In the 50+ years I’ve been alive, I’ve kept my own internal turmoil over my Jewish journey, pretty close to the vest. It was buried deep within my kishkes for a long time.
I was adopted at birth from the Jewish Children’s Bureau (JCB, now known as JCFS.) Even though I was adopted by Jewish parents from a Jewish organization and attended Jewish preschool, I had this idea that I wasn’t really Jewish.
As a little girl, when kids asked me if I was Jewish, I often told them I was French and Catholic. (Just for a frame of reference, I also told them I had an elephant living in our family room.)
It’s not that I didn’t want to be Jewish or was ashamed of being Jewish, I just didn’t believe I was Jewish. At the tender age of five, when my parents told me I was adopted, it hadn’t occurred to me that it didn’t matter if I was Jewish via my bloodline or not.
Like so many adopted kids, I felt really confused.
disclaimer: My parents did an excellent job of telling me I was adopted. I felt loved, special and taken care of... and also, confused.
As I grew, I didn’t believe I could simply choose to be Jewish. My parents were obviously raising me Jewish, in a Reform temple that I went to for what seemed like an eternity. (I was confirmed at 16.) Why in the hell didn’t I think I was Jewish? I wanted to tell my mom I didn’t feel Jewish. I thought about telling my rabbi I didn’t feel Jewish. I was so ashamed of not feeling Jewish. So, I just kept “acting” like I felt Jewish.
I grew up in Skokie just north of Chicago. Skokie was once coined, “The World’s Largest Village.” Back in the 1970’s when I was a kid, Skokie was home to approximately 7000, Holocaust Survivors. I vividly remember the incident that made Skokie famous. I was there and they even made a movie about it… — Neo-Nazis wanted to have a rally and march in my village.
I was terrified; worried for my family, friends and all of the Jews who lived peaceful lives in my little, “big” village. By now, antisemitism, racism and other inequities infuriated me. I remember yelling when The Phil Donohue show had Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen on his show…ON HIS SHOW!!! I screamed at the TV at the top of my lungs at how wrong it all was. (I imagine my mom still remembers this. I was 12.)
Between the Skokie Nazi rally fiasco and that “Donahue” show, I quickly learned that injustice mattered to me and that it was my obligation to do all I could to fight injustice, racism and antisemitism. I had no idea how “Jewish” that was at the time.
Over the years, I rarely dated Jewish boys. It just didn’t seem that important as long as I was in love! (insert eye roll.) Ultimately, I went on to meet the non-Jewish man I would eventually marry and after two kids, divorce.
Before I got married, I made a decision to hire a private investigator to find my birth family. We didn’t have much information and I wasn’t very hopeful I’d get any answers to health history, who I looked like, and….. was I Jewish?
Three days after I hired the private investigator, my birth mother and family were found. “WOW!” followed by, “EEEEK!”
I was fortunate to meet my wonderful birth mom and from her, I learned that she’d converted to Judaism from Catholicism when she was pregnant with me.
So technically and according to Jewish law,
I embraced and celebrated my Jewish-ness except, I still didn’t know if I had any Jewish BLOOD in me. Why this mattered, I will never understand.
Maybe you have to be adopted to totally get this, but not knowing what other blood relatives can know so easily, was hard! And, even though I knew my birth mother, I didn’t know anything about the other half of my bloodline. No one else in my birth mother’s family was Jewish and by the time I met my birth mother, she wasn’t Jewish.
Was my birth father Jewish? For reasons, I won’t get into here, I do not know who my birth father is and probably never will.
So, this past year, once and for all, I decided to take a DNA test to find out more about my ancestry. When my results arrived, I glanced at my surprising and unique genetic combo…
As a reader, you might be thinking, “Why in the hell does this even matter to her?” I can’t explain it. When I saw that I had genetic Jewish roots, I cried tears of joy. To this day, I can’t explain why it mattered so much, but it mattered to me and that’s all that matters.
I know in the deepest core of my kishkes, I was born Jewish, have always been Jewish and will always be Jewish. For much of my life, I didn’t know I had Jewish genetics or a converted Jewish birth mother. As I obsessed about “not feeling Jewish,” through all of my questioning, I lived Jewishly and still live Jewishly today.
And like most Jews, I have personally experienced both blatant and “subtle” antisemitism; not just from strangers, but from friends and family who could really benefit from a commitment to education on what is simply NOT kosher to say or do.
When I worked in Jewish social justice, in accordance with the organization’s mission and values, I was loud and proud about working to fight racism, poverty and antisemitism in Chicago. I loved this work and the organization, (JCUA,) and still do.
Today, I am still that same girl who was yelling at Phil Donahue on the TV in 1978. We must continuously fight poverty, racism and antisemitism, together. If you’re not doing anything on Monday, April 4th at 5:00PM CDT, I urge you to attend, ORT in Conversation – Combating Antisemitism Through Education: A Global and Local Perspective. (It’s being held on Zoom and is a free event. Once you register, I will personally send you the link.) I want you to be there and ORT wants you to be there. If you think this is an invitation for Jews only or Jews in St. Louis, think again. More than anyone who makes it into this virtual event, I want my non-Jewish readers to join. It’s only by working together, through our differences, that we can chip away at antisemitism, racism, poverty and really, all societal inequities.
Okay, okay…Yeah… I’m Jewish.