What Am I If Not Jewish?

By Judith Van Praag

July 10, 2007

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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 not Jewish), 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.





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About 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.