So Am I Jewish?

So Am I Jewish? March 28, 2016

In early December Melinda was on, trying to track down her Cherokee ancestors, the Shellnuts. Her mother was born Lois Anne James (yep, related to Jesse). Looking at Lois’s maternal grandmother, she found that Alfred Shellnut had married a Rosa Salmat. Looking up that name, she suddenly yelled, “Oh, my God, I’m Jewish!” Yes, she is, and so are her sisters and all three of our kids. She has been chatting with a Rabbi who could see the whole family tree; no doubt about it.  She has now identified four relatives who died in the Holocaust and two who were murdered by Stalin. She was feeling angry that this heritage was hidden from her, but some very supportive Hassidic women she has also been chatting with advised her just to forgive her great grandmother, because we cannot know what she was dealing with.

My oldest daughter, Maeve, is also Jewish, because Alta’s mother, Edna, had been adopted. When Edna was a teenager, a small committee came to let her know she was the daughter of a daughter of a prominent San Francisco Jewish family (maybe the Hobergs or Reinhardts), because she had, of course, the right to know. I thought Maeve was no longer Jewish because she had been baptized at age six, when I was trying to be a practicing Catholic again, but when I met the wonderful Rabbi Sherwin Wine, while I was working for Jeremy Tarcher, he said, “Nah, that’s the Israeli Law of Return. By halakah, if you’re born a Jew, you’re always a Jew.”

Now, my grandfather was Jewish. Here’s the story. Jacob and Joseph Scheer came over through Hamburg about the 1850s. Joseph had two daughters. One, Katherine, wed an Irish cop named John Raymond Kelly whose beat was in Central Park; so her family disowned her; that’s how it was in New York back then. They had eighteen kids, and she taught them both traditions, to be Jewish Catholics.

William Henry Kelly, my grampa, was second, could flap his ears, had a red beard (when he let it grow), married an English-Irish-French Catholic girl named Gertrude Regina Cody, had three daughters, to whom he passed on what he had been taught of Jewish tradition, went into jewelry with Uncle Max, lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn—Avenue U and Ocean Parkway (there were also lots of Italians and Irish around, but turf’s turf)—went bust in the Depression, and had to sell car parts for the rest of his life. His daughters were raised Catholic, but still . .

Joseph Scheer’s other daughter, Anna, wed Joseph Slyman. Their sons, Joe Junior and Max, were the ones Mom called Uncle Joe and Uncle Max, though, to be precise, they were my grandfather’s cousins. The Slymans were the Jewish side of the family, and Willy—that’s what Gertrude called him—was always taking his daughters off with Uncle Joe to Hasidic weddings, Bar Mitzvah parties, Jewish businessmen’s lunches.

We kids did not know it was odd to have a mother, devoted to the Sacred Heart, who knew how to keep kosher, who swore under her breath in Yiddish (she knew only the swear words) so that we kids shouldn’t know what she was saying, and who made this wonderful sandwich spread for our school-lunch sandwiches that I much later learned was chopped liver. When sometimes asked, “Are you Jewish?” Mom always replied, “Who’s asking?” But I never heard of the Seder until my best friend in high school, Alan Rein, told me his family kept it. I found it hard to grasp why such staunch atheists would celebrate the Seder. It took me years to begin to grasp how the Jewish sense of identity works.

Anyway, this year, Melinda’s sister Phyllis, as the oldest Jew in the house, lit the candles on the menorah that Melinda had bought quite a while ago. We are planning to keep the Seder ourselves, on April 22. This raised the question of whether we could use the traditional, orthodox script for it. Having been practicing Pagans, we certainly would not feel comfortable using a rigidly monotheistic script. However, since I had known Rabbi Wine, I looked up his Humanistic Seder ritual. It’s gorgeous. I think we can easily use it. It’s much like the secular blessing Alan said to begin dinner with his family when I last visited him. I’m also thinking about whether we could do a sort of Humanistic Shabbas dinner, at least once in a while.

So am I Jewish? As I once said to Jeremy Tarcher, “I know by orthodox Rabbis I’m not Jewish, but then, by Orthodox Rabbis, who is?”

Jeremy shrugged and said, “Certainly not me. Let’s get back to work.”

But Reform rules are different. Dealing with the problem of shrinkage caused by Jewish men marrying Gentile women, the Reform Rabbis decided a while back that children of a Jewish father will be considered legally Jewish if they are raised within Jewish culture. (The Israelis aren’t buying this, of course.) So, retroactively, my mother could have been considered Jewish if their household had been Jewish enough. I don’t know how much is enough. I think I need to meet and ask the Rabbi of the Secular Circle in Seattle what the Humanistic rules are.

I know the question of whether I’m Jewish or not should be discussed only within the Jewish community. The opinions of Gentiles have no standing. Recently I was chatting in the lunchroom with our new Dean, Tara, who is also from a straddling-the-fence kind of family. I was saying to her, “So here I am, in between my grandfather and my kids. I’ve never flat-out claimed to be Jewish, because that has always felt like I might be claiming something precious that I’m really not entitled to. But I suppose that’s a rather Jewish attitude, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she replied, “It certainly is.”

What else do I need to do in order to say, in good conscience, without having my fingers crossed, “Yes, I am a Jew”?  I need to find out. I was born in 1940, and, by my Jewish Grampa, if I’d been born in Germany, I would have been sent to Auschwitz as a Jew. I think that still counts. And if I find myself talking to a Nazi, then I am a Jew. This is very relevant for the current election. I have been posting, “TRUMP IS A NAZI!” about once a day on Facebook. He is luring the anti-Semites out of the woodpiles they’ve been hiding in. A friend who is an openminded, extremely well-informed Evangelical scholar has been remonstrating with me that such postings do not lead to civilized conversations. No, they don’t. I am not going to be polite to a Nazi, any more than a Witch would be polite to an Inquisitor. Never again.


"Reading this in 2021. Wondering if, after nearly a decade, how much of this still ..."

What Is a Witch?
"Aidan, it's been two years. Are you still with us?"

An Overview of My Life and ..."
"i'd give my eye teeth to find out more about this "kentucky line" ... i'd ..."

A History of the Craft in ..."

Browse Our Archives