Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Happy Chanukah, Ya'll

One of the topics of conversation while my parents were visiting was around our ancestry. I recently started documenting my family tree and I had lots of questions. Eventually we stumbled upon this question: am I a Jew?

Despite growing up in South Florida, the land to which all New York and Michigan Jews emigrate, I never questioned the heritage of my Christian faith. During my college years, however, my brother and I took a cross-country trip together to move him to California. On the way, we stopped at our "Aunt" Margery's house. I put quotes around "Aunt" because she wasn't really our Aunt--actually more like a second cousin. Aunt Margery and my paternal grandmother Herma-Jean grew up together, my grandmother just a year or so
younger than Aunt Margery. The reality was that Aunt Margery was really my grandmother's niece. Aunt Margery's mother Roselle was my grandmother's sister. Got that?

So the weird thing is that my whole life I never knew of Aunt Margery. Apparently, while Aunt Margery and my grandmother were terribly close for much of their lives, there was a rift before I was born and my grandmother never spoke of Aunt Margery--that is until they reconciled years later. Imagine my surprise when I walked into Aunt Margery's kitchen to find her eating gefilte fish right out of the jar. "Gross, you eat that stuff?!" I half-asked, half-exclaimed. "Of course I do," she said. "I'm Jewish!"


I asked my grandmother about all of this when I got home and she spun a story to the effect that it was her father that was Jewish and you are only considered a Jew if your mother was Jewish. She said that Aunt Margery was raised Jewish by her own father, who was a Jew. I didn't completely buy that story, but it was clear I wasn't going to get a different answer from her so I relented. The question always nagged, though.

Traditional Jewish law describes a Jew as anyone born to a Jewish mother. If Margery's mother, my grandmother's sister, was a Jew, then my grandmother was too. If my paternal grandmother was a Jew, my father is, technically, a Jew. Reform Judaism states that anyone born to a Jewish mother or Jewish father is a Jew and that "once a Jew always a Jew". Do you see where I am going here? By these tenets, I am a Jew.

When the topic came up with my father, he told me that his mother
was Jewish, and that when he was a boy, his parents tried to send him to Hebrew school but he hated it so much that he would skip the bus or refuse to go. I guess his parents eventually gave up. I never knew my "real" paternal (and Jewish) grandfather. My grandmother remarried before I was born and the only paternal grandfather I ever knew was Swedish and decidedly not Jewish.

Okay, I guess the Hebrew school card settles it. How much more Jewish can you get? I am not sure how I feel about all of this information or what, if anything, it means. I am not planning to light a menorah this year, in case you are wondering. My biggest question is why my grandmother felt the need to hide this piece of my heritage. She could celebrate Christmas like a champ, but looking back, I guess I feel a little bit robbed.

Despite my mixed feelings, I pulled this little gem out of the archives because it makes me laugh (click the play button in the image):


Anonymous said...

welcome to the "I'm kinda jewish" club.

jer said...

oy vay!!

does this mean you're going to start talking like you're from the bronx?

Liz said...

How cool for you to uncover a piece of heritage so accidentally.

And I wouldn't doubt there are lots more folks you know with "hidden" heritage.