Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Am I Still Jewish? (Part 1)

Who is a Jew? Controversial question among Jewish people. Answers differ depending upon who you ask.

According to Judaism 101 (, for example, Jewish religious law and traditional Orthodox groups make the determination through the maternal line. If one's mother is Jewish, he is Jewish. Even if he doesn’t practice Judaism or identify as a Jew, religious authorities will consider him to be a Jew. Even atheists born to Jewish mothers are considered to be Jews. Formal conversion to Judaism is also a legitimate path to Jewish identity. However, liberal Jewish groups, such as Reform Judaism, consider a person to be Jewish if either of his parents is Jewish and the child was raised Jewish. To muddy the waters further, some Orthodox groups do not recognize the conversions of those affiliated with the Conservative or Reform groups. And what about the people who consider themselves to be Jews who are the children or grandchildren of any of the above scenarios?

Oy Vey! It’s all so complicated.

In my case, my father was an Ashkenazic Jew and my mother was a Polish Catholic. They met and married while they were both serving in the military in 1947. My father was the first member of his family to marry outside of Judaism.

My father’s family tried hard to accept my mother. My great-grandmother, Fanny, taught my mom how to separate dishes in order to maintain a kosher kitchen. My grandmother, Lillian, taught my mom how to cook Jewish cuisine. They grew to love my mother and until her death, my mom affectionately called my grandparents “mother” and “dad”.

We became a blended family. When I arrived, my birth was a joyous occasion with me being the first Jewish grandchild. My grandfather went to the synagogue and gave me the Yiddish name of Heshke (sometimes spelled "Hashka") Ella bat Shimon. For my brother, four years later, there was the bris (circumcision ceremony).

One of the other things my parents did to try to make their interfaith marriage work was to celebrate the holidays of both traditions. My mom hosted the Christian and secular holidays at our house, and the Jewish ones were hosted in the home of my paternal grandmother. Although my brother and I were raised with smatterings of Christianity in our lives, we identified as being Jewish. We never attended church, but we did go to the synagogue. We perceived Christmas and Easter as extensions of the secular holidays, having no religious significance, just another day off from school.

It wasn't until my parents divorced and my mother moved out-of-state to live with her family that we were enrolled in a Catholic school and forced to practice Catholicism. Can you imagine? Two little Jewish children yanked away from a large, loving Jewish family and enrolled in a Catholic school? I was barely 12 years old. Within the timeframe of one year, the nuns prepared me for baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. I was caught up in the whirlwind, too young to fully understand what was going on. I remember one time when a nun slapped my face because I told her that Jews did not kneel to pray.

At home, I was a grieving child in extreme emotional agony. My mother’s alcoholism was progressing, and I was also being molested by one of her brothers. My father had gotten remarried to a Jewish woman and they had a child, a little girl. How jealous I was that my sister had taken my daddy and had him all to herself! I felt abandoned and alone. Life as I had known before my parents’ divorce was stolen from me and replaced with a wretched nightmare from which I could not awaken.

It was during this time that I found comfort and solace in the Catholic Church. The image of the suffering, crucified Christ on the altar spoke to my own pain. The inviting, outstretched arms of the Virgin Mary statue from her niche nurtured and soothed my aching heart. Stories of martyred saints reinforced my sense of victim hood. I no longer felt alone.

At the same time, my identity as a Jew was strong. Summer vacations and regular phone contact maintained the ties of kinship with my father and the rest of my Jewish family. But they were so far away, and my Jewishness seemed out of immediate reach. Despite the psychological peace I felt when I attended mass, I knew in my heart that Jesus was not the son of God. Around the age of 16, I returned to Judaism. My grandfather wrote a letter of introduction to the rabbi at a local synagogue and asked him to accept me as a student. After almost a year of studying, the rabbi called me into his office one day after class and told me that he wanted me to join a class that was preparing for formal conversion to Judaism. Shocked, I replied, “But why? I’m already Jewish!” He calmly explained that I was not really Jewish because my mother was a Christian. Oh how I cried later that night in a telephone call to my grandfather. He gently encouraged me to participate in the conversion ceremony. I still remember his words: “This way, no one can ever say that you’re not a Jew.”

How could anyone say that I was not a Jew? Me, Heshke Ella bat Shimon, whose formative childhood years were spent immersed in Jewish culture and ethnicity. Did I need to convert because the wrong parent was Jewish?

To be continued, Insha Allah ...


otowi said...

Wow, moving story - thanks for sharing, I look forward to the rest.

أبو سنان said...

Interesting. I think you'd get probably a dozen different answers depending on who you asked in the Jewish community.

From Orthodox Jews I think the answer might be that you were not a Jew in the first place as they believe the religion passes from the mother, not the father.

I think the same holds true for Israel, Israeli citizenship would not be automatically given to someone who doesnt have a Jewish mother.

There are many different ways of what being "Jewish" means. It can mean religion, ethnicity, and culture. Sometimes you have all three, sometimes you have one or two.

I was raised Protestant in an otherwise Catholic wider family. When I got older I decided to follow Catholic worship instead which angered my father a bit. At the end of the day it made no more sense than Protestantism.

That is why I ended up looking at Judaism and Islam. That in itself is interesting as my father disliked both Jews and Muslims.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing more. The conflicted feelings of race, religion and nationality are ones that are important to me because of my situation and because of the boys.

UmmSqueakster said...

This entry reminded me of a NYT story I heard about on NPR.

Looking forward to the rest of the entry

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Abu Sinan (if I read my Arabic correctly!):

You addressed part of what I am going to write about, Insha Allah, in Part 2, i.e., the ethnic/cultural Jewish identity. Also, a grandchild of a Jew can obtain citizenship under the Right of Return law. Ironic language, isn't it, "right of return" considering how the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Pious Orthodox Jews do not agree with Zionism!

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Rahma:

Wow! Thanks for this link! I read that there is current legislation being reviewed to address conversions made by those in Reform and even Conservative movements. The Orthodox, in general, do not consider them to be Jewish. They are seen as deviant sects, lol (sound familiar?). They are considering the legislation because of the right to return of the convert.

Interesting the Jewess in the article is named "Sharon" because it is my secular name!

Insha Allah I will fine-tune this story/article and try to sell it to a Jewish magazine or e-zine. "Lilith" is particularly openminded just like "Azizah". The consideration of all I am writing about, PLUS the twist of me apostating and becoming Muslim may give it a marketable hook, lol.

Anonymous said...

Touching story, sister!

-M Shaikh

أبو سنان said...

You Arabic is spot on. You know, there has always been a rumour in my family that we could have been Jewish at one point.

My last name is one of those that can either be German, or Jewish. There are several famous people with my last name, both Jewish and German.

Adventurous Ammena said...

thanks for the story sis... very moving :)

Anonymous said...

What a story, what a revelation in your words, dear Sister, as if you wrote this post in the blood of your heart. Of course, I know part of what you feel. I can't wait to read the next part :)

Ya Haqq!

Avi said...

It is sad to see a Jew abandon the faith of their ancestors. You are only a Jew because your ancestors prefered death or oppression to accepting a foreign faith- if you are Ashkenazi then your ancestors went to their deaths during the Crusades singing the Sh'mah and if you are Sephardic, they left Spain rather than be baptized. They certainly rejected Muhammad the Madman as well.

You have thrown away your heritage for a pot of lentils. Our faith is not based on philosophy or rigid dogma but the collective national revelation at Mount Sinai. Millions of Jews stood at the foot of the mountain and heard HaShem proclaim that He is our G-d and we are His nation, eternally. Such an aqcuisition is forver- the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel were given as an inheritance to the sons of Jacob. No other religion can claim such a mass revelation. Muhammad, on the other hand, got the Qur'an alone in a cave with no witnesses. Are you willing to stake your eternity on so flimsy a claim? Return to the Torah of your ancestors! "Return O Israel unto HaShem your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity" (Hosea 14:1). HaShem is waiting. Come back to Him, my sister.

Anonymous said...

Asallam Alaikum S2S,

I have just spent the past 6 hours reading ALL of your posts! Just wanted to let you know what a great blog I think you have,Alhumdulillah! I can really relate to your life before Islam and now that you are Muslim.Insh'Allah I will be visiting your blog very often!Thank you! TinaAhmat

Peace & Blessings!

Safiyyah said...

Shaalom Bar Kochba:

Am I "willing to stake your eternity on so flimsy a claim?"

You bet I am!

Who was the witness when Moses received the 10 Commandments alone on Mt. Sinai? But Jews today believe in the claim of what Moses received. It is a matter of faith, brother.

Do you realize that all three monotheistic faiths have the same message? That there is one God? That no one has the right to be worshipped except Him?

In Hebrew transliteration: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

In Arabic transliteration: La ilaha illallah

Same message! It's the people in these faiths that take the basic message to the left.

Thanks you so much for visiting and leaving a comment.

Avi said...

The Torah testifies to the uniqueness of the Mount Sinai event.

'You might inquire about times long past, from the day that God created man on earth, and from one end of heaven to the other: Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fires as you have heard and survived?' (Deut. 4:32-33)

Maimonides writes:

Israel did not believe in Moses, our teacher, on account of the miracles he performed. For when one's faith is based on miracles, doubt remains in the mind that these miracles may have been done through the occult and witchcraft...

What then were the grounds of believing him? The revelation on Sinai which we saw with our own eyes, and heard with our own ears, not having to depend on the testimony of others... (Mishna Torah - Foundations of Torah 8:1)

Muhammad and Islam can make no similar claim. The Torah will never be replaced as made clear by the verse "It is not in heaven... the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it" (30:13-14). And neither will it be changed. (Deut 4:2) "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." So why did you convert? Please, I would like to know.

Happy Muslim Mama said...

Assalam-alaikam sis,

Very moving writing. I always perceived you as so strong mashallah, this is a side of you I have not felt in your posts before. I look forward to reading the rest of your story. Maybe Emel or Sisters magazine would be interested in your writing?

Anonymous said...

Dear Sister, I want to hug you! Or at least hug you as a little girl, pick you up and whisk you away from all that pain. But then, hardship is what creates the need to surrender.

And what is this about Muhammed pbuh receiving revelation in a cave? The entire Qu'ran was not revealed in a cave, it was revealed over years and many times, if not most, the Sahaba witnessed the Prophet receiving the revelation.

'A'ishah said, And I saw him when revelation came down upon him on a severely cold day, then it departed from him and his forehead dripped with sweat'

'Z'aid ibn Thābit said, Allāh sent down revelation on His Messenger, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, and his thigh was upon my thigh and it began to make its weight felt to me so much so that I feared that my thigh might be crushed.'

Safiyyah said...

Shaalom Bar Kochba:

For the answer to the question of why I converted, I intend, Insha Allah, to address that in Part 2!

My question to you, however: Am I still Jewish even though my religion is Islam? According to the Zionists, I have the right to Israel citizenship under the Right of Return law. This is the point of what I am writing. Who is a Jew and what defines being a Jew: religion, ethnicity, culture, etc.?

Anonymous said...

Salaam 'alaykum dear sister,

What a fascinating & heartrending story!

As you know, we have a similar conversation in our community, i.e., who is really Muslim?

Although the word itself implies orthodox practice (one who submits to God), there are many Muslims who cleave to an ethnic/cultural/secular Muslim identity, just as many Christians and Jews do.

Your writing style draws one in completely - did you ever see our anthology call? If you're interested contact me. Though the deadline has passed, perhaps we can work something out.

And in the meantime, I look forward to the next part of the story!


Avi said...

Judaism is neither a people or a religion. It is a religio-people. The concept makes more sense in the ancient world as, for example, being a Moabite meant worship of Chemosh or a Greek meant worship of Zeus. The Jew is of the nation of Israel, worshipping HaShem. A Jew is the descendant of a Jewish mother or a Torah-authentic convert, and not the member of another faith.

Safiyyah said...

"Yehudi01" left the following comment:

"You are not a Jew, of course. It is unthinkable that a Jew with even a modicum of education would take up sides with vermin. You are not a Jew. You don't follow our
G-d, you follow ... (deleted/edited by Safiyyah).

Yehudi01: thanks for stopping by. I respect and value your comments, but will not tolerate disrespect toward our Prophet (saw). If you want to have a respectful conversation about the post, you are welcome to comment. But, please be respectful. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

assalamualaikum sister..

In my hands now, I have three books that I borrow from a mosque, "a history of the jews", "zionism, the myth and the reality" and lastly "living by the sword".

I dont know why I picked up those books, I guess it is my curiosity..anyway, next time if I have any questions related to subject matters, I know I can rely on you..insha allah..


أبو سنان said...

Considering that according to some polls, 50% of Israeli citizens of Jewish background do NOT practice Judaism, it would be a misnomer to say that what unites Jews or Israelis is the worship of God.

If a majority do not worship, then this cannot be true. At this point in time being "Jewish" is far more than religious worship.

Anonymous said...

"Am I Still Jewish?" You know Safiyyah baji; this is a question I ask myself everyday! No matter how many Purim cookies I eat, no matter how many times I watch A Stranger Among Us. I know that somehow it would be obvious that I was a poser at synagogue. OK my humor is horrible, but in all seriousness; what defines a person’s Jewish identity? Is it belief? Is it practice? Is it to be exclusive? Is it a cultural identity? Is it ethnicity? Everyone have a different opinion. I am fascinated to hear your experience.

Saaleha said...

I knew someone once who called himself Anglican. But he did not believe in Jesus being the son of God. He confessed to not knowing what to make of Jesus :-)

He said that he wanted faith without all the religious dogma. Which is why I too find myself leaning towards sufism. Though I cannot call the Islam I live that at all.

I call it mutual respect. Lakum deenukum wa liya deen, to those of other faiths.
and to muslims who hold differing views, I accept their right to this and know that only Allah is in the position to make decisions regarding the rightness or wrongness thereof.

Molly said...



I don't even know what to say. So much of this echoes my life in ways. Its not the same path, but the same route.

Alhumdulillah for you in this world. I am so thankful for you.

UmmFarouq said...

An amazing journey...I look forward to reading more.

Sakeenah said...

As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullah
Dear sister thank you so much for sharing, you have been through so much I am happy you have found the peace of Islam. To make a comment on one of Bar Kochba's statement. the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, received revelation spread out over time, not just all oat once, and there were recorded witnesses to it.
Look forward to the rest of your post inshaallah

Dear sister I am including an article for your benefit inshaAllah you may edit it out if you like of course:

Anonymous said...

Assalaamo alaikom sis Safiyya,

When are you going to write/publish part 2? (no pressure :))