Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Repost: Patrilineal descent and the pain of rejection 😥

This is one of the posts that seems to have disappeared from both my front page and my September 2022 archive.  I'm copying and pasting both the post and the comments because this is too important to lose.


Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Patrinineal descent and the pain of rejection 😥

Copied from Facebook:

I've been a member of Conservative (or dual-affiliated) synagogues since childhood, and have always supported the traditional opinion that only the children of Jewish mothers are Jewish (the matrilineal opinion). But I've been rethinking my position in recent years. Is it really the right thing to cause so many people so much pain? Here's how being a patrilineal Jew affected Allison Goldperson.
[August 20, 2019]
Just over a year ago, I had the opportunity to do a mikveh ritual in the ocean, where I affirmed my Jewish identity in the presence of Rabbi Gabriel Botnick and four witnesses. It was an important moment for me, because it allowed Rabbi Botnick to then give me an official certificate, signed by himself and two witnesses, affirming that I am, indeed a Jew.
This status is a big deal, because it means that I am finally able to participate fully in the rituals that comprise Jewish practice: I can be married by a Rabbi to another Jew; I can be counted as part of a minyan; I am allowed halachically to fully keep Shabbat; if I have children, they will be counted as Jewish. Most importantly, this moment resolved one of the deepest and most painful challenges in my life: the fact that, for years, as I felt called more deeply towards Jewish practice, I was repeatedly turned away.
I am Jewish by patrilineal descent. My grandparents on my father’s side were Polish Holocaust survivors; my mother is from the Canadian east coast. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, in a home that was filled with jokes told in Yiddish accents, stories from Chelm and foods like challah, cholent, and matzo brie. I carry the last name “Goldman”, went to Jewish summer camps and had a bat mitzvah.
It wasn’t until I got to university, and had a spiritual experience that made me want to connect more deeply with religious (vs. cultural) Judaism, that I understood the significance of my patrilineal descent. I was told, for the first time, that I was not Jewish -- that if I wanted to become Jewish, I would have to convert.
I was shocked, and hurt, but I respected the Rabbis telling me this. I wanted to follow the rules. I started learning, first with an orthodox Rabbi, and then with a conservative one. The more I studied, however, the more it became clear to me that I could not convert. Why? Because I’m not a convert. Judaism is not something I’ve chosen. In fact, over the years that I struggled with this part of my identity, I tried hard to not be Jewish. Twice in my twenties, after particularly painful experiences of being rejected based on my birth, I told myself that it wasn’t worth it, and vowed that I would not be Jewish anymore. It hurt a lot to make that vow, and never stuck. As it turns out, we don’t always get to choose who we are. Sometimes, our souls hold a truth that we ignore at our own peril.
For me to try to be anything other than Jewish was to force my soul so deeply out of alignment that it created a terrible spiritual pain.
My soul’s truth is that I am Jewish, and I have absolutely no choice in the matter. When I pray in Jewish community, I feel a sense of connectedness, to the earth, to the sky, to others and to myself. My soul whispers to me: “yes, this is where you’re meant to be.”
Last year, when I first approached Rabbi Botnick about my identity, I was so scared. I had already begun to feel connected to the community at Mishkon, and by revealing my secret to him, I was risking that he would reject me -- that he would suggest, like every Rabbi I’d spoken to before him, that either I should join a conversion class and undertake a process of “transformation,” or that I should just accept that only the reform community is available to me. Instead, he responded in the most beautiful, affirming, and healing way I could possibly have imagined. He asked me about my upbringing: was I raised in a Jewish home? Did I have a bat mitzvah? He reflected to me in no uncertain terms that I am indeed a Jew. He was clear and casual about it, and said we could make it official the very next day, at Na’or on the beach.
The Jewish ritual of the mikveh is one that signifies transformation. Traditionally, a convert immerses herself fully under water to signify a total transformation – a change in her soul from someone who was not bound to the covenant, to someone who is. I feel strongly that my soul did not transform last year when I undertook my mikveh. I have always been Jewish. In fact, I believe my soul has been Jewish for much longer than I have actually been alive.
Its meaningful that Jewish ritual, and particularly this ritual, is done in community, in front of witnesses. When I submerged myself in the ocean last summer, I was affirming a deep commitment to my own authentic truth, the same truth that prevented me from “converting” for so many years: that I am now, and always have been, Jewish.
By witnessing and testifying, my community also affirmed this truth back to me – and that was the transformation I needed.
I am so deeply grateful to Rabbi Botnick for facilitating that moment, and offering me the chance to fully belong. At the same time, I’m writing this post in part to say: this is not ok. It was wrong of my community to turn me away so many times, while welcoming other mixed Jews who have a matrilineal line. It was wrong to trivialize my Jewish lineage and experience, and the identity I have always had. This is an aspect of our tradition that hurts so many of us: Jews like me, but also Jewish men who are told they alone cannot pass on their traditions to their children. It’s wrong because it sews division among us, and causes us to do ugly things, like reject people we could love. In Genesis, the day that G-d separates water from the land is the only day she does not see that “it was good.” Our tradition should be the glue that holds us together, yet we cling to an outdated rabbinical interpretation that wrenches us apart.
There are many things I love about Judaism. Among them is our willingness to grapple with tradition and to make changes where necessary. The good news is that we already have the tools to right this wrong: when Rabbi Botnick offered to officially sanction my Jewish identity through an affirmation – when he offered it without even suggesting for a second that I had to change my essence, or “convert” – he demonstrated the best of what our tradition has to offer.
It is my hope that, in the future, this ritual of affirmation will be made more easily available and widely popularized. We should all know there is space in our tradition to hold and welcome our entire tribe, and to affirm the powerful influence that fathers have upon their children.


Blogger Shira Salamone said...

If you have a Facebook account, I recommend that you read the comments to the original post here:

Tue Sep 06, 06:19:00 PM 2022  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

More comments copied from Facebook:

Stephen Belsky
It sounds like she went through an actual giyyur procedure (the immersion with witnesses) but what was important was not delegitimizing her preexisting Jewish identity in the process

Shira Salamone
Exactly. But there are so many patrilineal Jews who just consider themselves Jewish who aren't willing to do that. I'm having trouble lately just wrapping my head around the idea that we Jews are rejecting so many people who just want to be accepted as part of the family. 😢

Allison Goldperson
Shira Salamone hey Shira! Thanks for sharing this and understanding my intention in sharing my story.
I was extremely resistant to doing a mikveh ritual for many years because people framed it as a “conversion” and I feel strongly that I was always Jewish. I never had any other identity to go to, so when people told me I wasn’t Jewish, it was like a negation of my very personhood in the world.
Now it has been years since that day, I’m deeply involved in Jewish community, and the pain of those rejections is something that continues to hurt many years after it has been “resolved”.
I very much appreciate that you have been changing your mind about this topic and hope that others will do the same 💕

Shira Salamone
Allison Goldperson , I'm hoping to encourage others to give this some serious thought, at least. Thank you for articulating the pain of rejection so movingly.

Barton Lessin
At no time in our history has being a Jew been the easiest of choices. I applaud those who choose to be members of our tribe. It seems well past time to consider patrilineal descent on a par with matrilineal descent.

Tue Sep 06, 06:22:00 PM 2022  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Sorry, let me try posting that URL as a link:
Allison's post

Tue Sep 06, 06:27:00 PM 2022  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's all well and good, but she either converted, or she's not Jewish. Or she could be Reform (and still not Jewish in the eyes of the rest of Judaism). So either the ocean was mikvah with witnesses l'shem giyyur or it was not and all that happened was she got wet.

Every religion, every people has inclusion and exclusion rules. I don't get to declare myself Canadian just because I like hockey and Tim Horton's, I'd have to go through a naturalization process to become Canadian. It's the same with Judaism. Mother is Jewish? You're a citizen. Mother isn't Jewish? You're not. The father is wholly irrelevant.

We should be welcoming and perhaps make the conversion process easier for people brought up thinking they were Jewish, but at the same time, there's no reason to weaken millennia-old laws.

Wed Sep 07, 02:51:00 PM 2022  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

We should certainly make the conversion process easier for people who were brought up Jewish but are not considered Jewish according to halachah (Jewish religious law). As with the rabbi in this true story, the rabbi should certainly take into consideration how much the person already knows rather than blindly insisting that they attend a conversion class as if they were starting from scratch, and perhaps calling the conversion ceremony an affirmation ceremony might also help.

Thu Sep 08, 08:38:00 PM 2022


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well part of the problem is if you feel that halacha can be changed simply by a vote of "what people want" then how is Conservative different from Reform?
Is there any aspect of Judaism that can't be changed or done away with just based on popular opinion?

Thu Sep 29, 11:12:00 AM 2022  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shira — based on Torah numbers 1:2Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers' houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.

Here we have patrilineal Judaism;

Also how would we really know ? Let’s see we modern historical record of a orthodox female conversion one that’s been sanctioned by Israel a very young woman say 18 . After conversion husband and wife attacked - husband is tragically killed wife unconscious; she lays unconscious for 10 years ; she wakes up but does not remember the events leading up to her conversion ; she leaves Israel marrying secularly in USA at 30 and has children who she doesn’t raise as Jewish—

In our case we have a document so we can identify as Jewish;

In actuality the issue for converts is better - my parents were both Jewish — I didn’t inspect their documents..

Go back prior to Israel - you know your parents where Jewish — what proof do you have ? What about their parents?

Can you prove that your great great great great grandmother was Jewish ?

Tue Nov 15, 09:18:00 PM 2022  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you know you are Jewish? Your mother

How does she know ? Her mother— how many generations of mothers can you probe ?

What if someone said I knew your great grandmother — she born in a Catholic orphanage all the records of her parents destroyed during wars ; she was saved as a baby by a Jewish family raised as a Jew but age 12 that family died they never told her but I know !

There’s never any formal conversion meaning all her decendents aren’t Jewish — you haven’t converted ? You assumed you were Jewish — but now facts question this ; should we dig up bodies of those who assumed they were Jewish but documents are not available?

Tue Nov 15, 10:12:00 PM 2022  
Blogger X said...


"Well part of the problem is if you feel that halacha can be changed simply by a vote of "what people want" then how is Conservative different from Reform?
Is there any aspect of Judaism that can't be changed or done away with just based on popular opinion?"

Well, I would prefer that any part of Judaism be capable of being changed based on popular opinion than having any part of Judaism *other than both matrilineal descent and the ban on intermarriage* being capable of being changed based on popular opinion. It doesn't make sense to argue that halakha is infinitely malleable except in regards to these two specific issues (matrilineal descent and the ban on intermarriage), since that creates an unprincipled exception to the general rule. (And even then, intermarriage is much more frowned upon for Jewish men than for Jewish women since traditional halakha doesn't allow Jewish men to pass their Jewish status onto their children, unlike for Jewish women. If one genuinely believes in sex egalitarianism, how exactly can one justify this?)

Fri May 26, 12:46:00 AM 2023  
Blogger X said...


"Every religion, every people has inclusion and exclusion rules. I don't get to declare myself Canadian just because I like hockey and Tim Horton's, I'd have to go through a naturalization process to become Canadian. It's the same with Judaism. Mother is Jewish? You're a citizen. Mother isn't Jewish? You're not. The father is wholly irrelevant."

The thing is, though, that rules need to be fair and reasonable. Imagine if Ireland allowed people to become Irish citizens at birth if they only had an Irish citizen mother but not if they only had an Irish citizen father. That would be denounced as blatantly sexist and unfair and there would thus be a huge push to change this rule, even if this rule would have hypothetically been in place for a long time. The Jewish matrilineal rule is extremely old, but then again, sex equality is itself a relatively new concept from a historical perspective. Even as late as 1919, women still didn't have the right to vote in much of the US, for instance. That was just 104 years ago! Except here the sexism favors women rather than men, which still isn't okay.

Fri May 26, 12:49:00 AM 2023  
Blogger X said...

"Exactly. But there are so many patrilineal Jews who just consider themselves Jewish who aren't willing to do that. I'm having trouble lately just wrapping my head around the idea that we Jews are rejecting so many people who just want to be accepted as part of the family. 😢"

This is in large part a problem because patrilineal Jews are being rejected for a shallow reason: Specifically the "need" to preserve Jewish unity even though Jewish unity is already massively undermined by different Jewish denominations often not recognizing each other's conversions. If that's acceptable, then why not embracing equilinear descent, which actually makes a lot of sense if one believes in egalitarianism?

One of the reasons that I strongly prefer Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to the rest is due to their egalitarianism, including on this issue. As a second-generation patrilineal Jew, I don't like to be spat in my face. In theory, I might not object to converting to Judaism if I was told that my level of Jewish upbringing (no bar mitzvah) is insufficient for a presumptive of Jewishness, but only if a matrilineal Jew in the same situation was given the exact same treatment. And of course converting to Judaism for a male is largely pointless in a Jewish movement that does not recognize bilinear descent since they cannot pass their Jewish status onto their children, and intermarriage happens widely enough that it's very far from guaranteed that they would actually marry a Jew. (I also dislike Conservative Judaism's intermarriage stance and think that they should start performing intermarriages conditional on the intermarried couples promising to raise their children in an exclusively Jewish home. Celebrating Christmas, et cetera could be compatible with this if Christmas, et cetera are viewed as secular American holidays in the 21st century rather than as Christian holidays like they used to be viewed. I myself never saw any tension between my own Jewishness and celebrating Christmas, et cetera, for instance.)

Also, as a side note, it's worth noting that rejecting patrilineal Jews also increases political bigotry towards them in Israel:

You have just one Jewish grandparent out of four? If it's a Jewish grandmother, the Israeli right-wing wants you in Israel, but if it's a Jewish grandfather, then they don't! The country of my birth, spitting in both my own and my other people's faces! Very sad! :(

Fri May 26, 03:50:00 AM 2023  
Blogger X said...

"and *many* other people's faces! Very sad! :("

(Corrected typo.)

Fri May 26, 03:51:00 AM 2023  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>