Tracing Jewish Roots
How does one, who has been raised Christian, begin searching to see if his ancestors were Jewish? My family comes from Germany. My great-great-grandfathers came alone to America when they were teenagers. That's all the history we know. My father has always pointed out the fact that his mother was Jewish and he considered himself a Jew. His father was Irish who married a woman that spoke Yiddish, lit Shabbat candles and taught Torah stories.
I would like to think of myself as a born Jew, and have been tracing my mother's side of the family. I found that my grandmother and great-grandmother practiced Catholicism, but my great-great-grandmother lived in Poland. Both she and her husband have Jewish surnames but that is all I can find about them.
If I do find that my maternal line is Jewish, my question is: Would I be considered Jewish, since for three generations they were Catholic? Does Jewishness expire, or is it forever?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for sharing your story. I see that you have a deep desire to connect, and your persistence in tracking down the truth is very admirable.
First things first: According to Jewish Law, Jewishness is passed on via the mother. If the mother (i.e. the mother’s mother) is Jewish, the child is 100% Jewish. This is true regardless of who the father is, and whether he is Jewish or not. This is true even if the Jewish mother practiced another religion, since even if one converts to another religion s/he always remains a Jew. These are the unwavering rules, as observed by the Jewish people for thousands of years, and was decided by God, as recorded in the Five Books of Moses in Deut. 7:3-4. The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin, end of chapter 3) explains how this law is evident from the biblical passages.
Therefore, if your mother's mother's mother was Jewish, then you would also be considered Jewish.
However, because of the complexity of the situation, in order to be considered Jewish you will have to "prove" that your mother's mother's mother was in fact Jewish. Proof may include birth certificates, gravestones, etc. What some people do when they want to find out about their past is go to the cemetery where their ancestors are buried and read the inscriptions on the tombstones. Perhaps in Germany, a country known for its efficiency, they will have will have preserved records of your family. A good place to do Jewish genealogical research is at www.jewishgen.org.
In the absence of real proof, you would need to undergo a conversion process in order to be considered Jewish. It is essential that you clarify all this with a proper halachic authority. Otherwise, your status as a Jew will remain in doubt, and will present obstacles for you and future generations.
My suggestion at this time is to get in touch with a rabbi in your area who is well-versed in Jewish law and can guide you. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone that you could contact.