Matrilineal descent and the struggle for Jewish Identity
An American Contrarian View
By Jerry Klinger
“In the entire lexicon of human language, no one has ever invented a single word, no not even a word, a sound, that better conveys the complexity, pathos, frustration, exasperation, incredulity and range of human experience than, OY!
At least that much we Jews can agree on that ….that is, I hope we can.”
- William Rabinowitz
It has been more than forty years since I walked down that road in Kibbutz Shaar Ha’amakim with David. We had just come in from rounding up chickens in the chicken house. I am an American Jew and David was a Jew from Cochin, India. I am a white Ashkenazi Jew. My mother had been a blond, blue eyed Polish Jewess whose racial characteristics helped her survive the Holocaust. David was short, very dark skinned, eyes and hair as black as coal. Looking at us both, any casual observer would immediately, intuitively, recognize there was nothing of DNA in common between us. Yet, there was. David’s blood was as Jewishly red as mine.
Traditionally, Jewish identity, that is blood affinity, is linked through the mother to child. The fact that a mother is Jewish makes her child Jewish. If a child’s father is Jewish and the mother is not, the child is not Jewish according to contemporary religious definitions. It does not matter how Jewishly the child is raised, or how Jewishly observant the child becomes.
So, let me get this correct. If a child is born of a Jewish mother and that child is a female, even though that child is raised as a Muslim that still makes the child Jewish – right. But what if that female child, born of a mother, whose antecedents were all females going ten generations back traces their line to a Jewish mother, even if they were raised in another religion because they did not know they were Jewish? Sounds like a case for the Israeli Supreme Court, a Beit Din (rabbinical court), a Sanhedrin (high rabbinical court from the time of the Mishna) and then it will pose a headache for the Messiah.
Elvis Presley was Jewish. The King of Rock and Roll was Jewish. I am not kidding.
Elvis was raised as a Christian. His family line were Christians for generations, but he was a Jew. His mother Gladys was the last female child born of a long line of females that descended from a Jewish woman – Nancy Burdine. This is no joke. Seriously, Elvis Presley was the first male child born to that family tree. He knew of his Jewish antecedents and was proud of his heritage. The last year of his life he always wore a Chai about his neck. When his mother died, he had a Cross carved on her gravestone and a Star of David. Does that make Elvis Jewish?
Elvis’ Jewish roots will have to wait for another time.
There is no point in being distracted. Matrilineal descent is a serious issue. The arguments go to the very meaning of who or what is a Jew. Are we a people, a religion, a culture, a national entity, a combination of the above or an artificial construct of Europeans from the Steps of Asia as the Palestinian Authority asserts.
The argument for matrilineal descent is one we have all grown up with. It was part of our mother’s milk. You always know who the mother was even if you are not sure who the father was. I remember being taught that the Roman soldiers had a thing for Jewish girls. It was always open season on Jewish women. The men could be pushed aside or killed but the women….. So I was taught that you always knew who the mother was but the father? The Romans are long gone. I trust we are not maintaining the argument to disparage the gentler sex or to maintain control over them.
There are many Halachic arguments that are made for matrilineal transmission of Jewish identity. Muslim identity is transmitted through the father and the registration of the child. Christian religious identity is transmitted through Baptism of the child and or either of the parents. National identity today is simply where were you born. Being born in Israel makes one an Israeli not a Jew. Being born in America makes you an American not a Jew. To be a Jew in America you have to choose. If you do not choose to be a Jew, you will be lost to the Jewish people very easily and quickly. There are no consequences.
Anathema – choose to be a Jew if your mother was a Jew. Yes, choose to be a Jew. America is a complex mix of Jewish identities. Some of us are observant, orthodox, even Haredi level Jews. Some of us are modern Orthodox. Some of us are Conservative. Some of us are Reform. Some of us are Reconstructionists, some are Ethical Jews, some are cultural Jews and some are gastronomic Jews. Some of us are self denying Jews, self hating Jews and even professional Jews. The professionals are the ones who make a living off of being Jewish by telling the rest of us how to be Jews – they usually run the institutions – sane and otherwise.
The schism in American Jewish life over identity is very real. Orthodox Jews are reticent of having their children intermarry with anyone less than another Orthodox Jew. Non-Orthodox Jewish rabbinical ordination is less than credit worthy in the eyes of the Orthodox. American Jews divorce about the same rate as do the general American population – nearly 50%. Most American Jews tend to remarry. Some remarry Jews. Have they all obtained an Orthodox recognized get (divorce document)? Many have not. If they do receive a get, it may be Halachically constructed but granted by a non Orthodox Jewish court. The Orthodox do not recognize the get as legal. The children born of that remarried union are mamzerim- pariahs –unclean for ten generations to Orthodox families.
Conversions handled by non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by the Orthodox even if the convert followed the Halachic requirements stringently. Even if they convert out of sincerity, live their lives Jewishly, maintain a kosher home, been to the Beit Din, Mikveh, the Orthodox world does not recognize them as being Jewish. It is only if they have been to a Beit Din, Mikveh and were converted by an Israeli recognized orthodox Rabbi is the stain of question removed. In the U.S. there are various ultra –Orthodox groups, primarily centered in New York and Los Angeles, who will not recognize the conversion, marriage or the rulings on divorce, etc. if issued by a Rabbi other than their own. They tend to marry only from within their own community of ultra-Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Jews require a family tree. Even Conservative Rabbis require a couple to demonstrate a family tree of Jewish identity. With conservatives the test and depth of the investigation is more modest - they have not progressed to demanding DNA tests. As a side note – if we did demand DNA testing for Jewishness – should not the Lemba, the Black African tribe of Southern Africa who claim Jewish identity be accepted as Jews? They have a particular genetic marker that ties them to a Semitic origin. They are monotheists. They hold one day a week as a sacred day of rest. They believe themselves to be a chosen people and that God, whom they call Nwali, is looking after them. They teach their children to honor and respect their mothers and fathers, not to eat Pork, or combinations of forbidden food. Their form of animal slaughter is similar to Jewish schechita. They practice male circumcision and prohibit any Lemba from marrying a non-Lemba.
In contemporary terms, the Lemba do not eat food prohibited by the Torah and place a Star of David on their graves.
Does this make them Jewish? So far the answer has been no by the various boards of Rabbis in Israel the U.S. and elsewhere.
Conservative Jews generally, but it is changing, only recognize matrilineal descent as to Jewish identity. Today, the Conservative movement in America is weakening. Its membership is declining sharply. They are looking for ways to be more inclusive of all American lifestyles. The reality of American life means simply that more and more Jews are intermarrying. The estimate is now north of 50% - and that is conservative.
How to be a Conservative Jew when one parent is Jewish and the other is not? If the mother is Jewish the problem is much simpler. The father and his family is generally excluded from participating in religious life events. Most Conservative synagogues will permit a non-Jewish spouse to stand on the Bemah and read a non-sectarian prayer or statement. The traditional presentation of the Talis is done by the Jewish parent. If the non-Jewish mother agrees to raise their child as a Jew, most Conservative Rabbis insist on some sort of mikveh or even more frightening to a thirteen year old boy – circumcision. Try and explain that to a young boy just entering puberty and awareness that you want him to do what to what! That is a tough argument to make. Skip the eight day stuff, consider it from the vantage of a 13 year old!
The Conservative movement is starting to blink over Jewish identity. The words inclusive, caring, welcoming are cover terms for the blink over how deep does one go to search for Jewish roots. If the father is Jewish and the mother is not willing to convert, even symbolically, then what? Many Conservative Jewish schools permit the child of Patrilineal homes to attend their Hebrew schools. They permit them to join as normal Jewish kids in their synagogue youth programs such as Kadimah, and USY. The children grow up. They make their friends, with the other Jewish kids in the synagogue, who see them as Jews. Then the tribulation and trauma of the Bar/Bat-Mitzvah occurs. Even if the strict rule of no matrilineal descent no Jewish identity is followed in the Conservative schul, the alter-reality has been planted. The other Jewish children have grown up with young “Franklin” knowing him only as a Jew and a good kid. They will grow up someday and marry and lead their own synagogues. What are the odds that they will not see “Franklin” as having been an unfairly treated Jew and accept him and his children as equals?
Arguments that that Rabbis will never bend to popular culture abound. The reality of American Jewish life is just the opposite. The American Conservative movement accepts females as Rabbis. The Orthodox do not. The American Conservative movement is struggling with the issue of homosexuality and the Rabbinate. It has barely been defeated again. Egalitarianism, women being called to the Torah, counted in minyans as equals to men, are now old line accepted norms.
American Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism and most Jews outside of the American Orthodox world, meaning the vast majority of American Jews, are deeply offended by Israeli Orthodox Religious Statism. The American Constitution has formed an iron wall against State religious rule. Israel has no Constitutional protection separating Church and State. To most American Jews, Israeli Rabbinic control over the home and personal lives of Jews is a mess of contradictions and dangerous archaisms. American Jews do not understand the need or understand the desire for Rabbinic control over issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion, Jewish identity and even whose Kosher certification is Kosher.
The largest American wing of Jewish life is the American Jewish Reform movement. It is aggressively growing in America. It is significantly larger than the Conservative American Jewish movement and massively larger than the Orthodox. It is also the most bending, or blinking, or inclusive of the all three mainstream American Jewish movements.
The American Reform Movement accepts either matrilineal or patrilineal descent as legitimate grounds for Jewish identity. The children grow up in Reform Temples identifying themselves as Jewish. Conservative Jewish youth rarely make any distinction in the Jewishness of Reform children. They are Jews.
A marriage, divorce or get from a Reform Rabbi generally works pretty well in a Conservative situation and vice versa.
Some sage Jewish professor of American Jewish history will take umbrage with this article. They will pontificate that what is being said is an exaggeration, a misrepresentation of American Jewish history. Actually it is they who do not know the American Jewish story of integration, assimilation and intermarriage. It is a product of the frontier experience.
A few short stories from the history records of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation will help illustrate. Whenever a project is completed in a state or community, research is done on the community and its origins. The American experience and the American Jewish experience is very similar. It is one of expansion to the West in search of freedom and opportunity.
Most American Jewish youth are educated that great, great Uncle Mendel came over from Russia. He carried a peckele (sack or package), or perhaps a huge peckele, of dry goods on his back and wandered the country roads as a salesman. Eventually, he made enough money to buy a horse, sent for great, great, Aunt Bertha from the old country to come over and settled down in a small town store as the Jewish local merchant. They raised their six children to be good Jews. The children moved away from the small town to the big city and now only one from that family line still calls themselves Jewish though they all know there were Jewish lines in their families.
There is another story, much closer to reality:
Solomon Bibo of Acoma, New Mexico married Juanna an Acoma Indian. Their son Leroy was bar-mitzvahed in the Bush Street synagogue in San Francisco in the late 1880’s before being sent to Acoma for the Indian ritual of manhood. In Salt Lake City, Utah, there are documented cases of Mormon girls converting to Judaism and raising their families as Jewish. Cases of intermarriage are common throughout the American West. It does not follow the apologist’s arguments that all the intermarriages were losses to Judaism and American Jewish identity. The synagogue in Cheyenne, Wyoming is alive and well because of a Jew of mixed parentage. The synagogue in Reno, Nevada was run for many years by a converted Jew. One of the past presidents of my own synagogue in Maryland was a Conservatively converted woman. The stories abound.
There were very few mikvahs. There were no Beit Dins for the frontier conversions. There was simple acceptance and forgetfulness. They stood before God at a local creek and declared their intent to be Jewish and some of them did. Their families lived as Jews and they live amongst the American communities today as Jews without any knowledge of their antecedent’s credentials or their less than Jewish 100% matrilineal descent.
Of the six million Jews in America who identify themselves as Jewish, even if only from a gastronomic level of bagels, lox and cream cheese on Sunday brunch, about 85%+ are not orthodox. The mathematics is very simple. Jewish identity and who is a Jew, will, within a single generation under Israeli Religious Statism exclude almost all of American Diaspora Jewry. It will be done by Israeli Orthodox decree. The future support for Israel is weakening amongst contemporary American Jews. A loss to the Jewish world, of a magnitude even greater than the Holocaust is possible, if Israeli Orthodox Religious leadership desire to go it alone.
Should it matter? Consider other traumatic cases of Jewish identity that the Israeli Rabbinate has fought bitterly over. The most blatant case was the refusal to recognize the Ethiopian Jews as Jews. It was only after a bitter struggle that threatened to rip Israel apart that a compromise was arranged. The perception from the American liberal Jewish establishment was that the only reason that the Ethiopians were not accepted was because they were not Ashkenazic and white.
The Russian Jewish immigration is another recent example of common sense, observation and the cynical interpretation of who is Jewish. Most Western minds are attuned to believe there is a Jewish face that is easily, visibly discernible. The old jokes of he looks too Jewish, or talks too Jewish are still alive and well. Many of the Russian Jews do not look Jewish. Some have a distinctly Russian round peasant look. Does that amalgamation of racial characteristics make them not Jewish. In Israel a charade similar to what the American military is practicing with homosexuals is occurring; don’t ask and don’t tell. Don’t ask and verify the Russians if they are Jewish or not. In a generation or two, who will know and who will be able to prove anything except God.
The recurring rumors about Theodor Herzl’s wife and her grandmother have ostensibly been put to rest by an investigation of the chief Rabbi of Vienna. The allegation is that Herzl’s wife was descended from a matrilineal grandmother who was a non-Jew that never converted but raised her children as Jewish. The rumor still persists.
One of the greatest non-Jewish non-converts was Ruth, the antecedent of King David. She probably never went to mikvah and for certain there was no Beit Din. She simply said she will become a Jew. She lived before the requirement of a Beit Din, her sincerity was sufficient. Today sincerity and dedication alone is not recognized by the Orthodox as being the lone criteria.
Should it matter? If the State of Israel is a theocracy then what the Knesset and the Prime Minister agree to does matter. If the State of Israel and the Jewish people are a national identity with their own special faith it does not. Only Jews seem to be obsessed with the credentials of Jewish identity. Those that wish to destroy us could care less.
Over the years of preserving and recognizing American Jewish historical legitimacy through various projects of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, I have come to know that American Jewish identity is not matrilineally kosher. American Jewry, and by extrapolation and unbiased observation of world Jewry, we are all mutts of various colors. What we all have in common has been choice. We have all chosen to be Jews.
Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation
from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine