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Friday, December 2, 2005 | return to: the column


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I’m a Jewish woman even if my mother wasn’t

by rachel sarah

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In the hopes of meeting a nice Jewish man, I've posted my profile on JDate. "I am a warm and generous single mom who is looking for a wholesome man, "I begin. "You are a responsible and genuine man who adores children."

But to be honest, I feel a bit like a fraud.

That's because my mom was born Catholic, and my dad was born Jewish, so if you follow Jewish law, I'm not technically the real thing.

Ask just about anyone, "Who's a Jew?" and you'll be told that a Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew, or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.

The Reform movement, however, considers a person to be Jewish if either of her parents was Jewish and the child was raised Jewish. And this is why, as a kid who was brought up at Lafayette's Reform Temple Isaiah, I never had any reason to believe that I wasn't authentic.

My dad was raised in his Orthodox grandparents' home in Boston. Although my mom was raised Catholic, she stopped going to church in her 20s and wholeheartedly supported raising her daughters Jewish. She was even considering converting to Judaism, but then my parents divorced. I was raised four days a week by my mom, and three days by my dad: Their influence and input — in addition to their genes — was basically equal.

I grew up in the East Bay, where I had my bat mitzvah and confirmation alongside my friends, so I never had a clue that I was any different. Sixty of my relatives never resurfaced after the Holocaust — this alone has always connected me deeply to Judaism. In high school, I became a docent, and went to history classes to share lessons about the Holocaust with my peers.

As a teenager, I saw myself marrying a rabbi when I grew up. (I admit it: I had a little crush on my own rabbi.) I dreamed about going to Israel one day, and the summer I turned 16, I did. It was in Israel where, for my first time, that I heard a Jewish scholar explaining who's a Jew and who's not a Jew.

What do you mean I'm not a Jew? I thought.

On a recent dinner date with a local Jewish man who observes Shabbat — we were set up by a friend — I tried to come clean by explaining my history to him. See, even though many Jews might not consider me Jewish, I do — I felt a little like I was defending myself in front of a jury. And he didn't seem to buy it. My mom is not a Jew, and that's that. "Maybe you can convert," he said.

Convert. My living room sofa converts into a bed. My hybrid car converts kinetic energy into electricity. I wanted to throw my fork down and say, "No fair!" Instead, I took another bite of my salad.

To tell the truth, I agree with the Reform movement. The fact that my mom must be a Jew to make me a Jew is an archaic rule, I think.

This is what led me to pick up the phone and call Bryan Mark Rigg in Dallas, author of "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military," and "Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe."

"It's a nasty law!" Rigg, a history professor at American Military University, told me. He said this rule goes back to the Roman empire 2,000 years ago when the Romans said you were only a citizen if your mother as a citizen. "Well, when in Rome, do like the Romans do!" Rigg said. "But what arrogance! To base a law on a whole bunch of white guys who got together ... it's very controlling, the way it creates an in group and an out group." Rigg was very empathetic: "I can just see you sitting down at a Shabbat table, and people asking you, 'Where does your father come from? And your mother? Oh, you're one of those! You're not marriageable!'"

At the end of my date, I try to make a joke about having a mikvah before our next rendezvous. But I'm not sure there will be a "next."

My hope is that if I do meet a Jewish man who might be my match, he'll accept me for who I am.




Rachel Sarah is a Berkeley-based writer. You can reach her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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