A person to whom God is a challenge and not an abstraction
  • A person who is called upon to know of God's stake in history
  • A person who knows how to recall and keep alive what is holy in our people's past and to cherish the promise and the vision of redemption in the days to come.

[“A Time For Renewal”, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 47]

And third: It’s fun to find Jewish ancestors.

But the far more serious work is to create Jewish descendants.

How's that working for you?

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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