I Want to Return To the Jewish Heritage of My Ancestors But I Don’t Know Where to Begin
Dear Jew in the City,
My great-grandparents were Jews from Kiev who emigrated to Romania before second World War. Both my grandmother and mother were secular people. I always knew about my heritage because my mother was very attached to her grand- mother and often speaks about her. Apparently, she was somewhat observant. I grew up as a secular European as well. My father with whom I lived for a few years is an Arab. The reason I’m writing to you is that some months ago I came across an article about Judaism which resonated with something inside of me. And then I became curious to read more. Since then I contemplated the idea to return to the religion of my great-grandparents but there’s still a lot of hesitation because I don’t know how I could adapt since I am very European. And I’m also thinking if my Arab heritage is going to be a problem and people are going to hate me or feel threatened by me. We have three synagogues in our city but two are closed and I don’t know about the third one. I was thinking to see a rabbi and ask his opinion but I doubt we have a rabbi in our city. Will I have to convert if I consider to return? And is the fact that my father is Arabic going to disturb people? Do you have any advice on what should I do?
Let’s get straight to the punchline: If your mother and all the mother’s before her were Jewish, then you are 100% Jewish and do not require a conversion. So, welcome home – we’re thrilled that you’re part of the Jewish people! Your story is much more common than you might realize. Not only have I personally heard many similar stories, right before I received your email, I read a vignette in a wonderful book called “Listening to God,” by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin that is extremely apropos. Rabbi Riskin meets a Russian man whose family has been away from Jewish observance for many generations, but this man, after randomly reading some verses in the Torah one day in a public library, is stirred somewhere deep inside and feels compelled to begin a journey back to the ways of his ancestors. Rabbi Riskin tells him that what he experienced is actually prophecized in the Torah! In the book 0f Deuteronomy, as Moses explains to the Israelites what their future will look like, including a destruction and exile, he makes them a promise: “When it will be difficult for you, the words of the Torah will find you…and you will return to God…because God is a God of love and compassion…and He will not forget the convenant He has made with your fathers.”
So I want you to know that you are experiencing something much bigger than yourself. Stories like yours remind me of the uniqueness of our people and the truth of our Torah. Now in terms of where to begin, you must keep in mind that every ba’al teshuva (returnee to observance) is very assimilated into the culture that they were living in before they returned to their Jewish roots. I was very American in my pre-Orthodox days, and frankly I still am! Have I been able to continue doing every last thing I did before I was religious? Or course not. But I never felt like I lost the “me” in the process. It was always about creating a better version of myself – not a different one. And that’s what I recommend that others do. Don’t worry about becoming the “typical” religious Jew. Find ways to be true to yourself and to your heritage simultaneously.
In terms of your having an Arab father, if you look very Arabic or if your last name sounds very Arabic, it might make you stand out a bit. There are Sephardic Jews – Jews who come from Middle Eastern countries – so people might assume that your looks and name are due to a Sephardic heritage and not think twice. Some people might be rude about it! Not that they’d feel threatened by you or want to offend you, but more that some might be curious as to why you look different or your name sounds different. I’ve heard from Jews over the years who look “atypical” in one way or another, and unfortunately, many have had encounters with people who are curious or ask inappropriate questions. But I’ll tell you this – although not blending in perfectly might make your journey back home a bit more challenging, it should not prevent you from reclaiming what is rightfully yours. If you did let the stupid people come between you and your heritage, well then the stupid people would win. And what is on the line here is much too important to get ruined by insensitive people. So, like I said, I don’t know if you’re being “different” will present you with any unique challenges, but even if it does, I hope that God gives you the strength to endure it as there is so much beauty and depth awaiting you.
Finding a local contact is ideal. I assume you’re still in Romania, but I don’t know where exactly. If you email me your exact location, I will find you the closest observant Jewish community in your area so that you can spend Shabbos there and experience Jewish holidays in a community. If there are no commutable religious communities, thankfully the world is a much smaller place these days than it used to be. You can easily sign up for PartnersinTorah.org where you will be matched with a free study partner who will teach you any Jewish topic of your choice over the phone up to an hour once a week.There is also a great website called Naaleh.com which offers Jewish classes online on a variety of topics. (They have a sister site NaalehCollege.com which offers Jewish classes that you can get college credit for.)
In addition to learning, another important step to take is to begin to observe some mitzvos (commandments) like trying to eat a little more kosher, by refraining from pork products or shellfish. Lighting Shabbos candles once a week (you can find the times to light for your city online) is a beautiful way to bring the light and peace of Shabbos into your life and only takes a few minutes to do. And finally, observant Jews all over the world begin their days the same exact way. Upon opening our eyes, there is a one line prayer that we say, “Mo-deh ani l’faneh-cha melech chay v’kayam, sh’he-che-zar-tah bee nish-ma-tee, b’chem-lah rabah, emuna-techa” which means, “I thank You, living, eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; abundant is Your faithfulness.” This prayer is an incredible way to begin the day. It is a reminder that God believes in you and woke you up that morning to live a purposeful existence. Please let me know if you have any more questions and I wish you much success and happiness as you embark on this exciting journey.
All the best,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)