In an unexpected plot twist to your life, you just found out you are Jewish. You may or may not already realize that in the twenty-first century this has become quite common. For several reasons, more people now than ever before are discovering their lost Jewish heritage:
- Because of the internet, people who were adopted, put into foster care or otherwise estranged from their birth parents have more resources available to them for tracing their family tree.
- Because of DNA testing, individuals are now able to get answers to the missing pieces of their ancestry that would have otherwise been lost forever.
- 3 generations after the Holocaust, many survivors are revealing secrets they never told their children and grandchildren, and Jewish identities are finally coming out of the shadows.
Whatever your unique story is, you now have a new facet of your own identity to wrestle with, which is very appropriate since Israel literally means “to wrestle with God.” Welcome to the struggle!
Here are 3 things to consider as you wrestle with what it means to have Jewish ancestry:
1. Who is a Jew?
The definition of a Jew is highly contested within the Jewish community itself and continues to evolve over the millennia. As someone who has recently discovered your own Jewish heritage, you will have to decide for yourself how and what that identity means to you, but it’s helpful to understand the broader conversation.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the children of Israel (the Jewish people) are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s twelve sons who came to be known as the tribes of Israel. Tribal identity was passed on through a child’s father.
Today, for a variety of reasons, Rabbinic Judaism is matrilineal. Any child of a Jewish woman (biological, adopted or, in some cases even an egg provided by a non-Jewish donor but then carried in the womb of a Jewish woman) is automatically considered a Jew by the religious Jewish community. 1 The Israeli government has also affirmed this definition.
The widely accepted understanding in the Jewish community concerning individuals with Jewish ancestry, but not a Jewish mother, is that they are the “seed of Israel.” The seed of Israel is a term in Jewish law (called halakhah) applying to anyone with a non-Jewish mother but a Jewish father, or one Jewish grandparent that is not a direct line from grandmother to mother. Millions of Jews have immigrated to Israel under the “Law of Return,” which grants Israeli citizenship to the descendants of Jews, the seed of Israel.
The seed of Israel also has a broader definition that is applied to individuals with Jewish ancestry dating back several generations. It was through this understanding of halakhah that thousands of Ethiopian Jews were allowed to immigrate to Israel over the last few decades. 2
The testing of one’s DNA is a rather new addition to the conversation and has been applied in various ways. A recent ruling in Jewish law now permits a specific genetic test to be used as proof of Jewish descent for certain Ashkenazi Jews.3 The precedent for this was set in 2010, when an Israeli woman was granted status as a Jew in Israel by using her DNA as proof of her Jewishness on her mother’s side.4 However, a 2015 academic study on genetic testing and the Law of Return found that many rabbis are still skeptical. One rabbi said he believed genetics could be a “consultant” to Jewish law, while for others, fear remains concerning the “dangerous eugenic overtones.”
In the law of the Israeli government and the eyes of the Jewish community at large, if Jewish ancestry is not directly from an individual’s mother, they are not legally a Jew. However, they are still undoubtedly connected to the Jewish people as someone with Jewish heritage, which is important in its own right. Prominent rabbi and former member of the Israeli Knesset (house of representatives) Haim Amsalem, told Breaking Israel News that, "We need to bring close those who have their roots in Israel, those souls who stood at Mount Sinai with us, but their souls were lost to us because of the exiles and the catastrophes and tragedies that befell us throughout history." 5
Chabad, one of the largest and most well-known Orthodox Jewish organizations in the world, has long been at the forefront of welcoming those with Jewish ancestry back into the tribe. In an article titled “I just discovered I am Jewish! What do I do now?” Howard Tzvi Friedman, senior editor for Chabad.org, proclaims,
You are one of us, and wherever you go, anywhere in the world, you will be one of our family. You can walk into any synagogue or Jewish community center and say, “Hello, I just discovered I’m Jewish,” and you will be embraced as a long-lost sibling. 6
It is important to also note how the modern understanding of Jewishness is quite different from the Biblical understanding. The Biblical rule is that Jewishness is traced through the father’s line. Even up to the first century, those with a Jewish mother and Gentile father were given a choice of identifying with the people of Israel or not. 7
2. Being Jewish is more than a heritage; it’s an experience.
Whatever source your Jewish ancestry comes from, you have an undeniable right to claim that as a part of who you are. But when someone says, “I’m Jewish,” they often mean a lot more than just their lineage; they mean the experience they have had of being part of a unique and often marginalized people.
If you recently discovered you are of Jewish background, and you want to unpack what that means, take the time and intentionality to engage in the Jewish experience. Here are some opportunities you might want to consider:
- Read: The most influential book of all time, the Bible, was written by Jews. If you’ve already read that one, a great place to turn next is with a reading list. There are many Jewish book lists to be found online, as well as print and digital publications.
- Meet: Go out of your way to connect with other Jewish people. Ask them what types of classic Jewish experiences they would recommend to you, and ask them what being Jewish means for their own lives.
- Visit: Holocaust museums and memorials can be found in 33 different countries. Even if you have been to one before, you may view it with different eyes now that you have a more personal connection to the Jewish people. I also recommend visiting a historical synagogue if you have an opportunity to do so. You could also attend a service at a local synagogue or Messianic congregation. The easiest way to find one would be through an online search.
While eating matzo ball soup and watching Funny Girl won’t give you the full experience of what it means to be Jewish, a little humility and humor can go a long way. If you find yourself trying to weave together the tangled threads of your lineage, you’ve already tapped into the heart of the Jewish story – longing to return from exile.
3. Being Jewish means being chosen.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God calls the Jews His chosen people. He chose us to be a nation of priests so that the rest of the world might learn who He is and come to worship Him (Exodus 19:3-6). God’s calling for us as a people and as individuals is to be His messengers – to bring the message of reconciliation with God to the ends of the earth.
If you found out you are Jewish and you are considering publicly identifying yourself as Jewish, my challenge to you is this: are you willing to take on the responsibility of the calling that God has given the Jewish people?
As a Jewish follower of Jesus, it is by telling others about God and the Messiah that I fulfill the destiny of my ancestors and of my people. I hope you will join me in bringing the good news about the Messiah to the world. This is our mission, should you choose to accept it.
1. MJL Staff, “Ask the Expert: Egg Donors,” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ask-the-expert-egg-donors.
2. Maltz, Judy, “How a Former Netanyahu Aide is Boosting Israel's Jewish Majority, One 'Lost Tribe' at a Time,” (19 February 2015), https://www.haaretz.com/how-one-man-is-pumping-up-israel-s-jewish-majority-1.5308899.
3. Chernick, Ilanit, “Should Jewishness be determined by a genetic test?” (25 November 2017), http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Should-Jewishness-be-determined-by-a-genetic-test-514968.
4. Wheelwright, Jeff, "Defining Jews, Defining a Nation: Can Genetics Save Israel?" (14 March 2012), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/defining-jews-defining-a-nation-can-genetics-save-israel/254428/.
5. Berkowitz, Adam, “DNA Tests Could Fulfill God’s Promise to Abraham by Revealing Millions of Jews. But How Jewish is Jewish Enough?” (29 November 2016), https://www.breakingisraelnews.com/79302/dna-tests-fulfill-gods-promise-abraham-revealing-millions-jews-jewish-jewish-enough/#ef0qGxwCCu441D0Y.97.
6. Friedman, Tzvi, “I Just Discovered I’m Jewish! What do I do now?” https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2944949/jewish/I-Just-Discovered-Im-Jewish.htm.