29 May 2009

Who's a Jew? Who isn't?

The New York Jewish Week tackled the reverse of the "Who's a Jew?" issue with Rabbi Joshua Hammerman's take on "Who isn't?" with his article, "Everybody's A Little Bit Jew-ish."

Jewish genealogy gets a mention:
Prior Pew surveys have shown how Jews have been more successful than other groups in stemming the tide of assimilation. But with sectarian lines dissolving rapidly, in a century or two, how many more millions of non-Jewish Americans will be searching their family trees for Jewish ancestry?
The article is here.

Considering its timing at Shavout and its connection with King David's great-grandmother Ruth, whose "conversion" would likely not be accepted today by the Orthodox rabbinate, the story talks about 10 million Iberian descendants of those who were forced to leave Judaism and become Catholic during the Inquisition.

He mentions the recent DNA studies indicating that 20% of today's Iberians - some 10 million individuals - have Jewish roots. And that number is only in Iberia. There are millions more who descend from conversos who left Iberia and settled in the New World. While they might not be Jews today, they are Jew-ish, it's in their DNA.

There's a midrash that every Jew was present at Sinai, including all future generations. What about those Iberians whose ancestors were forced to convert. "We can’t retroactively crop them out of the Sinai family picture."

Hammerman believes in traditional standards determining Jewish identity, but adds "the world has become far too complicated to ignore everyone else. So, yes, there are Jews, the ones who fall within normative halachic parameters; and then there are those who are Jew-ish, a group that includes many millions more."

He says that a lot of unconditional love - chesed (Hebrew) - is needed to reach out beyond those who are Jewish to those who are generations removed from their heritage - those he calls "Jew-ish."

Thinking bigger, is his advice - to look beyond the farthest fringe, "to millions of once-were-Jews," whose spiritual search will lead them back.

A team of geneticists has uncovered explicit evidence of mass conversions of Sephardic Jews to Catholicism in 15th- and 16th-century Spain and Portugal. The study, based on an analysis of Y-chromosomes and reported first in the American Journal of Human Genetics, indicates that 20 percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry. That’s about 10 million people.

While anti-Semitism remains pervasive and the Jewish population microscopic, there is a deep fascination with all things Jewish. “We’ve gone from a period of pillaging the Jews and then suppressing and ignoring their patrimony to a period of rising curiosity and fascination [about them],” said Anna Maria Lopez, the director of Toledo’s Sephardic Museum in a New York Times interview.
Of course, Hammerman isn't counting the more than 6,000 in Barcelona's Jewish community, those in Madrid and smaller communities in cities throughout Spain. There are dedicated activists among them who attempt to reclaim Spain's Jewish history and get involved in restoration and preservation projects. There are Jews in Spain today who are vocal about Jewish heritage, and people are returning to the public Jewish community.

Hammerman lists descendants of historical and contemporary figures:

--None of Theodore Herzl's three children were Jewish.
Nancy Pelosi has Jewish grandchildren.
Eight of Moses Mendelssohn’s nine grandchildren were baptized.
Thomas Jefferson reportedly had Jewish ancestors and African-American descendants.
Fiorello La Guardia had a Jewish parent.
Hammerman says "We’ve become the La Guardia Airport of faith traditions; so many coming in, so many going out," and mentions websites which identify famous half-Jews, such as Halfjew.com and Half-Jewish.net.

Read the complete article at the link above.

1 comment:

  1. Tough one. A loaded question for many generations and centuries, for sure. The problem only gets worse based on geography, nationality and gender.

    I think that anyone who wants to be included in one of the most hated minority religions on Earth should have the right to suffer like the rest of us :-)

    And I hope that one day the orthodox rabbinate in Israel will stop forcing the issue and get off their high horse. Who do they think they are anyway? Am I more Jewish that an American Conservative/Reform Rabbi just because I was born in Israel, had a Brit and a Bar Mitzvah? I don't think so. I say everyone's welcome.