> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Discovering I May Not Be Jewish

January 17, 2016 | by Elliot Newman

Even though I was keeping Shabbat, not knowing the identity of my biological mother threw into question my Jewishness.

My hand hesitated as I reached for my yarmulke. I hadn’t been wearing one in public, only in synagogue, but the wedding ceremony was just a few blocks away. This seemed like a good chance to test myself, to see if I had the guts to wear it on a crowded New York street.

My local Chabad rabbi had just texted me asking for a favor.

“Elliot! Please! If you are around, I really need someone to be a witness for a ketuba signing. It’s in your neighborhood and there are no Jews available right now. It’s a huge mitzvah, please help!”

I accepted with excitement. This was something new to me, I didn’t really know anything about the laws of Jewish weddings and this seemed like some cool hands-on learning. I found it strange that the couple opted to do it in a local sports bar, but maybe I just didn’t know what the norms were. I was new to most of this Jewish stuff, but eager to learn.

They thought I was some sort of rabbi in training. Little did they know that I probably knew less than them.

Kippah on head, I walked with nervous excitement and a brisk step to the bar. The bouncer looked at my head quizzically for a second and motioned to a door behind him. The couple, their parents and a few friends were buzzing with excitement around a table in the private side room of the bar.

I quickly realized that the rabbi had yet to arrive, making me the only one in the room who looked visibly Jewish. Everyone else just looked like typical downtown New York yuppies with a hipster influence: smatterings of tattoos and piercings adorned with high end clothing.

On the table was a large marriage document drawn up in Hebrew calligraphy, beautiful and expensive looking. Surrounding it were bottles of whiskey and buckets of craft beer. One of the guests asked if he could get me a drink and then snapped a picture of me and my yarmulke with the large camera in his hand.

A few months before, I would have more likely been a guest at this party rather than the Shabbat-observant witness who was required by Jewish law to watch the couple exchange rings and sign legal documents. But my life had changed drastically and I was happy about it.

I had recently started keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher. I had been attending classes on Torah and Talmud study after work twice a week. I had started to learn basic Hebrew. Years after graduating from the reform Hebrew school that I had attended every Sunday until I graduated high school, the twists and turns of life led me to rediscovery of my roots in a serious way.

Everyone was very nice, introducing themselves to me and thanking me for coming. They thought I was some sort of rabbi in training, with deep knowledge about what was about to happen. Little did they know that I probably knew less than them.

As I waited for the rabbi to arrive, I texted my Orthodox friend that I was going to be a witness at a ketubah signing, figuring he would be proud and supportive of the fact that I was doing a new Jewish activity. His response caught me off guard.

“You need to tell the rabbi that you are adopted. Since your biological mother may not have been Jewish, you might not be Jewish according to Jewish law, and that can be a big problem for the bride and groom.”

I was being questioned – no, accused! – that I wasn’t even Jewish. A mixture of anger, indignation and anxiety surged through me.

I was stunned. At times my adoption had crept into the back of my mind when learning about Judaism, but I hadn’t thought much about it. Now I was being questioned – no, accused! – that I wasn’t even Jewish. A mixture of anger, indignation and anxiety surged through me.

What hypocrisy, I thought. These guests who were more “Jewish” than me were slugging down bacon cheeseburgers and I was the one whose Jewishness was called into question? I was the one who kept Shabbat and kept kosher! I wore a yarmulke down the street a few minutes ago, attracting glares and stares in the name of being a proud Jew. What do you mean I may not be Jewish!

Do I Tell the Rabbi?

As I sat in turmoil, the rabbi entered the room. Shots were poured, hugs were exchanged; the big moment was here. I had to decide: would I ruin the ceremony for the non-religious Jewish couple, or would I hide my secret and possibly invalidate their legal documents? Both options were excruciating.

I decided that the rabbi had to know and make the call himself; I didn’t have the right to keep this secret from everyone. I didn’t know the implications here and I needed guidance and council. But this wasn’t so easy to get in a room full of jubilant, dancing hipsters and ecstatic parents.

As he danced with the groom-to-be and rounds of whiskey were poured, I tried to pull the rabbi aside. But every time I got close enough to get his attention, another guest pulled him away, asking him a question or thanking him for being “so great through this process.”

Before I knew it the rabbi had pulled out a kippah and put it on the groom’s head as he struggled through some Hebrew sentences and signed on the line. Then the wife to be. Then the rabbi. Everyone was snapping pictures, all laughs and smiles. Now it was my turn to sign, the last one. I looked around the room. I held my breath.

I signed.

Immediately afterwards, as another round was poured and everyone started hugging and taking pictures, I grabbed the rabbi.

“Listen, I am adopted. I was told that it can be a problem and I needed to say something to you but I couldn’t get your attention in time…”

“Uh…um…alright, it’s no problem, let’s talk after they leave.”

Soon enough the wedding party headed to dinner, the ketubah tucked menacingly into a cardboard cylinder under the arm of a guest.

Conversion? The word implied that everything I had worked so hard for was fraudulent.

I walked out with the rabbi. I explained that I didn’t want to wreck the ceremony and I was so sorry for not saying something sooner. He assured me that it wasn’t a big deal and that he’ll take care of it. “And Elliot,” he told me, putting his hand on my shoulder, “I know a guy upstate who could help you in the conversion process.”

Conversion process? I was the most Jewish one there! The most Jewish one on the whole block (besides my bearded rabbi)! Conversion? The word implied that everything I had worked so hard for was fraudulent.

I wanted to take the kippah off my head and throw it into the gutter. I wanted to order a bacon cheeseburger, not only because I could but because I should, just to show everyone that I didn’t count in the minyan. I seethed inside. But I politely told the rabbi that I would have to get back to him.

“Have a good Shabbos!” he said.

“You too.”

We parted ways. I left the kippah on. I slowly walked back to my apartment, head down. I was heading to Brooklyn in an hour for a Shabbat dinner with my cousins. I was going to walk back after sunset, two miles without a subway. Now I didn’t know if I should even bother.

A block from my apartment, I heard a voice.

“Shabbat shalom! Excuse me, Shabbat shalom!”

I looked up. Two girls in long skirts holding bags of food were standing in front of me.

“We baked an extra challah for Shabbat that we can’t use. We saw that you were Jewish; could you eat it for Shabbat tonight? It’s kosher, we promise!”

I didn’t know what to say. I tried to smile but I almost cried. I just looked at them in bewilderment and slowly accepted, explaining that I was heading to Brooklyn for a family meal and we would love to have another challah. We wished each other “Good Shabbos" and went our separate ways.

I looked down at the challah, still warm and dusted in cinnamon and sugar. I knew what I was going to do. This was just one more difficult hurdle to jump over, and somehow I would manage.

My Parents

One of the hardest parts of the conversion process was explaining it to my parents. They had always provided me with a Jewish education – Hebrew school every Sunday until I was a senior in High School. They had always stressed learning about the Holocaust. My mom even crafted a clever policy: she’d give me $20 per date if the girl happened to be Jewish (which I forewent when I started dating Jen).

My parents had always been very supportive and respectful of me exploring my Judaism. They would ask genuine questions about why I might take on a certain Jewish law like washing my hands before eating bread or saying the prayers afterwards. I would always try to answer with as much clarity as possible, explaining it to them and reinforcing what I was doing to myself. It was a healthy process and my Jewish growth wasn’t creating a wedge between us.

If my biological mother was Jewish, I was Jewish. If my biological father was Jewish, I was a gentile.

I researched the implications. If indeed I was not Jewish according to traditional Jewish law, my marriage to a Jewish woman would be invalid. In fact, in the State of Israel, based on my current status I was not eligible for marriage there. I would not be obligated in the 613 mitzvot, including Shabbat and kosher, things that I enjoyed and took serious effort to observe.

I even took a DNA test that indicated I was “43% Jewish,” which I understood to mean that in all likelihood one of my biological parents was Jewish. This made things even more confusing. According to the Torah, one’s Jewishness goes by the lineage of the mother only. If my biological mother was Jewish, I was Jewish. If my biological father was Jewish, I was a gentile.

I did not want to live with a cloud of doubt hovering over me. I wanted to be positive that I was Jewish according to all streams of Judaism, if not for myself then for my future wife and kids. I started cautiously investigating, asking my parents about the circumstances of my adoption and if they had any ideas if my biological parents were Jewish.

But casting doubt on my very Jewishness was an issue not just for me but for my parents as well. They provided me with a conversion in a mikveh with a conservative rabbi when I was a baby and a bris milah. I’m sure lurking in their minds, just as it had in mine, was the question: “What, that’s not Jewish enough?”

My parents didn’t fully understand what I was doing, but they were supportive. They knew that there was a good chance that this issue would eventually come up. They had always taken care of me exceedingly well, emotionally and physically, but this was a spiritual need that was out of their control. For once, they weren’t able to give me everything that I needed.

I had two options at this point: seek out my biological parents for the sole reason of determining my status as a Jew, which would put my loving parents through untold trauma. Or go through the conversion process and remove all doubt. The answer was clear. I was not going to put my parents through such pain.

Adopting Judaism

In the end, the conversion process was a blessing in disguise. Dabbling in my newfound Judaism had been a slow and at times distressing experience. I feared my non-Jewish friends wouldn’t understand, and my non-religious Jewish friends would resent me. I had been living a life of closet mitzvot. Now all of the baby steps that I was taking, many that I was concealing from friends and family, were leading to a swan dive into a new life.

I had been turning my phone off on Friday and back on Saturday, simply not responding to friends who wanted to hang out. I would say that I had plans and couldn’t go to the steakhouse, or in a pinch order vegan at restaurants, explaining that I was trying to be healthier when really I just wanted to be kosher.

Now there was no more hiding. It was out on the table.

“I am going through a conversion process because of my adoption. I am keeping Shabbat and kosher now, so don’t be surprised if I can’t go to the movies this weekend or eat at Josh’s birthday dinner.”

At first my friends were somewhat skeptical, but they quickly saw that I was serious and that my personality remained essentially the same. My weekends were completely different and I probably seemed a little more pensive and serious in conversation, but I was the same Elliott. My friends even started texting me any time they completed any type of mitzvah, just like I had done to my Orthodox friends.

I joined a congregation in my neighborhood with a fantastic, supportive rabbi who helped guide me through everything. A handful of other congregants divulged that they or their spouse was a convert. It was normal, and it was actually respected.

I was no longer hiding. The terrifying decision to take on the conversion process led to a beautiful sequence of honestly and learning.

Dunking in the mikveh and dancing with the rabbis of the Beis Din (Jewish court) after completing my conversion was the most soul-elevating experience of my life. I completed my nearly year-long conversion process on a Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat, and the next morning I was called to the Torah for my first aliyah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, whose books were instrumental in my journey, was a guest speaker at my shul that Shabbat. Right after my aliyah, my rabbi, Rabbi Sacks and the men in my usual morning minyan got up, sang and danced with me around the bimah. The joy we shared was indescribable. It was the joy of coming home.

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