American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 158-160
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Who am I? For most, the basics of gender, race, and nationality provide the foundation for an unquestioned collective identity. Barbara Kessel wanted to know what happens if you learn that "you are not who you thought you were? Must you start recreating your self-image? What makes you who you are, your gene pool or your environment?" (p. 6). More specifically, how do you react if you grow up as a gentile, a practicing Christian even, and as an adult learn that you are a Jew?
This is what happened to the 166 people interviewed by Ms. Kessel. She groups her informants into four categories: Crypto-Jews, children hidden during the Holocaust, children of survivors, and children who were adopted. Without exception, their stories are compelling and riveting.
Many had experienced an inexplicable connection to Jews and Judaism and on learning that they were, indeed, Jewish, their lives made sense for the first time. "It was as though I had suddenly found some deeply buried home," one said (p. 15). However, Ms. Kessel finds it odd that almost one-fourth (fourteen) of the people she interviewed "felt so strong a pull that they converted before they found out they had Jewish lineage. What is that all about?" (p. 15, italics in original). Ms. Kessel's [End Page 158] bewilderment is also the primary flaw of the book. Although born Jewish, she seems unaware that many who convert discover afterwards that they had Jewish ancestry. The Kabbalah speaks of the gilgul, the soul of a Jew that did not live as a Jew. That soul is reincarnated in the soul of a gentile child several generations later. If Ms. Kessel had been more knowledgeable, she could have placed these informants in the context of Jewish experience instead of being bewildered by them.
This experience of recognition was not common to everyone she interviewed. For some, learning they were Jewish meant little or nothing. Some raised as Christian remained Christian. But more than one-third of her informants requested anonymity. Some didn't want to be identified as Jews because of "family members who do not want to be known as Jewish. Many have family members who do not know they are Jewish," and "four who have not resolved their own feelings about this unsettling development retracted their statements" (p. 11).
Ms. Kessel describes herself as "someone who was born into a very Jewish household," and her objective in writing Suddenly Jewish was "a driving curiosity about what it is like suddenly to find out you are of Jewish descent . . . what it is like to turn a corner and--boom!--come face to face with a wall of Jewishness. The wall is high, and many people were overwhelmed" (p. 126).
To describe Jewishness as a wall whose height is overwhelming is an odd choice of metaphor because it does an injustice to the experiences of Ms. Kessel's informants. For most of them, finding out they were Jewish helped them make sense of their lives for the first time.
Many of us who come to Judaism from the outside find the experience is more one of gazing up at a Mt. Everest, overwhelmed with awe by its majesty and beauty but eager to begin the climb. Ms. Kessel does not understand. "When I think seriously about how I would feel if I were to find out I am not Jewish, I envision being devastated . . . .To find out this was not my genuine legacy would be an unspeakable trauma" (pp. 125, 126).
But why would such information be devastating and traumatic? If Ms. Kessel had been raised believing she was genetically Jewish and later found out that was not so, she could study for conversion, appear before a beth din, immerse in the mikvah, and, voilà, she would be a Jew. But this would not be sufficient...