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Who are the Jews?

When is a Jew a Jew?

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Until recently, Jews have been a people without a land, a people in exile. They lived then, as most Jews today do (unless they are living in Israel), in the Galut. Although the Biblical tradition states that 'Jewishness' comes through the male line (which is why the genealogies, apart from the odd exception, only showed the men), the rabbis stated that, to be a true Jew you need, as a minimum requirement, a 'Yiddishe Momma' (a 'Jewish mother' ). This deviation was brought about through practical reasoning. During times of extreme persecution, the identity of one's father was sometimes doubtful and, even when the father was known, one didn't particularly want one's child brought up as a Russian Orthodox or as a Cossack. You always knew who your mother was and, even if you had the blond hair and blue eyes of an unknown father, you would still be brought up under the protection of the Jewish community as one of their own.

Of course intermarriage has also occurred on a voluntary basis and explains why Jews from a given country, such as Germany, France or Ethiopia, in many cases look just like Gentiles from the same country.  When the Ethiopian airlift arrived in Israel at the time of the African famines, many a voice was heard to exclaim, "But they're schwartzers!", only to be answered, "Yet heimische schwartzers, nu?" Roughly translated into the Queen's English this becomes, "I say, these chappies are coloured chappies!" followed by, "Oh yes, my good man, but they're one of us!"

Others have become Jews through marriage (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor) or preference (e.g. Sammy Davis Junior). To become a Jew, a non-Jew has to undergo some formal study. In the orthodox tradition a man still has to undergo circumcision and a woman has to learn how to make a good chicken soup (I think, though I may be wrong). It's a lot easier in the reform tradition, which just goes for the basic studying and a formal declaration. If this is all in the context of a marriage, it is sometimes referred to as a 'mitzvah marriage', defining it as a mitzvah or a 'good works', by adding to the household of Israel.

It's not so straightforward to stop being a Jew. Of course you can simply deny your background and not tell anyone. This is quite easy to do if you move solely in Gentile circles, though your racial characteristics, to say nothing of ritual scars, may prove a bit of a give-away! Sometimes, particularly when you're going through a time of personal rebellion, you say to yourself, 'I'm an individual, I don't want to be labelled'. You don't want the cultural baggage of a 'different tradition', particularly one that, as a rule, is looked down upon by your peers. I know of at least three cases in my family alone when first names or surnames have been changed to hide one's Jewish identity. Many entertainers, particularly those from immigrant families, have changed their names in order to further their career. It is doubtful if Sid James (of 'Carry-on' fame) would have been so endearing to the British public if he had kept his name - Solly Cohen!

In March 2009, Rabbi Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, told a group of 300 rabbis from across Europe and Israel that assimilation, where for one reason or another Jewishness is lost, is the biggest threat to the Jewish community today. It has been estimated that now, in the UK, about half of Jewish marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, with this figure rising to 72% in the USA. This is an unprecedented situation and could be seen, at worst, as a form of national suicide on the part of the Jews of the Galut. At this rate surely Jews outside Israel could end up as a marginalised minority community, with little or no influence on society.

During the 19th Century there were many cases of Jews becoming Christians, in name only, in order to further their career in society at large, usually in the realm of politics. An example of this was Benjamin Disraeli, the English prime minister and Karl Marx, the philosopher, who were both, in fact, brought up as 'Christians' by Jewish parents. In earlier times, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, some Jews in Spain and Portugal, as an alternative to death, accepted a form of conversion to Christianity, though still preserving Jewish traditions in private. These were the Marranos, mentioned earlier. In the Talmud, one of the books of Jewish tradition, it says that 'an Israelite, even though he sin, remains an Israelite'. This basically means, once born a Jew, you remain one, whatever mischief you've been up to and whether you like it or not.

Many books have been written exploring the issue of Jewishness and trying to define whether a Jew belongs to a nation, a race, a tradition, a religion or a state of mind. I don't wish to add any more to this discussion except to mention one interesting fact ... next week!

For the next article in this series, click here.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

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