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Suddenly It All Made Sense: Finding My Jewish Roots

July 7, 2009

Review of Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots, by Barbara Kessel (Brandeis University Press, 2000).

We walked into the day room at the hospital, and there was a man who looked exactly like Grandma. And also looked unmistakably Jewish. After a long conversation that mostly centered on his 'remarkable' life story, I asked the obvious: Uncle Abraham, are you Jewish? 'Aren't you?' he answered with a puzzled look. It's so trite that I hate to say it, but it's absolutely true: in that moment huge inexplicable parts of my life made complete and overwhelming sense.

-From Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots, by Barbara Kessel.

Over the space of 15 months, Barbara Kessel interviewed the men and women who responded to her advertisement seeking people who had been raised non-Jews but who had discovered Jewish roots. She posted her notices in the New York Times Book Review, on adoption websites, genealogy sites and the like. Kessel wanted to find out what happens to your sense of self when it turns out your family is not who you thought they were.

Suddenly Jewish book cover imageWhen I first spotted this title at Powells City of Books in Portland, Ore., I felt immediately rooted to the spot (no pun intended). Members of my mother's side of the family made vague references to Jewish ancestry but never discussed anything in detail. I hadn't connected this lineage to my own interest in Judaism--reaching back to elementary school--until that very moment. Odd, but that's just how things work sometimes.

I took a quick look at the book and flipped through its pages, but slipped it back onto the shelf. I was intrigued, but also a bit thunderstruck. I needed some time to sit with this.

Not long after, I was back at the bookstore, where I sat down and read through the introduction and chapter on Crypto-Jews. I felt a rush of something. Calling it "destiny" sounds much too melodramatic; maybe it was memory or belonging. I knew while reading the chapter that the paradigm of my own self-identity was shifting. Still, I put the book back on the shelf, again, and went home.

Borrowing Suddenly Jewish from the library felt less binding. If I didn't buy it, I wasn't necessarily committed to Judaism, right? It's a rather slender volume of 127 pages, yet I took weeks to read it. The stories are riveting. Page after page of personal accounts of descendants of survivors of the Inquisition, who had converted to save their lives; of children in Europe who were hidden with Christian families to save them from the Nazis; of people whose parents survived the Holocaust and kept their Jewish heritage secret for years afterwards in an effort to forget; of Jewish-born infants adopted by Christian families, who went hunting for their birth heritage decades later.

It wasn't long before I was digging into my own roots, tracing the family line back to Breslau (in modern-day Poland) in the late 1600s, when my ancestor, Baruch Judah, left for the American colonies. I assume he made the move to escape the Hapsburgs' forced conversion of the region back to Catholicism. As near as I can tell, it was my maternal grandmother's father, Horatio Sharrett--the son of a Jewish mother and a Huguenot father--who was raised in an inter-religious home, but I know nothing of his personal faith. I do know that my grandmother was a devout Christian by the time I knew her, though the cousins on my grandfather's side always suspected her of having Jewish roots.

Where does this leave me? Excited, nervous, proud, confused, righteous, speculative ... you name it. I look back on my previous travels in the Middle East and realize I now might not be received as hospitably in some areas. In Egypt, I absolutely had to visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, though I couldn't really explain why I was drawn there. I remember the times as a child that I knew in my heart I wasn't a 'real Christian,' but didn't dare tell anyone. In grade school, when we were being taught to be more 'multi-cultural,' I was the class dreidel champion and asked my mother if we could make popovers alongside the Christmas cookies.

Some branches of Judaism recognize me as a "reclaimed Jew," while others might charitably consider me just another wannabe. But I have been making inquiries at synagogues in my area, and have been reconsidering some of the assumptions I've made about myself in my life. In the meantime, I'm keeping weekly Shabbat with my dog and cats. The cats aren't so much interested, but the dog has developed a taste for hallah and has learned to stick close to me as soon as I start lighting candles.

When I think to myself, "I am a Jew," I want to cry--tears of relief, of fear, of homecoming. This is far from the end of my personal spiritual journey, but I feel as though I've just reached into my pocket and pulled out an ancient map I didn't know I'd been carrying with me all along.

An earlier version of this review appeared on Jennifer Willis' website, www.ravenwald.com.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah.

Jennifer Willis is a freelance writer and the author of the Green Soul Guide blog. A religious studies scholar, she has taught classes on religious diversity and spiritual practice. She is in the process of converting to Judaism. Jennifer lives in Portland, Ore., and can be found online at www.jennifer-willis.com.

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