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Suddenly Jewish

Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots

Barbara Kessel

Publication Year: 2012

One woman learned on the eve of her Roman Catholic wedding. One man as he was studying for the priesthood. Madeleine Albright famously learned from the Washington Post when she was named Secretary of State.

"What is it like to find out you are not who you thought you were?" asks Barbara Kessel in this compelling volume, based on interviews with over 160 people who were raised as non-Jews only to learn at some point in their lives that they are of Jewish descent. With humor, candor, and deep emotion, Kessel's subjects discuss the emotional upheaval of refashioning their self-image and, for many, coming to terms with deliberate deception on the part of parents and family. Responses to the discovery of a Jewish heritage ranged from outright rejection to wholehearted embrace.

For many, Kessel reports, the discovery of Jewish roots confirmed long-held suspicions or even, more mysteriously, conformed to a long-felt attraction toward Judaism. For some crypto-Jews in the southwest United States (descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition), the only clues to their heritage are certain practices and traditions handed down through the generations, whose significance may be long since lost. In Poland and other parts of eastern Europe, many Jews who were adopted as infants to save them from the Holocaust are now learning of their heritage through the deathbed confessions of their adoptive parents.

The varied responses of these disparate people to a similar experience, presented in their own words, offer compelling insights into the nature of self-knowledge. Whether they had always suspected or were taken by surprise, Kessel's respondents report that confirmation of their Jewish heritage affected their sense of self and of their place in the world in profound ways. Fascinating, poignant, and often very funny, Suddenly Jewish speaks to crucial issues of identity, selfhood, and spiritual community.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Series: Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life


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Title Page

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pp. xi-xi

Author's Query

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pp. xiv-xiv

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pp. 1-5

I was born Marcel Pierre Jacques Nakache on March 22, 1939, in Paris to Rita Nakache. She didn’t have a husband, and I don’t know anything about my father. The original family name was Nekhushtan, from generations back when they lived in Samarkand in the former Soviet Union. The name means copper, so they were probably jewelry makers. They...

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pp. 6-16

When the Landmann sisters were teenagers, their parents took them on a family trip to Germany.
When we entered Berlin, our father got so excited. “I lived here during the war,” he said. And then, two blocks later, he said, “And here . . . And here.” “How could you live in so many places?” we asked him. “Well,” he said,...

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pp. 17-38

I remember grandmother taking me to what I thought was a church in Mexico City. We had to sit in the women’s balcony in the back. There was a man leading the chants in a language I had never heard. I remember her saying, “Never forget who you are.” I understand now that it was a synagogue. Later, when I asked my mother what my grandmother...

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Hidden Children

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pp. 39-71

When we got to the partisans, I was weak with tuberculosis. They shaved my head because I had lice. They took away my crucifixes and told me I was Jewish. That was the lowest point in my life. I grabbed the scissors and didn’t know who to kill—myself because I was bald, sick, and Jewish, or my mother because she was the cause of it all...

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Children of Survivors

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pp. 72-97

Like many newly arrived families, we immersed ourselves in the business of making a living and fitting in. I always had the feeling that we had Jewish family or were Jewish ourselves, but I was not able to actually ask the question. When I did ask my mother about it during her last illness in 1979, her answer was, “No, we have no...

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pp. 98-114

I am a forty-three-year-old adoptee who just two and a half years ago found my birth mother after a search that went on and off for twenty-two years. I always wanted to know where I came from, what my heritage was, who I was. Yes, I love my adoptive parents and we have a good relationship. They even helped me in my search. But I wanted to know what...

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pp. 115-127

Paul Goldreich is a London psychoanalyst whose practice is heavily comprised of Holocaust survivors, among whom are numerous patients with reclaimed identities, identities they had to struggle to remember. He has worked with several people who were between the ages of six months and a year when they were placed in hiding at the...


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pp. 129-130

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683028
E-ISBN-10: 1611683025
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584650386

Page Count: 144
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life
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OCLC Number: 817789270
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Suddenly Jewish

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Children of ex-Jews -- Interviews.
  • Jews -- Identity
  • Adoption -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
  • Adopted children -- Interviews.
  • Judaism -- 20th century.
  • Jewish children in the Holocaust -- Interviews.
  • Children of Holocaust survivors -- Interviews.
  • Marranos -- Interviews.
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