Suddenly Jewish (Barbara Kessel)

SUDDENLY JEWISH, by Barbara Kessel
Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots

Barbara Kessel
Brandeis University Press, 2000
ISBN: 978-1584656203

Over the space of 15 months, Barbara Kessel interviewed the men and women who responded to her advertisement seeking people who had been raised non-Jews but who had discovered Jewish roots. She posted her notices in the New York Times Book Review, on adoption websites, genealogy sites, and the like. Kessel wanted to find out what happens to your sense of self when it turns out your family is not who you thought they were.

When I first spotted this title at Powells City of Books, I felt immediately rooted to the spot (no pun intended). There had been vague references to Jewish ancestry on my mother’s side of the family, but nothing that was discussed in detail. I hadn’t connected this lineage to my own interest in Judaism — reaching back to elementary school — until that very moment. Odd, but that’s just how things work sometimes.

I took a quick look at the book and flipped through its pages, but slipped it back onto the shelf. I was intrigued, but also a bit thunderstruck. I needed some time to sit with this.

Not long after, I was back at the bookstore, where I sat down and read through the introduction and chapter on Crypto Jews. I felt a rush of something — calling it ‘destiny’ sounds much too melodramatic; memory? belonging? — and I knew that the paradigm of my own self-identity was shifting, though that in and of itself is not unusual for me. Still, I put the book back on the shelf, again, and went home.

Borrowing “Suddenly Jewish” from the library felt less binding — if I didn’t buy it, I wasn’t necessarily committed to Judaism, right? It’s a rather slender volume of 127 pages, yet I took weeks to read it. The stories are riveting. Page after page of personal accounts of descendants of survivors of the Inquisition, who had converted to save their lives; of children in Europe who were hidden with Christian families to save them from the Nazis; of people whose parents survived the Holocaust and kept their Jewish heritage secret for years afterwards in an effort to forget; of Jewish-born infants adopted by Christian families, who went hunting for their birth heritage decades later.

It wasn’t long before I was digging into my own roots, tracing the family line back to Breslau (in modern-day Poland) in the late 1600s, when my ancestor, Baruch Judah, left for the American colonies. I assume he made the move to escape the Hapsburgs’ forced conversion of the region back to Catholicism. As near as I can tell, it was my maternal grandmother’s father, Horatio Sharrett — the son of a Jewish mother and a Huguenot father — who was raised in an inter-religious home, but I know nothing of his personal faith. I do know that my grandmother was a devout Christian by the time I knew her, though the cousins on my grandfather’s side always suspected her of having Jewish roots.

Where does this leave me? Excited, nervous, proud, confused, righteous, speculative…. You name it. I look back on my previous travels in the Middle East and realize I now might not be received as hospitably in some areas. In Egypt, I absolutely had to visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, though I couldn’t really explain why I was drawn there. I remember the times as a child that I knew in my heart I wasn’t a ‘real Christian,’ but didn’t dare tell anyone. In grade school, when we were being taught to be more ‘multi-cultural,’ I was the class dreidel champion and asked my mother if we could make popovers alongside the Christmas cookies.

Some branches of Judaism recognize me as a ‘reclaimed Jew,’ while others might charitably consider me just another ‘wannabe.’ But I have been making inquiries at synagogues in my area, and have been reconsidering some of the assumptions I’ve made about myself in my life. In the meantime, I’m keeping weekly shabbat with my dog and cats. The cats aren’t so much interested, but the dog has developed a taste for challah and has learned to stick close to me as soon as I start lighting candles.

When I think to myself, “I am a Jew,” I want to cry — tears of relief, of fear, of homecoming. This is far from the end of my personal spiritual journey, but I feel as though I’ve just reached into my pocket and pulled out an ancient map I didn’t know I’d been carrying with me all along.

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