Suddenly Jewish: Rabbi Berel Wein

Jews raised as gentiles discover their Jewish roots.

Suddenly Jewish is the name of a beautiful little (126-page) book by Barbara Kessel, Director of Administration of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. The subtitle of the book reveals its fascinating premise: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots. From Madeline Albright and other Holocaust descendants to crypto-Jews from Italy and Jamaica, the book describes the search for identity that characterizes the lives of all of us, but especially of those who discover that they are not really who they thought they were. Because of the Albright experience, the author placed an ad in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section asking: “For a book on identity, I would like to interview individuals raised as non-Jews who discovered that they are of Jewish descent.” This book is the result of interviews with over 160 people who responded to her “author’s query.” This is a three-handkerchief book that is at points also hilariously funny. The author lets her subjects speak for themselves, never pontificates or is judgmental and presents this case study in the search for identity in its true and complicated light.

The reactions of the people to the discovery of their Jewishness varied greatly. Some were relieved, feeling that a deep gnawing monster that they somehow felt was living within them was now exposed and defeated. Others, like Albright, seemingly ignored the entire matter and continued on with their previous life as though nothing important had happened to them. Close to 30% changed their lives and became passionately Jewish in commitment and behavior.

The main sections of the book deal with the descendants of crypto-Jews, Sephardic in origin and living mainly in the southwestern United States; hidden Jewish children in the Holocaust who were raised as non-Jews by adoptive and foster families; and children of Holocaust survivors who were never told by their parents of their Jewish ancestry.

The author compares the stories of the “hidden children” — Jewish children who were raised as non-Jews by protective Christian families during the years of the Holocaust — to the biblical story of Moses who was raised in the palace of the Pharaoh and returned to lead the Jews out of Egyptian bondage. The “hidden children” fell into two types: “people who were psychologically injured by their experiences, and people who emerged from their traumatic backgrounds with enhanced strengths and talents.” One of the most well known of the “hidden children” is Abraham Foxman, the feisty, observant, proactive, executive head of the Anti-Defamation League in America.

“I wore a crucifix. I went to church regularly. I cried when they called me Jew.” Abe Foxman

Abe Foxman was only five when his parents reappeared in 1945 to reclaim him from his Polish nanny who hid him successfully during the war. Abe was then a devout Catholic. “I wore a crucifix. I went to church regularly. I cried when they called me Jew. Now my father, the first time he took me to synagogue was on Simchat Torah. He figured I’d like it because it’s a joyous festival full of singing and dancing. On the way there, I passed a church. I crossed myself, I greeted the priest, I kissed his hand, and my father understood. The Jewish children picked me up and danced with me, and I came home and told my mother, ‘I like Jewish church.’ Little by little, he took off my cross and replaced it with tzitzis ‘fringes’. I used to say prayers in Latin; he taught me to pray in Hebrew. Both languages were Greek to me. I was happy. I had substitution. He just said, don’t kneel. Becoming Jewish was a growing process. My parents had wisdom beyond the normal. If my parents had perished, I would have been raised to be a priest. My caretaker believed in the Church. I was a good Catholic.”

Foxman continues: “I’m convinced there are thousands of Jews who don’t know they are Jewish, especially in Poland. Poland was the worst. There were more Jewish children at risk [there] and therefore there were more opportunities to save them. Every day we lose potential Jewish souls there because their foster parents die without telling them that they had Jewish parents — either because they don’t want to discombobulate their lives or because of the stigma of having saved Jews or because they feel guilty for not having told them before. All these things conspire against truth telling. Our agency [for discovering ‘hidden children’] tries to celebrate the idea of rescue in Poland. We try to make rescuing lives a value. We go there and applaud what they did so that it will be easier for the truth to come out. If the shame of helping Jews is removed, more revelations can surface. I’ve visited Poland three times, each time for a public effort to recognize Christian rescuers, and each time more Jewish children emerge.”

Foxman ruefully concludes: “I joke that I’d like to put up signs that say, ‘Don’t be anti-Semitic; after all, you too, might turn out to be a Jew!'”

Pierre Sauvage is a prize-winning film director. He made the documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit, about the French town, Le Chamon-sur-Lignon, which hid 5000 Jews from the Nazis. Pierre’s parents were among those 5000 and he was born there in 1944. His parents immigrated to New York after the war and completely hid their Jewish origins from their son. He was raised with a Christmas tree and attended a private French school in New York City. Finally, at age 18, as he was leaving to study in Paris, his parents told him that they were Jewish.

To read the complete article from Aish: CLICK HERE

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