Friday, 1 June 2007

Turning out to be Jewish - what is it like to find out that you're not what you think you were?

Today I have an article in the Jewish Chronicle.
Here it is....

Roderick Young was 23 when he found out that he was Jewish. It completely changed his life.
“I knew I was home”, he says of his first Friday night dinner. “It felt completely comfortable and right. I can’t say more than that. You can’t explain the inexplicable.”
Young, now 47, had no idea of his Jewish roots. He was christened at three weeks old and attended chapel twice a week at his public school. But discovering his Jewishness was a clearly an enriching experience. Eight years ago, he became a rabbi.
Barbara Kessel is the author of Suddenly Jewish, a book which tells the stories of Jews raised as gentiles, who discover their roots. She was prompted to write it by the experience of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who found out she was Jewish at the age of 59.
“I was so shocked and intrigued,” says Kessel. “I just wondered what it was like to find out that you’re not who you think you are.”
Kessel says that Young’s response, of feeling comfortable or “home”, is common. “It isn’t so much that they found out they were Jewish, but that they had been given an explanation of why they didn’t feel whole,” she says. “Some had even converted to Judaism before finding out.”
Rabbi Young’s Jewishness was hidden away from him on purpose (even his name was his mother’s attempt to situate him firmly in “English” society). His grandmother had been embarrassed by her East-End Jewish roots, and, when her observant husband died, decided to cover them up completely. Young even grew up thinking that his grandmother, Julia Stewart, was descended from King Charles II, Charles Stuart. It was not until he found her wedding certificate that he discovered she was actually named Julia Siegenberg.
“Being Jewish was often seen as something that could hinder your professional advancement, so it would get lost along the way,” says Barbara Kessel. Often it was also seen as dangerous.
That is certainly true of Zoltan Boros’s family, who turned their back on their religion after the horrors of the Second World War. Boros, 30, (who works as a security guard at a Jewish school in London) grew up Christian in a small town in Hungary. He knew little about the Holocaust, and nothing at all about Jews. But after the collapse of Communism, he started to travel, and at the age of 20 went to Israel. “I loved it there,” he says. “I loved the people, the weather, the fact that everyone was smiling, not like at home.”
Keen to stay in the country, Boros asked his mother if there might just be some Jewish connection in the family. This, he thought, could enable him to make aliyah. “My mother told me, over the phone, that when I came home, we would talk,” he says. “I felt there was something she was going to tell me.”
When Boros came home, his mother told him the truth — at least as far as she knew it. “She said that our family was Jewish, that we originally had a different name, and that my great-grandmother, who was no longer alive, had been in Auschwitz. She also said that her mother, my grandma, didn’t like to talk about it, so I should leave her alone.” However, Boros immediately went to his grandmother. “I asked if she could tell me more, but she didn’t want to,” he says. “She was still scared, and said she didn’t want me to be Jewish. She has numbers on her arm, and perhaps they are from Auschwitz. I would like to know more, but she’s the only one who knows.”
Boros’s grandmother told him nothing, instead asking him to do something for her. “She asked me not to do aliyah and I promised her I wouldn’t,” he says. “I love and respect her.
“I don’t feel I am Jewish or Christian. For the last 10 years I’ve been around Jewish people, here and in Israel, so maybe in some way I’m Jewish. But I can’t say I feel it. I know who I am, but if I look back at the past, then I’m not so sure.”
Boros’s experience is not entirely unusual. Some of the people in Suddenly Jewish talk about feeling “nothing”, even though they accept that they are “biologically Jewish”. Many also find it hard to deal with the deception involved.
“It seems so hypocritical that their parents — the people who are supposed to teach you right from wrong — have lied and manipulated reality,” says Barbara Kessel. “Sometimes, it’s the actual revelation that’s extremely painful. One man was training in a Lutheran seminary. The day his mother told him, he was livid. He told her it had ruined his life, and that he never wanted to speak to her again. They have not spoken since.”
When Roderick Young’s elderly aunt told him that she and his mother had been born Jewish, his immediate reaction was anger. “I said I was never going to speak to my mother again and it took me a long time to understand,” he says. “I certainly felt I’d missed out on things, and that I should have been told.”
American journalist Stephen Dubner had been told, but did not understand. The best-selling author (he co-wrote Freakonomics) was the eighth child born to religious Catholic parents. But his parents had not hidden their Jewishness because of fear of persecution. Instead they had both, separately, converted. “I didn’t know what a Jew was when I was growing up,” says Dubner, 43. “Even though I knew on some level that my parents had once been Jewish, I didn’t connect that with me.”
It was not until Dubner moved to New York that he became more interested in Judaism. He was 23 when a friend told him that if his parents were Jewish, then he was too. “When I learned that I was halachically Jewish, that was very jarring to me,” he says. “It made me think, what kind of religion would claim me as a member even though I had never set foot in a synagogue or uttered a word of Hebrew? I didn’t think I was Jewish at all until then — I was a contentedly lapsed Catholic. But the curiosity made me want to be Jewish, and so did the move to New York, where being Jewish is a state of mind.”
Dubner — whose sisters and brothers remain Catholic — has made his Jewishness a major part of his life. His wife is Jewish, and they are bringing up their two children as practising Jews. But his relationship with his mother did suffer — although the pair were reunited before her death in 1999. “She saw my decision as a kind of na├»ve one, and a rejection of her faith,” he says. “She also saw a problem that when she died and was sent to heaven, it would be a heaven for Catholics, and forbidden for us ever to reunite. As a mother, that was a very painful thought.”
Dubner sat shivah when his mother died, and seems happy with his new faith, but it is Roderick Young — now principal rabbi at Finchley Reform Synagogue in London — whose life has changed beyond recognition. “Ma used to be worried about what I wanted to do with my life and I told her that when it happened, I would know. Well, it happened and I love it. I feel 125 per cent Jewish.”


The first female American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is one of the most high-profile adults to suddenly discover that she was Jewish. Born in Czechoslovakia to a Catholic family, she left as a child in 1939, coming first to Britain and then to the US. As an adult, she became an Episcopalian. However, in 1997, Albright discovered that she had had three Jewish grandparents (they died in Auschwitz). Her parents had converted to Catholicism. “All this was a major surprise for me,” Albright said. “I have said many times my life was a reflection of the turbulence of the 20th century.”
Oscar-nominated film-maker Stephen Frears did not find out he was Jewish until his late twenties — and is not sure why the fact was hidden from him. The director of The Queen has described how he regularly attended Church of England services when he grew up in Leicester. It was not until his grandmother’s 90th birthday party, that his brother divulged the news.
“He said how pleased our grandmother was that I had married a Jewish girl — and that our mother was Jewish. Of course I was surprised that something like this had been concealed for so long.”
Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, whose original name was Tomas Straussler, always knew there was Jewish blood in his family. But it was not until he was an adult that he discovered both of his parents were Jewish. Sir Tom’s father died when he was still a young child. After his Czech mother remarried the very English Kenneth Stoppard, she was keen to hide her Jewish origins. “It was protection for me, mainly,” Stoppard has said, adding that he does not consider himself Jewish or Christian. However, in an article published in 1999, “On Turning Out To be Jewish” he wrote about his state of mind “now that I’m Jewish”.

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