Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Guest Posting By Anonymous - My Questionable "Jewishness"

When I was 16 years old I started keeping Shabbos. When I was 26 I found out that my "Jewishness" was questionable.

As a teen I got involved with my local NCSY chapter and eventually after much reading, many discussions, and really thinking about what mattered in life, I became Torah observant. I went on, after graduating public school, to spend some time learning in Eretz Yisrael and then returned to continue with my learning in a yeshiva and attend college. Several years later I met "the right" person and we decided to get married.

When we were dating I informed my future spouse that my father's mother converted when she was in college (prior to marriage) but the conversion was officiated by Reform rabbi in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1920's. My wife, who is first generation American (both parents are survivors) understood that this had no affect on my status of being a Jew.

A month before my wedding I was meeting with the rabbi who would be officiating our marriage and he asked me to do some research on my mother's side of the family, just to verify my "Jewishness". I felt that it was no big deal, as I knew that my mother's mother was Jewish. As I started asking my mother and grandmother questions about my great-grandmother, I was shocked to discover that she had converted as well.

I was stunned. Here I was, about to get married, having lived a life of Torah u'Mitzvos for the past 10 years, and all of these questioned began flooding my mind: Was it a good conversion? Can I still keep Shabbos, if the conversion wasn't acceptable? Did the brochos I made during lunch even matter, or where they empty words?

My future spouse and I were dealing with a major crisis even before going under the chuppah. I was able to actually find the documents regarding my maternal great-grandmother's conversion that took place in 1910 in Dallas, Texas. She had been converted by a "Traditional" rabbi, but I was not able to find out information about his specific level of observance. I contact a rav that I am very close with and he spoke with a rosh yeshiva on the East Coast who put me in touch with an "expert" in issues regarding a safeik geirus (questionable conversions).

This expert decided that I should go to the mikvah before a beis din and halachically commitment myself to Torah observance because of the the question regarding the legitimacy of my great-grandmother's conversion. It was somewhat awkward being asked questions about my level of observance, since at the time, I had be observant for a decade, but the members of the beis din were all respectful and very understanding of my situation.

I am very thankful to Hashem that my spouse stuck with me, even though I put "it on the table". I would totally understand is she wanted to walk away from me and my situation

In retrospect, as a third-generation American, I see that I am a true product of Golus and assimilation and have a very personal perspective on the life of both a Baal Teshuva and a Ger. In truth, I do not really share the information above with too many people, but I am grateful that Hashem gave me a true opportunity to begin my married life with a fresh start.


At May 6, 2009 at 12:07:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story. I'm glad everything worked out OK. I think this kind of thing is more common that people think. Also, think of all the thousands of Jews who converted (freely or forcibly) to other religions in the last couple thousand years. Some of the women who converted had daughters, who had daughters, and so on, until the present time -- and so then you probably have lots of people who have no idea they have any Jewish blood, but who are halachically Jewish. I have a feeling some people who end up converting are actually already Jewish for this reason.

I wouldn't say those mitzvot you did were for nothing, even if your grandmother's conversion was completely invalid. For one thing you might have already been Jewish anyway (as in the above scenario)! Also, even if you weren't technically commanded to do them, they still could still be useful in raising your spiritual level. Opinions differ, but I think many rabbis say that Noahides can and should adopt many mitzvos (although of course not tallis and tefillin and such) because of their universal spiritual value. And of course they were good preparation for conversion. In practice, because of the strictness of conversion standards today, many people are completely observant for years before actually converting. This isn't a waste either!

At May 6, 2009 at 1:06:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Smashed Hat said...

Something similar happened to my childhood best friend's younger brother when he became a baal teshuvah and went to yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael. When he met his future wife, they went to Rav Schwab of the Washington Heights kehillah, who asked them both to research their family backgrounds. Lo and behold, both of their maternal grandmothers were converts via non-Orthodox clergy. They converted according to halachah and went on to raise a fine Jewish family. I believe he is a musmach today.

At May 6, 2009 at 1:28:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you both for your comments.
-Author of this post

At May 6, 2009 at 2:58:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a convert, not Orthodox, so I realize this means most people reading this blog think I am not Jewish. They will probably also disagree with what I am about to say, but I will say it anyway. I think the details of conversion are more for people than they are for God. This is not to say I think conversion is unnecessary! You thought you were a Jew, acted as a Jew, and observed mitzvot like a Jew. Who can really say if God didn't consider you a Jew, regardless of whether an Orthodox rabbi did or not? I am religious and work hard to be mitzvah-observant and think I am good with God on the matter. I am glad everything worked out for you. Now that you have the Orthodox conversion, hopefully no one will argue your Jewishness with you. My point is, please don't de-value the years you spent as a "questionable" Jew, and all the mitzvot you did in those years!

At May 6, 2009 at 3:26:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Smashed Hat said...

Anon #3

A non-Jew who keeps the Seven Noachide Laws may chose to keep any of the other mitzvos voluntarily and he or she will receive a divine reward for doing so. (The only exception would be Shabbos -- which is why prospective geirim customarily break one of the Shabbos laws until they complete the process.)

You are absolutely right that the mitzvos a person does prior to halachic conversion count; although there is a rule of Chazal that it is greater to fulfilll a divine command than do do the same thing voluntarily.

As for your conversion, if you already accept the obligation of the mitzvos, why not do your fellow Jews a favor and have the halachic conversion?

("What are we, chopped liver?")

At May 6, 2009 at 5:20:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Your Fellow Brother said...

You are an Inspiration to me.
You are a very special tzaddik indeed.
You must know from the outset that your Neshama is a Pure one A Holy one and One of a Jew.Only the strongest Neshamos can do what you did.
Klal Yisrael is Lucky to have someone like you.
It seems that in AMERICA klal yisrael was tested with a test that was a difficult one. We didnt know how to overcome our surroundings the Way as we were told by our tzaddikim. that our job was to pick up these holy sparks in galus we are told that if we dont than these Holy sparks would overwhelm us because they come from a much higher spiritual place.We didnt sift the sparks we didnt take the Good and leave the bad.
So in short we didnt know how to recognize that we need to take the Holy sparks of the land instead we were overwhelmed by America.
But You are the epitome of a true yid You teach us that its never too late to fix You teach us that indeed Klal Yisrael will come around.
I have heard tzaddikim say that when a very holy soul is coming to the world the yetzer hara says its not fair so shomayim puts him the body of a person of questionable background. But if he overcomes and does tshuvah he brings back 1000's of Neshamos with him.
May it be in your Merit all the Sparks and the Souls should be Zoche to a full tshuva and we should be Zoche to the Geula Shleima BMheira Viyomenu Amen!!!!

At May 6, 2009 at 9:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon #3,

Thanks for your comment. I'm appreciate your comment. I don't de-value anything Mitzvos I performed prior to going before a Beis Din. I did, in the past question the end result of them.
Why did you opt for an O conversion?
-Author of Post

At May 6, 2009 at 10:08:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous 4 said...

The issues that the children of converts face go deeper and are more common than most of us realize. There is also much more agony involved than we know. Smashed Hat, you ask, why not convert? It is not so simple, especially with the immense difficulties these days in getting a recognized conversion.

Do you know why Hashem had to give us a Torah commandment to treat converts kindly? Because it is such a widespread human failing to treat them poorly.

At May 7, 2009 at 12:05:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Jen (Anon #3) said...

This is Anon#3. I cannot believe all the things necessary to be considered an "Orthodox Jew." I believe in egalitarianism for one. Plus, I am in the south and there isn't an Orthodox Jew in 100 miles of here. Third, I am a gay woman and the rumor is that gay people aren't accepted well among "the Orthodox"-- I put that in quotes because even among "the Orthodox" there are those who think others aren't Orthodox enough! Since I won't be having children, there's no worry about this affecting anyone's marital eligibility. I don't believe there is an Orthodox rabbi who would convert me. But you know, even if I disagree I still respect those I disagree with. Believe me, I would love to have an unquestioned status as a Jew, but I'm so used to my humanity being questioned for my sexuality that I guess I deal with it.

At May 7, 2009 at 10:24:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Dear Jen,

I've been following this thread, and I understand your point of view, sadly it seems there a many things "against" you. I have no doubt about you taking your Judaism seriously and hope this blog and others only add to your knowledge.


At May 7, 2009 at 3:26:00 PM EDT, Blogger tea mad hatter said...

author - awesome story, i found myself in simular, though not as serious stew, as my grandparents had married reform. it was common during war years in SA. in the end got the nod from the beis din one week before my wedding! nerve wracking. but the rov in charge of geirus- im close too, was ready to dip me if it came down to it, the day before the wedding if it remained unresolved.

there is a story (bit of urban legend) of a yeshiva bochur studing at a local yeshiva who somehow learned one day that he was not halachicaly jewish, and so the legend goes, closed the gemora, pocketed his kippa and went on his merry way. dont know if its true, but it does raise a lot of challenging questions to me.

At May 7, 2009 at 4:14:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tea Mad Hatter: What are some of these challenging unresolved questions?

At May 7, 2009 at 8:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous SIM said...

THRU OUR STRUGGLES MOSHIACH WILL COME. :):):):):):):):):):):):):)

At May 8, 2009 at 12:27:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Yehonasan said...

There are even deeper levels of exile than the one you faced, all in the mystery of redeeming the sparks from out of the klipos.

I heard from a tzaddik: There are three levels of exile, each more darker and more difficult than the next.

The exile from our land.

The exile from each other, when we no longer recognize each other as Jews.

Finally, the exile from ourselves, when we ourselves do not even recognize we are Jewish.

All these exiles have manifested, intensely.

Harachaman! We have gone to the depths! It is time to return us to Zion.

At May 9, 2009 at 6:27:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Lost Child. I haven't posted here before. I wasn't going to comment; I just intended to read all this with great interest. Then Jen's comment about being an outsider came together with tea mad hatter's and impacted on me and sonow I will share the following:-

I was brought up such a total ger that I didn't understand the significance of comments from some older family members about our Jewishness until I found my own "journeying" way to Judaism, finally after many adventures and years.

Now I have the privilege of joining in much at my schul, as an outsider, for which I am enormously grateful as it is like air to breathe in an airless place, which is an understatement.

I don't think my rabbi even believes my story as once he said "You are not Jewish". So now I also feel like a condemned liar, but that isn't the point of my responding though it does upset me somehow.

As a woman married to a ger who is and always will be non-Jewish, and unable to prove my Jewishness because of choices made by my forebears to hide it, I and my children are like others who will be lost from inheriting their Jewish birthright. This used to distress me terribly as did the thought of my repeated sinning from being in my circumstances. And truth to tell I am still very uneasy and I think even angry though I'm not sure why or that this is justified. I try to get strength from the idea of knowing I am a child of Hashem and belong in Hashem's bigger scheme of things.

Lost Child

At May 9, 2009 at 7:54:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

"there is a story (bit of urban legend) of a yeshiva bochur studing at a local yeshiva who somehow learned one day that he was not halachicaly jewish, and so the legend goes, closed the gemora, pocketed his kippa and went on his merry way. dont know if its true, but it does raise a lot of challenging questions to me."

And then he realized that living as a religious Ben Noach was even harder in it's own crazy twisted ways. Soemtimes I think conversion would be the easy way out, or in I guess. ; )

At May 9, 2009 at 11:21:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Yehonasan said...

Lost Child, I applaud you for being a part of the community. Each and every one of us are G-d's children. He has a special plan for each of us. Please help me understand your situation better. You mentioned you were brought up as a ger and are "married to a ger who is and always will be non-Jewish, and unable to prove my Jewishness because of choices made by my forebears to hide it." Do you mean your husband's conversion and your own (and/or your ancestrors') is not recognized? Is it because they converted through a non-Orthodox Bet Din?

At May 10, 2009 at 6:32:00 AM EDT, Blogger Esser Agaroth said...


Thank you so much for sharing your story.

Perhaps this was a challenge set before you, as it were, and you met that challenge.

I know others who would've ignored it, or just left everything behind, because of gaivah.

I hope we can learn from your example.

At May 10, 2009 at 1:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger tea mad hatter said...

Anonymous - it raises a what if scenario to me. i became chozeh betshuva when i was 13, and have always had a very strong Jewish identity. although my identity wasnt challenged as fundimentily as the that in the article, i knew there was no problems (my aunts,uncles and cousins all got married orthodox so that was accepted) the issue raised by the beis din as well as in the "urban legend" made me wonder if i had to, would i myself become a ger toshav. undertake such a challenging journey. its very much a what if... if you are not chaiv mitzvos and can come close to Hashem via the sheva mitzvos bnei noach,then why take it on. i lack a lot as a Jew, maybe it would be easier if i wasnt. that sort of thing. but at the same time how could i do without Torah, and everything to be a Jew which is so awesome!! to be a part of an Am Kodesh that is so incredibly beautiful. just some cause for introspection.

At May 10, 2009 at 6:57:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Tea Mad Hatter - See here

At May 11, 2009 at 1:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mad Tea Hatter,

Thanks for sharing this. What is interesting from this discussion regarding geirus is that it really shows us the impact of one's actions on future generations.

-Author of the post

At May 12, 2009 at 10:24:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello again. This is Lost Child Sorry for the break in getting back. I didn't realise I should go back to the initial posting. And, I was nervous.

Thank you for the comments. And for being kind.

I don't know if I should say this, but I'll jump in and hope it's ok. Way back somebody, a woman in my family, married out, I believe, and was kicked out of her family. So she went a long way away and wanted to get lost from her painful roots. Same for her husband. He was kicked out too.

The story of that woman wasn't totally lost though, to some of my family. My mother didn't know but she doesn't know a lot. Her mother knew, but she was a Communist and frightened also of being a Jew because of atrocities that have happened. My great grandmother, my grandma's mother, whom I had never met before, when she was 93 and I was 23, told me some things about her being a Jew, but I thought it was just about her and had nothing to do with me.

And, for some "strange" reason, other Jews getting lost for various other reasons in an alien land had children who found each other and so too with the children of that woman and they came together like fowers in a field. Does Jewish soul call to Jewish soul? I wonder. But maybe it is simply (also?) the attraction of others like themselves, with a similar heritage and beliefs, even if cut off from their roots. Lost souls. Some knew some family history; most didn't. Me, I dig, think, feel, and explore and maybe this is how I heard some things, and found and left and found some things, plus "luck", but there is no such thing as luck.

Most of my ancestors were what I always thought of as simple Jews. They weren't educated much in anything, such as a peddler and a man who could build houses. Maybe the drum beat they moved to wasn't a Jewish one. Maybe the beat sounded out "s-u-r-v-i-v-a-l". It's probably a common story. I guess they were Orthodox, given where they came from and their backgrounds.

You want to hear something really wild? That woman I told you about at first had a daughter who married a man who was the son of an ex Catholic priest. And there is more. My great grandmother told me. The priest was descended from Jews who fled Spain. Unreal. You just never know. By the way, he was the only (ex)Catholic in my family. Hmm, except for his sisters, who were nuns! I said it was wild!

My husband is not converted. He is not religious at all and doesn't believe in G-d. We married at a time when I didn't realise I was at least technically Jewish and when I was on the run from the religions I had known that far and still had to trust my heart's belief in G-d. My husband will never convert. He and I live in different realities. I can't convert as an alternative to finding proof unless I divorce my husband.

I try to have trust in G-d; to push away my silly resentments and envy; and to try to cope when the going gets rough. There will be a reason for all this. We just have to do the best we can and keep learning.

And yes, our actions can be very influential.

At May 13, 2009 at 12:04:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Yehonasan said...

G-d bless you, Lost Child.
Some day we will all know and see that the path of Jewish souls in this world was so much deeper and more amazing than we ever imagined, so much more than what it appears to be now.
All the suffering of of all the exiles will be transformed to pure exultation in holiness, the "wine hidden in its grapes from the Six Days of Creation."
As for now, "the righteous will live in their faith."
Be strong and of good courage.

At May 13, 2009 at 8:49:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much indeed, Yehonasan. I am glad you found my belated second comment and replied. You understand and that helps. I found it heartening and it touched me deeply to read what you said. And what you said is how to look at it, I think.

No doubt it is all as it should be.

I give thanks also for the posts on "A Simple Jew" concerning hisbodedus and saying tehillim. It helped to be reminded.

Lost Child

At May 14, 2009 at 6:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tea Mad Hatter, I just read your comment here on the 10th (finally saw to click on the link) leading to talk of Yisro.

When I read " Yisro made this condition because he believed that one had to first see the falsehood of all other paths before one could truly recognize the truth of G-d and Judaism.", it showed me something new:

In my journey back to where I belong, I searched out many religions and found them all fundamentally insufficient for me. I left each in turn, without committing and despite the wrench of parting from friends and pleasant aspects (because I felt I had to).

I came to a dreadful time when I thought I would never find my "home". I stopped my searching and tried to settle for living in a void. It was extremely excruciating, almost like a real pain, but it was impossible for me to choose what seemed insifficient. For some reason I had never explored Judaism. It was as if it didn't exist, which was odd really. Maybe it was the effect of my communist grandma'a angry, upset, terrifying words in my head when I was a child.

The next thing that happened was entirely unexpected and amazing and now maybe I understand this a bit better after the comment about Yisro that I quoted. I "happened" to go to an internet site where I started to listen to Beresheit read in Hebrew and it turned me inside out and shredded me into a million pieces and I cried and cried. This was very odd for me, this reaction, and I never had any understanding of why until now.

What I now think is that what happened was as that quote said, I "could truly recognize the truth of G-d and Judaism", in some deep sort of way. I think this is true as, after I pulled myself together and thought about what happened, I knew I had to check out Judaism. But I really already knew I had found the Truth as those words entered my ears and soul.

This is my current reflection on the matter anyway, and it seems to add up to me. Please anyone feel free to dispute it or respond.

I hope I haven't commented too much.

Lost Child

At May 18, 2009 at 6:48:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jen said...

There were so many great comments on this posting. The author should feel very good about that. I wish I had a way to contact Smashed Hat and let him know what a profound effect his comment had on me. I started a blog (that's not the profound effect), but I wrote about it in my second blog posting. I hope if Smashed Hat runs across this comment he'll read that post on my blog. And anyone else who reads this (not pushing my blog, just want people to know the impact it had and can't retype it all here).


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