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Suddenly Jewish

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Berel Wein

Jews raised as gentiles discover their Jewish roots.

Suddenly Jewish is the name of a beautiful little (126-page) book by Barbara Kessel, Director of Administration of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. The subtitle of the book reveals its fascinating premise: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots. From Madeline Albright and other Holocaust descendants to crypto-Jews from Italy and Jamaica, the book describes the search for identity that characterizes the lives of all of us, but especially of those who discover that they are not really who they thought they were. Because of the Albright experience, the author placed an ad in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section asking: "For a book on identity, I would like to interview individuals raised as non-Jews who discovered that they are of Jewish descent." This book is the result of interviews with over 160 people who responded to her "author's query." This is a three-handkerchief book that is at points also hilariously funny. The author lets her subjects speak for themselves, never pontificates or is judgmental and presents this case study in the search for identity in its true and complicated light.

The reactions of the people to the discovery of their Jewishness varied greatly. Some were relieved, feeling that a deep gnawing monster that they somehow felt was living within them was now exposed and defeated. Others, like Albright, seemingly ignored the entire matter and continued on with their previous life as though nothing important had happened to them. Close to 30% changed their lives and became passionately Jewish in commitment and behavior.

The main sections of the book deal with the descendants of crypto-Jews, Sephardic in origin and living mainly in the southwestern United States; hidden Jewish children in the Holocaust who were raised as non-Jews by adoptive and foster families; and children of Holocaust survivors who were never told by their parents of their Jewish ancestry.

The author compares the stories of the "hidden children" -- Jewish children who were raised as non-Jews by protective Christian families during the years of the Holocaust -- to the biblical story of Moses who was raised in the palace of the Pharaoh and returned to lead the Jews out of Egyptian bondage. The "hidden children" fell into two types: "people who were psychologically injured by their experiences, and people who emerged from their traumatic backgrounds with enhanced strengths and talents." One of the most well known of the "hidden children" is Abraham Foxman, the feisty, observant, proactive, executive head of the Anti-Defamation League in America.

"I wore a crucifix. I went to church regularly. I cried when they called me Jew." Abe Foxman

Abe Foxman was only five when his parents reappeared in 1945 to reclaim him from his Polish nanny who hid him successfully during the war. Abe was then a devout Catholic. "I wore a crucifix. I went to church regularly. I cried when they called me Jew. Now my father, the first time he took me to synagogue was on Simchat Torah. He figured I'd like it because it's a joyous festival full of singing and dancing. On the way there, I passed a church. I crossed myself, I greeted the priest, I kissed his hand, and my father understood. The Jewish children picked me up and danced with me, and I came home and told my mother, 'I like Jewish church.' Little by little, he took off my cross and replaced it with tzitzis 'fringes'. I used to say prayers in Latin; he taught me to pray in Hebrew. Both languages were Greek to me. I was happy. I had substitution. He just said, don't kneel. Becoming Jewish was a growing process. My parents had wisdom beyond the normal. If my parents had perished, I would have been raised to be a priest. My caretaker believed in the Church. I was a good Catholic."

Foxman continues: "I'm convinced there are thousands of Jews who don't know they are Jewish, especially in Poland. Poland was the worst. There were more Jewish children at risk [there] and therefore there were more opportunities to save them. Every day we lose potential Jewish souls there because their foster parents die without telling them that they had Jewish parents -- either because they don't want to discombobulate their lives or because of the stigma of having saved Jews or because they feel guilty for not having told them before. All these things conspire against truth telling. Our agency [for discovering 'hidden children'] tries to celebrate the idea of rescue in Poland. We try to make rescuing lives a value. We go there and applaud what they did so that it will be easier for the truth to come out. If the shame of helping Jews is removed, more revelations can surface. I've visited Poland three times, each time for a public effort to recognize Christian rescuers, and each time more Jewish children emerge."

Foxman ruefully concludes: "I joke that I'd like to put up signs that say, 'Don't be anti-Semitic; after all, you too, might turn out to be a Jew!'"

Pierre Sauvage is a prize-winning film director. He made the documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit, about the French town, Le Chamon-sur-Lignon, which hid 5000 Jews from the Nazis. Pierre's parents were among those 5000 and he was born there in 1944. His parents immigrated to New York after the war and completely hid their Jewish origins from their son. He was raised with a Christmas tree and attended a private French school in New York City. Finally, at age 18, as he was leaving to study in Paris, his parents told him that they were Jewish.

"When you erase your heritage, you rob your children of self-knowledge."

"Was it a shock? I don't remember. A surprise, for sure. They told me in such a way as to say, it's not important, and I accepted that characterization. Many years after my parents told me, I remained in hiding, in effect. I couldn't identify with it. It didn't feel like me. All those ten years in Paris, I never entered a synagogue. I had not one Jewish experience. As I made Weapons of the Spirit, I got to know the people of Le Chambon who saved my parents and so many others. It was those Christians who changed my view of religious people. The more I came to know and admire them, the more I came to realize that it was their strength of identity that made them act. They knew who they were. I am, perhaps [now] becoming a Jew, with the essential help of my [Jewish] wife and my eight year old son, and what I increasingly believe to be common sense: that one derives from being one's self, and that one's self is rooted, among other things, in one's heritage and one's history. When you erase your heritage, you rob your children of self-knowledge. That's an argument for religion, isn't it? The beliefs of your ancestors are part of you. They shaped you. To not know what shaped you is to be weakened."

The third section of the book deals with the children of Holocaust survivors. Kessel notes: "Children of survivors are exquisitely sensitive to their parents' history. They dare not add to their parents' abundant measure of anguish. Even into adulthood, these children are careful to shield their parents from bad news, from failure, from any more blows to the psyche. They instinctively know that if their parents have not been forthcoming with information, they are not to initiate a painful discussion, even if they come across indisputable evidence of the unmentionable past."

In an interview with the Dutch child of a mother who survived the Holocaust and then denied her Jewish roots, she records the following: "My mother met my non-Jewish father after the war. When he proposed, she told him that she was Jewish, but swore him to secrecy. Growing up we had a Christmas tree, but it had no religious significance for us. My father's study of human civilization convinced him that organized religion had done more harm than good over the centuries, but he was in no way against religious people. We did not even have a Bible in the house, and I was probably the only child in my public school who never heard of Abraham or Moses or the Exodus from Egypt.

"One day when I was 14, the newspaper was thrown through the mail slot in the door, and I heard my mother wail, 'Oh no, not again.' It was many years before I figured out what 'again' referred to. I instinctively turned to the paper she was staring at and read the headline, which was in much larger print than usual: 'ISRAEL AT WAR AGAIN.' I had never heard of Israel, but I read the paper, which had lots of background articles about modern Israeli history from 1948 to the present. I found it fascinating, so I went to the library and took out some books about Israel. It became a hobby for me, like stamp collecting. The history books referred back further and further, until I was reading about events of 2000 years ago. It took a year or two for me to figure out that this was the biblical period, and I decided to go right to the source. I also began corresponding at that time with an Israeli pen pal. I bought a Bible and ripped out the New Testament section. The way I understood it, the Old Testament was a historical account, and the New Testament was a religious document, and I knew from my father that organized religion led to no good... The next logical step was for me to learn Hebrew so I could read the text in the original... By the age 16, I had read the Old Testament all the way through six or seven times. It's hard to explain but I started to see a pattern in it. I mean, I started to see the hand of God. It was a slow process, but it became apparent to me that there was a metaphysical dimension to what I first thought only as stories."

"My rabbi likened my story to a tiny oven pilot light that's always on but waiting to be fueled into a blazing flame."

The interviewee began to study with a rabbi and to consider conversion to Judaism. He stated: "One day I was in my room practicing the Hebrew Grace after Meals text when my mother walked in, looked over my shoulder at the page I was reading, and started reading it with me. It was the first time she had seen Hebrew since before the war. I didn't react, because I didn't connect it to her being Jewish. That was not a possibility in my mind. When she caught herself, she stopped short and sputtered that she had been an au pair to a Jewish family and had to learn Hebrew in order to help the children with their homework. I really thought nothing of it. [When I was in the army] I spent most weekends at home, and went to services at the local synagogue where I would join the hazzan for lunch and spend the afternoon with his family studying the Bible. It was a wonderful time for me. Until then I had only been reading, but those weekends were the first time I actually experienced Judaism, lived it in a community setting. I scheduled an inpatient circumcision, and two weeks before my conversion ceremony, I told my parents that I was about to convert. At that point, when she saw that it was truly going to happen, my mother sat me down and told me her story. It was a great, great shock. I was numb...She explained to me why she left Judaism which I, of course, understood. She made me promise not to tell anyone we knew. To this day, she tells people that the reason I live in Israel is because I married an Israeli girl. My rabbi likened my story to a tiny oven pilot light that's always on but waiting to be fueled into a blazing flame."

Barbara Kessel writes in her conclusion that perhaps the most encompassing and positive conclusion regarding the phenomenon of recovered heritage came from Paul Goldreich, who said, "Nine times out of ten, finding out who you are is the most life-affirming adjustment you can make."

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