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What Am I If Not Jewish?

July 10, 2007

As a small child I had no idea that my father was Jewish and my mother was not. My grandparents from both sides were dead, there were no uncles, aunts, or cousins (that I was aware of); it was just the three of us.

In 1948 when my parents met, Jaap (my father) was 50, Nita (my mother) 31. He had lived through two world wars. His father had died in 1918 during the flu epidemic; his mother, stepfather, sister and her family were murdered in Auschwitz, and his sailor brother was killed in 1942, when his ship was torpedoed. Jaap's son from his first marriage didn't seem interested in having children, and his second wife lost faith in their marriage after the stillbirth of their baby boy in April of 1945. All Jaap wanted after the Holocaust was to start another family.

Nita, who was raised in the French Reformed Church, was non-observant, in love, and on top of that eager to make good what had been done wrong to the Jewish people. Recognizing Jaap's artistic talents, and sensing that creativity would save his, and therefore their, sanity, she told him she was willing to raise their possible offspring in the Jewish faith, but insisted she would marry him only if he would become a professional artist. He took her up on this challenge, became a card-carrying member of the Artists Federation, and wed my mother in March of 1951. Four years later I was born.

The Liberal Rabbi Jacob Soetendorp of the Liberaal Joodse Gemeente (LJG or Reform Jewish Congregation) in Amsterdam, open to the era's changing times, understood how difficult it could be for men Jaap's age to find a Jewish partner after the Holocaust; the Shul's cantor was married to a gentile woman. Interfaith families could feel welcome there.

My parents may have taken me to the synagogue at an earlier age, but I think I must have been 4 when I was called to the bimah (altar where the Torah is read) for Kiddush for the first time. I remember the thrill, joining the other children for the blessing, receiving the silver goblet, and sipping the Sabbath wine.

I attended Hebrew Sunday School, studied the alphabet, and sang Israeli folk songs. However, at 7, before I learned how to create words with the characters, we moved away from Amsterdam. Up north, at the point where the borders of three provinces meet, the only remainder of a Jewish community was a small graveyard and a tiny defunct temple. On our farm, out in the fields, my father recited the blessings over wine and bread. Years later when it was my turn to light the candles, I realized I never heard or saw my mother do so.

My mother baked a killer kugel 'n' pears, her chicken soup was to die for. She rolled a mean matzah ball, during Pesach she fried the best matzo-brei gremsjelich, and for Hanukkah, delicious latkes--but to convert was not an option for her.

"You can't become a Jew," she said, "You can only be born a Jew."

In this she contradicted my father, who claimed that David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, said that anyone who felt Jewish was Jewish.

If my skin broke out after eating pork or North-sea shrimp my father had me peel, he would say, "God punishes right away." With that remark he put a thought in my mind that he, a 100 percent Jew could do as he pleased, while I, the daughter who had not lain under a Jewish heart (meaning my mother was gentile), would always be judged with different measures. I learned early on that "Father Jews," as we're called in the Netherlands, "patrilineals" as we're called here, aren't cut much slack. That notion has been confirmed many a time since.

My father said he raised me Jewish for two reasons: because he didn't want Hitler to have won after all, and so I would know what being Jewish entailed when a neighbor would single me out and say, "There's a Jew."

The summer before my 12th birthday I spent a fortnight at the home of Rabbi Soetendorp. Uncle Jaap supposedly coached me for my Bat Mitzvah, the coming of age for a Jewish girl, but all we did was chat about life on our way to synagogue, where I hung out during his office hours, or at the deli where he noshed on kosher, but health-wise forbidden foods. At home, in his office, he made me close my books, waiving the requirement of studying Hebrew. He must have known it would have been in vain, considering the rules to which the Dutch Jewish community at large adhered. Since my mother hadn't converted, I would have had to do so myself. I know my father thought that would have made no sense: How could a daughter of his, a child that was being raised Jewish, not already be Jewish?

Jaap died when I was 13, and while Nita enrolled me with Ichoed Haboniem, a Jewish youth organization, and she continued to be a member of LJG, I was never called to the Torah. My father's stubbornness rubbed off and I have chosen never to convert since I consider myself already Jewish.

I live a Jewish life, keep a kosher home, and feel as if I am being dealt some sour grapes when a "true Jew" tells me I am not Jewish.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Judith Van Praag

Judith Van Praag is a Dutch artist and bilingual writer, and author of the book Creative Acts of Healing: After a Baby Dies. She makes her home in Seattle, WA with her husband Gary and pooch Mocha.

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