I’m beginning to research my family tree; it looks very much as though my earliest ancestor (with the same surname) in this country (England) arrived from eastern Europe in the 18th or 19th century; further research starts to indicate that this part of my ancestry may be Jewish.
What does this mean for me? (NB: I realise this sounds a bit like that awful troll that got banned a while back).
I suspect many people would just answer “it means whatever you want it to mean” and that’s fine, but my question really is:
If I have Jewish ancestry, what does that mean (in relation to me) to Jewish people I might meet?
Jewish lineage is passed down through the mother so if you can find an unbroken line of females to a Jewish ancestor then technically you are Jewish.
However if it goes back say more than 2 or 3 generations, I think most Rabbis would prefer you to convert (or do part of a conversion) properly first to be considered properly Jewish. I’ll wait for those more knowledgable to correct/confirm this.
That of course is only the religous side of things. On the community/cultural side of things it’s totally different. Most of my grandparents were Lithuanian/Russian but I do not consider myself being part of the Lithuanian or Russian community or culture having never been brought up in it at all.
As Skip said, religiously, you are considered (by Orthodox Jews) to be responsible in all Jewish religious obligations if you are Jewish on your mother’s side. If you can trace a direct maternal line to someone who is known with reasonable certainty to be Jewish, you’re Jewish.
What would it mean to other Jewish people you might meet? Well, you might be asked to join a minyan. I suppose there are some pushy folks out there who might try to bully you into starting to observe Judaism, but most experienced outreach personnel know that such tactics are counterproductive.
However, it certainly can’t hurt to spend some time learning about your newfound heritage. One good place for beginners is Aish HaTorah.
You might ask a similar question, in terms of: suppose that you found that you had an ancestor who was Irish (or Italian or Japanese or whatever.)
That would mean that if you wanted to acknowledge or celebrate your Irish ancestry, and be accepted by the Irish as “one of them” and you could join the St Patrick’s Day parades and wear green and whatever. And if you wanted to ignore it altogether, you could do that too.
Similarly, the presence of female lineage that was Jewish would mean that you could acknowledge or celebrate your Jewish ancestry and that you would be accepted by the Jews as “one of them” and you could eat lox and bagels or celebrate Passover or whatever. And if you wanted to ignore it altogether, you could do that too.
Interesting question, to me, in that: 1.) my sister has recently dug up a family connection that suggests my maternal great-grandparents were Jewish, 2.) as I’m atheist and was raised as such, the revelation, should it hold true, means nothing to me cosmologically and 3.) ethnically it means little as well. So, perhaps I am titularly Jewish, or part so - while I recognize what that might have meant a half century ago, to me, today, it means nothing that I can discern.
On a purely pragmatic, factual basis, if you can establish matrilineal Jewish ancestry you’re probably entitled to live in Israel, under the Law of Return.
Quote from above :-
4B. For the purposes of this Law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a
Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member
of another religion.
Thinking of the time and place that this might have mattered most (been of life and death importance in fact):
It sounds as if the relations you describe would still make you a German citizen in Nazi Germany around 1935-45, though you would have trouble joining the SS and been kicked out if discovered. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor forbid both marriage (and sex) between non-Jews and Jews. A “full Jew” was defined as anyone with at least three grandparents who were Jews; individuals with lesser fractions of Jewish ancestry were considered “half-breeds” of either the first or second degree. Basically, appropos the OP, the law specified that individuals with 25% Jewish ancestry were considered Germans and allowed to marry other Germans – unless those other Germans were themselves 25% Jewish, in that case the marriage would be illegal.
Here’s a site for this. Note that the Law is talking about ancestry and not religious practices or self-identification - that was significant during the Trials circa 10 years later in the same city that gave this group of charming laws their name.
I asked a similar question here a few years back, and it turned out I am indeed linked to my Jewish ancestor purely via a maternal line. I didn’t change my username to “RabbiTim”, the only difference has been that a Jewish friend and I make Jewish jokes with each other.
I’m apparently secretly half-jewish as well. You can’t get anyone to talk about it but it seems my mother’s side of the family was originally all Jewish but converted when they came to Canada( I believe an “avoid the hassling” conversion rather than faith based)
Now I’ve been told that because my grandfather(paternal) was born in England I’m eligible for a work permit stamp on my passport for the UK. Will my maternal heritage get me an Israeli work permit?
Well, CarnalK, technically the answer is yes. Practically, you might have trouble proving it, but if you proved it, yes.
Now, I am Jewish. My parents were and their parents were and…, but who would know if my maternal great, great, great,…, grandmother weren’t? In fact, how does anyone know. I remember asking this once when I was in Israel, but could never get a satisfactory answer. BTW, this is independent of the fact that truly, I am an atheist, or at least agnostic.
Now here is the irony of the rabbinic rule about going through the maternal line is that almost none of us whose ancestors are from eastern Europe actually have that pure maternal line. Geneticists can now follow the female line through the mitochondrial DNA and the male line through the Y chromosome. Even though we all have mitochondria, the sperm do not and only men have a Y chromosome. Well, the mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA of Jews have been studied and guess what? It turns out the Y-chromosomes of most Jews of eastern European origin is middle eastern, but the mitochondrial DNA is European! Make of that what you will.
There are two ways for a person to be Jewish: The person’s mother may be Jewish, or the person may have converted. It would certainly not be very remarkable for a person with a Jewish father and gentile mother to be raised Jewish, and officially “convert” (probably at around the age of Bar Mitzvah, I would imagine). That person is then completely Jewish, and if female, her children would automatically be Jewish.
So you don’t need to trace your line back indefinitely: You just have to trace your maternal line to someone who was known to be Jewish, as (for instance) by conversion.
In Jewish law, there is a concept called chazakah, a legal presumption. Since your mother and her mother and her mother have all been living their entire lives as Jews, they have a legal presumption, therefore, of being Jewish. This presumption stands until evidence to the contrary comes along.
The origin of this comes from the story in Leviticus 24:10-23. The son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father blasphemes G-d, and is referred to (after the initial introduction) only though his Isralite ancestry and he is subject to Israelite law. It is clear, therefore, that the child of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is considered Jewish.