I’m not sure how many of you watch those genealogy shows on TV – you know the ones I mean, the shows that follow celebrities about as they wander Europe discovering that they’re descended from royal families and villains. Well, I’d always watched those shows with a degree of fascination and envy. There have always been massive gaps in our family history. My mother was adopted, and my paternal grandfather abandoned my father and his mother when he was still just a baby. So I spent years wondering about all the crazy people I could be related to. In a way, I suppose we look to those that have gone before us for guidance. The apple never falls far from the tree (as the saying goes), and I guess it can be useful to know what variety of apple you are before running off and preparing dessert.
Anyway, after years of not knowing anything about my mother’s family, we finally discovered that we’re the type of apple you get in lokshen. (See? The apple analogy was totally going somewhere! It surprised even me, to be honest.)
At least, we’re probably the sort of apple you get in a tasty Jewish dessert. We definitely have Hebrew blood. At the very least, we’re kosher apple pie. My mother is quite happy at being apple pie. I, on the other hand, would quite like to be a lokshen-grade apple. I’ve always been spiritual, and I’ve developed a pretty good relationship with G_d (we talk regularly, and I don’t sulk with him as much as I used to). I also love Judaism. I read my Torah portion every week, and honestly, I think I’d cry if a rabbi told me to go back to being apple pie.
So in order to discover the extent of our Jewishness and to learn a little more about my maternal family heritage, I wrote to a rabbi at one of Birmingham’s synagogues (this was back in December 2011). I explained my mother’s adoption story, the information we’d uncovered regarding our Jewishness, and then asked if I could visit the synagogue and perhaps sit in on a service. The rabbi wrote back and was quite lovely. He said he was touched to read my family’s story, and said that we could join in with the shul’s activities once we’d shown him the documentation that proved we were Jewish.
…And there’s my stumbling block. ‘All you have to do is prove you’re Jewish’. For someone as neurotic and as anally retentive as me, this was (and still is) a nightmare. But I still want to visit the shul, and to be honest, I think I need the rabbi’s validation. It would be nice to sit down and hear a rabbi say, “Emma, you’re a big Jew.” It would overcome all doubt and would also give my mother and I a connection to something beyond ourselves. We’ve both always felt like outsiders for one reason or another, and so to belong to something that we both feel an affinity for would be amazing!
This led me to discover just how strict people can be about the idea of Jewish identity. You can’t marry in Israel unless you can produce really watertight documentation to demonstrate that you , your mother and your mother’s mother were all Jewish. They want ketubah and bar mitzvah documents and all sorts! If you want to live in Israel, then you can’t have a great-great-great-grandmother that converted to Judaism. (I read somewhere that they’re even conducting DNA tests now, but this might just be an Internet concocted work of fiction…) I have no ketubah and no bar mitzvah documents. Nothing. Until a few years ago, my mother didn’t even have a photograph of her own mother! I’m sure you can imagine the quiet (yet messy) little melt-down I had upon reading all of this. But then I reasoned that I don’t really want to move to Israel (I’m perfectly adapted to British weather – cold, wet and windy), and my partner isn’t Jewish anyway, so why marry in Israel? Keep calm and carry on, Emma.
So I then wondered what kind of proof a rabbi would actually want. I mean, I’ve found enough to satisfy myself that I’m pretty Jewish, and I can be seriously difficult to convince! But I’m not a rabbi. I don’t know what the criteria are. I did find an encouraging piece online that was written by a Jewish lady who was in a very similar situation to my own. But then she didn’t list the type of documentation she had in her possession. Perhaps she had more than me. Perhaps her mother’s mother’s maiden name was Cohen – that would have been just too convenient, wouldn’t it?! I fantasised about finding a Cohen or a Levy whilst researching my family tree. But no. All the women in my family are awkward! (Which I like, to be honest! We’re awkward, which in my world is synonymous with ‘interesting’.)
So basically, I would be happy to put myself into a tasty Jewish dessert, but would the rabbi agree? I’m writing this in a pretty light-hearted way, but this has become extremely important to me. I’ve now collated all the information I could unearth. I’ve explored every familial avenue I could find, and it keeps coming back Hebrew (to me at least).
For instance, I’ve found that three generations of my family lived in the Jewish Quarter of Birmingham during the Victorian era. (Some of them were also there back in the Georgian era.) There was my great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother, along with their husbands and in-laws. All the family names I’ve found have strong Jewish connections, and I also discovered that before moving to Birmingham, the various branches of the family all orbited a place called Stroud in Gloucestershire. (Stroud once had a thriving Jewish community, and even possessed a synagogue and Jewish cemetery.) I even found DNA projects for my grandmother’s and great-great-grandmother’s families. The results from both revealed the primary haplotype to be J2, which places them in the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent regions. They both also possessed the J1 haplotype to a lesser extent, and that places both branches in Torah Country. The documentation I’d previously uncovered revealed that both families have Sephardic roots, and the DNA results would seem to confirm it! So I suppose it’s all looking good!
But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch!) During my genealogical adventures, I’ve also learned how wildly protective some Jewish communities can be of their cultural heritage, to some I guess it might even seem elitist. I can understand why this is, of course I can. The Jewish people have been scattered across the world, enslaved, and persecuted time and again. The only way for a people to survive that kind of hardship and maintain a cohesive culture is by adhering closely to its traditions and precepts – to be protective of it. However, it can be very daunting and hard for those trying to find a way in – or back in. If I don’t meet the rabbi’s prerequisite level of Jewishness, then I have to go back to being kosher apple pie, which would frankly break my little heart.
Still, I’ve started on this journey now and I’m quite determined to finish it. I emailed the rabbi’s PA on Sunday (yes, the rabbi has a PA) and asked for an appointment. Which is what he asked me to do back in December. So very soon, the verdict should be in! (Next Tuesday at 11am, to be precise.) The question is, is Emma Jewish enough to call herself a Jew?
20th February 2012
(You want to know the really scary thing? …I haven’t even learned anything about my paternal grandfather’s family yet! Can you imagine…)