Confessions of a Crypto Jew
I’m not really a crypto Jew, but I was one for a while as a teenager. By the end of 10th grade I had spent eleven years in Catholic school and refused to go back. At age thirteen I went to Israel with my mom and stepfather. As my stepfather set out on a journey to rediscover his Jewish roots, my mother and I were discovering Judaism for the first time.
As an adult I learned that my mom, whose maiden name was Izzo, believed her father’s relatives from Piedmont in northern Italy were crypto Jews. After my mom died, research led me to contact Aldo Izzo, president of the local Jewish burial society in Venice. He told me that Izzo was a Jewish name meaning Yitzchak in Italian. Ancestry.com has another explanation for the name: Italian: nickname from Sicilian izzu ‘slave’ or directly from Latin aegyptius ‘Egyptian.’
My mother inadvertently planted the seeds for my Catholic insouciance. She regarded Catholicism merely as a movement offering low-cost education superior to what our local school system provided. I knew in seventh grade, while studying for my confirmation, that I wasn’t a Christian. Confirmation is the ceremony in which Catholics formally accept Jesus as their savior. Forced to confront the matter directly, I realized I just did not believe it.
As a Jew, I am deeply disturbed by the conversion legislation under consideration in the Israeli Knesset. In her Open Letter About the Conversion Bill, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman writes:
Should the proposed conversion law go into effect, I fear it would send a dangerous, exclusionary and wholly unacceptable message to many: that there is only one “official” brand of Judaism. Most of North American Jews—85 percent—belong to, or identify with, the Conservative and Reform movements, which would be directly—and negatively—affected by this proposal.
Should the bill pass as currently written, millions of Jews worldwide would no longer be considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate. Most Jews outside of Israel may not give a hoot what the Israeli Rabbinate thinks, but the implications of the bill are highly divisive, both for Jews in Israel and beyond. In The Diaspora Need Not Apply, Alana Newhouse writes in the NY Times:
If passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births, marriages and deaths – and through them, the fundamental questions of Jewish identity – in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis. [The crux of the issue is] that the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government’s definition of Judaism, for all Jews.
As a Jew By Choice I’ve wondered if Israel will accept me if I make Aliyah. If my children make Aliyah, or by some strange twist of fate marry someone ultra-Orthodox (not gonna happen), would they be considered as less than authentically Jewish? In Israel there are hundreds of thousands of Jews not considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate. They can serve in the military but cannot have a Jewish wedding in Israel. They can die defending Israel, but they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
When I was a teenager I was furious at my parents for insisting we never tell anyone about our conversion (my mom and I converted together.) There seemed to be no point in telling our Catholic relatives. What good could come of disclosing our new faith and possibly upsetting them? So a secret it remained. In hindsight I realize my parents were also giving consideration to those who would scrutinize the validity of our conversion. And in time that fear became reality.
In college at Brandeis (where else would a new JBC want to go?) surrounded by Jews, I could easily forget I hadn’t always been a Member of the Tribe. I met my husband-to-be my freshman year. After discovering our mutual passion for Israel, we knew we were bashert. Soon after we became engaged it dawned on me that I’d never told Scott I’d converted. I was frozen with fear and apprehension about telling him (thanks to my parents). Scott had attended Chabad day school, and though I didn’t know it yet, he could chant Torah like a scholar and daven like one of those ‘authentic Jews.’ What would he and his family think of me?
I told Scott I needed to share something important. I was so nervous my muscles tensed up and I was stiff with fear. My lips were numb and quivering and I was crying. Would he still want to marry me? I started by asking him if he would love me no matter what. By this point Scott was expecting something really scandalous, like I’d had a sex change or was a Russian spy. “Really? That’s cool!” he said, when I finally told him. I could breathe again. He asked if that was all I had wanted to tell him – he was still waiting for something really juicy. That was it though. Twenty years after that conversation, at the congregation in Tzefat where I attended my first Shabbat service, I became a Bat Mitzvah. Scott presented me with my Tallit and told me that I have the most Jewish soul of anyone he knows.
No Jew by choice should have to feel that fear of acceptance. I did because I was young and my parents’ paranoia had been transmitted to me. But some Jews looking for acceptance in the Orthodox community still carry this fear. When the time for Scott and I to marry grew near, questions about my conversion surfaced through an Orthodox member of Scott’s family. Rabbis were consulted and my conversion was probed without our knowing. This type of holier-than-thou, unaccepting attitude is demeaning to all involved.
Streams of Jewish Orthodoxy are being hijacked by those who fear acknowledging the diversity of Jewish practice and observance. If I live as a secular, Conservative Jew who sends my kids to Jewish day school and Israel, and keeps a kosher kitchen, why should I be considered less of a Jew than one who doesn’t belong to a synagogue, eats pork, but is born of a Jewish mother? Being Jewish is about what’s in ones heart, about core beliefs and values. It’s not about how many hours after eating meat I wait before eating dairy.
Ideally the Conversion Bill will resolve and the Ultra Orthodox rabbis—the same ones who had the leader of Women of the Wall arrested for carrying a Torah at the Kotel—will lose their stranglehold on deciding who’s Jewish enough for the State of Israel. At a time when Jews are divided about the existential threats facing Israel, it is absurd to wage a fight that only divides the Jewish people further, a fight that by this day and age should no longer even be a topic of discussion.