Just found out my family's Jewish--how do I learn more?
December 25, 2016 11:02 PM   Subscribe

My maternal grandma died recently, and we found out after her death that she was Jewish. I want to learn more and go to a service, but I also don't want to blunder in there, and I'm feeling sort of overwhelmed. Any advice for how to go about exploring this?

I didn't want to go into too much detail in the initial question, but I know the way I wrote it makes me sound like this is my first brush with Judaism, which isn't entirely accurate. I was very curious about Judaism as a child, because I had Jewish friends, but my dad is a very devout evangelical Christian, and my mom always cut off the conversation whenever I asked her questions (Grandma did the same to her--I guess she was really committed to hiding it), so after a while I stopped asking.

I took a few religious studies classes in college, and got even more fascinated by it the more I learned about it, so I bought a bunch of books on Jewish thought and ethics and just felt this enormous sense of relief that here was a way of relating to the divine that didn't create ethical dissonance for me. College probably would have been the ideal time for me to explore it, but I felt like I was doing something illicit and I chickened out. My parents always told me my curiosity about it was weird and inappropriate, and I believed them.

Now I'm an adult, I've been living away from my parents for years, and as silly as this probably sounds, I feel like finding out about Grandma was the final push. But I also have nothing but theoretical knowledge, and my two Jewish friends are enthusiastic atheists, so I'm not comfortable asking them for advice (they're great, but I feel vulnerable about this and am not looking for a lecture about how religion is stupid). The nearest temple is Reform but doesn't seem to have intro classes. Can anyone help me figure out what to do next? It feels presumptuous to just email the rabbi with my nebulous longing to know more.
posted by ElizaDolots to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
(Not Jewish but moving into buddism) I decided I was interested in Buddism for no particular reason. The first step was just to show up. I picked a temple kind of at random and it turns out they are a great group of people.

Go to a service. Watch, meet people. Be open. I'm sure people would be accepting that you are new and want to learn because of your heritage.

Everyone has to learn from somewhere. As long as your not all out rude, ask genuine questions and follow the crowd you will be okay. It may feel awkward, but over time that will ease up, and as you learn more you can develop preferences.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:43 AM on December 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: E-mail the rabbi, clergy live for that shit (she says, with affection).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:55 AM on December 26, 2016 [26 favorites]

Best answer: Emailing the rabbi is not at all presumptuous. We're Reform, but have never officially belonged to a shul. That said, when Kid Ruki was born, our local Reform rabbi happily welcomed me into his office just to chat, and came out to my FIL's home to do a naming ceremony. It's not unusual for rabbis to meet with seekers one on one. Don't let the fact that they don't have into classes discourage you. Also, Judaism is a matrilineal religion, so you are, literally by definition, Jewish. Own that if you want to. (Pro tip: the rabbi wants you to!)

And you can absolutely start incorporating Judaism into your life on your own. You can buy a prayer book that has the Hebrew transliterated. If you can obtain a menorah in time, there's six nights of Hanukkah left.

Welcome to the tribe. We're glad to have you.
posted by Ruki at 1:08 AM on December 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, email the rabbi. It isn't presumptuous - a "nebulous longing to know more" is pretty much exactly how I would describe the most devoutly Jewish people in my family, and the three rabbis I've been close with.

A word about your atheist Jewish friends - Judaism is kind of odd in that there are many ways to practice it while not believing in god. That's kind of complicated stuff that you don't need to worry about unless it feels right for you, but don't assume they will immediately pull a Dawkins on you if you want to share your experiences with them down the line.

Situations like yours happen all the time, by the way. A grandparent keeps their religion a secret and generations later someone feels the pull and discovers their heritage. It's a whole phenomenon, born of the consistent persecution of Jewish people and our need to hide to survive.

So the upside to this is that there is a whole structure in place for people like you, and also Judaism has a lot of things that can be practiced privately at home. Good news, you've already been doing a really Jewish thing by studying the history and discourse of the religion on your own. Keep it up, or start it up again! Do you still have your old textbooks? If not, visit your local library and see what's available to borrow. The synagogue might have its own library that you can utilize even if you aren't a member - express your interest in study to the rabbi and if they can they will hook you up.

And right now it's Hanukkah, which isn't a particularly big deal as holidays go but I suggest making potato pancakes and lighting stuff on fire. A warm start to a new path.
posted by Mizu at 2:03 AM on December 26, 2016 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry about your grandmother.

A lot, perhaps most, of Jewish life and rituals takes place outside synagogues and temples. If I were you I'd start by getting invited to Shabbat dinner (preceded by services at a nearby synagogue if you like, but totally not necessary).

Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organisation that basically exists for people like you to dip their toe in the water, so to speak, without making a huge comitment. If you're still college-aged than campus Chabad would probably be a good choice, both for Shabbat dinner and other Jewish events. There are other groups and individuals that would be just as good, of course. If you're comfortable telling us where you live then I or somebody else here could make recommendations.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:05 AM on December 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can totally recommend the Judaism for Dummies book - it covers all the bases. Online, JewFAQ (terrible name) is a really great resource - it's Orthodox, but assumes no prior knowledge. I agree with everyone else that calling up your local synagogue and meeting with the rabbi is something people do, and would be totally acceptable, as would just plain attending a service (though because most services are Hebrew-heavy, you might want to read up a bit before you go). If it's an Orthodox service, you might even get a meal invitation afterwards.

I wouldn't worry about feeling like an interloper. In fact, if this is your mother's mother, as it sounds like you're saying, then technically you're Jewish yourself. But even if not, this is part of your heritage. Madeleine Albright discovered she was Jewish in her late 50's and wrote about it in her memoirs - it's never too late.
posted by Mchelly at 4:09 AM on December 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It isn't presumptuous. First of all, Judaism is matrilinial; you have a right to this heritage and it is yours already. Second of all, congregations welcome found Jews all the time; this is A Thing. Watch the trailer for Children of the Inquisition; people are discovering their family's Jewish roots and their own Judaism 500 years after their forebears were forced underground in the Inquisition diaspora, and are returning to the faith all over the world. You are absolutely not alone in this at all.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:38 AM on December 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just want to echo what others are saying about not feeling like an interloper. My maternal grandmother was Jewish, too, and when I was younger I always felt weird claiming Jewishness, because I wasn't really raised Jewish, but the response from fellow Jews has always been "of COURSE you're Jewish, do you want to come to my temple/Shabbat dinner/Jewish singles mixer?" Jews are very welcoming to fellow members of the tribe, including those just trying to figure it out.

The other thing is that there are, as you're seeing in this thread, so many ways of being Jewish, because it's not just a religion, it's also a culture (actually, several cultures) and an ethnicity (again, several ethnicities). For me, as a non-religious person, it's more about heritage and about the community I tend to find with other "Jew-ish" people. So I would go ahead and contact that synagogue, or find a Jewish social group, or really anything that sounds good to you.
posted by lunasol at 7:43 AM on December 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Situations like yours happen all the time, by the way. A grandparent keeps their religion a secret and generations later someone feels the pull and discovers their heritage. It's a whole phenomenon, born of the consistent persecution of Jewish people and our need to hide to survive.

Just wanted to echo that this is not uncommon. A friend of mine didn't know she was Jewish until she went to visit some long-lost cousins in Sicily. I myself am starting to suspect that I am Jewish, after a BRCA1 testing flurry in my family, and a mother's mother's mother who was born Lyzkowski back in Poland.

I also know several Jews who are culturally Jewish, rather than fervent believers, since Judaism is one of the few religions that encompasses both a religious faith and an ethnicity. No one, Jew or Gentile, thinks they are "less Jewish" for it.

So, you aren't going to do it wrong, whatever you choose. Email the rabbi and enjoy the journey. :-D
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:54 AM on December 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Please be careful with Orthodox/Haredi/Chabad/Hasidic outreach groups (or individuals who want to teach you stuff.) They are very friendly, and homey, and seem easygoing, but there is the hidden (or not always very visible) agenda of hoping that you will become more observant and fulfill Jewish laws in the specific ways that they believe all Jews should. Luring flies in with honey, so to speak. And the insular nature of these communities can breed some awful things that aren't apparent to outsiders.

(Source: my mom became Orthodox when I was a kid, and I went along for the ride.)

Also, totally echoing that emailing a rabbi is totally fine. Definitely do mention the whole maternal grandmother being Jewish thing.

If you are looking for something on the more traditional side, start with Conservative. Go to Orthodoxy only if your experiences and studies in other flavors of Judaism lead you to want Orthodoxy.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:16 AM on December 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing, yes, e-mail the rabbi. Even if s/he doesn't teach an existing class, s/he should be able to recommend one in another town, or an online course, or reading materials, and/or have a chat with you. And echoing what others have said, you're ethnically Jewish already because of your matrilineal descent, and it's totally up to you from now on how you choose to express it. Studying and inquiry is a very fundamental part of Jewish tradition, so you're off to a good start. Welcome!
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:28 AM on December 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Email the rabbi! Or at least the synagogue. I went to a class at a temple a few years ago and wanted to check that it was okay as a non-Jewish person and a non-member to go to that particular class. They were responsive and helpful and the class was really interesting.
posted by bunderful at 9:05 AM on December 26, 2016

Nthing needs more cowbell; these groups are fundamentalists who have the same views about women as fundamentalists of other faiths.
posted by brujita at 9:15 AM on December 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just another atheist Jew here, checking in to say yes, you *are* Jewish, by virtue of your grandmother, and yes, we are glad to have you. Welcome (back) to the tribe.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:50 AM on December 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Um, actual Orthodox Jewish person in this thread, right here (and a feminist). We don't all have some cultlike fundamentalist agenda.
posted by Mchelly at 12:11 PM on December 26, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I know this isn't true everywhere, but most Jews in a synagogue (not just Rabbis) that you would encounter at a service would be enthusiastic (possibly overwhelmingly enthusiastic) about becoming someone looking to reconnect to their Jewish heritage.

One thought is that much of Judaism is about doing (not believing) with a emphasis on doing in community (not alone). Which means that you should make an effort to try to Jewish experiences - not just read out it. Go to services. (If you call the office first, the secretary can tell you not just the schedule but if there are special events, which services might be a better fit (Friday night family service? Saturday morning Torah study? Saturday morning full services? upcoming holiday?)

Also, try out different synagogues or Temples in your area. Each one (even in the same denomination) will have a different style and personality. My husband (like you had a Jewish grandparent but raised Christian, although unlike was dating a Jewish girl) liked Conservative better than Reform because it has a more traditional style (but without all the ritual observance of the Orthodox). Other people find Reform more approachable since it has less Hebrew and shorter services. Then again, the specific rabbi or cantor (or even a friendly usher) can make an even bigger difference in your experience so feel free to shop around and see what you find.

I could go on and on (I would definitely be of of those over enthusiastic welcomers - if you like in the San Jose area, me-mail me) - just post new question as they come up.
posted by metahawk at 12:21 PM on December 26, 2016

Best answer: Just wanted to comment on the posts that the maternal grandmother makes you Jewish - it is actually more complicated if the person was been baptized in the Christian faith. My husband's grandmother was Jewish by birth, joined the Episcopalian church and her children and grandchild were raised as Christian. When my husband wanted to affirm himself as a Jew, our Rabbi had to consult with other rabbis about whether an official conversion was necessary. (He said something about having to look into looks about apostasy and kidnapped children). So there are lots of facts and fine points of law but it really is only relevant at the point that you decide that you want to fully align yourself in a ritual sense with that part of your heritage.

For OP, please don't let this technicality get in the way. I think it is wonderful your Grandmother's roots in Judaism has helped move forward your own quest. I would encourage you tell people that your maternal grandmother was Jewish (to the extent that you want to talk about) because Jews will see that a meaningful connection (as it is.)
posted by metahawk at 12:39 PM on December 26, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you so much for the warmth and all the info, everyone. You've made me feel a lot less nervous about pinging rabbis. I'm probably going to start with a Reform temple because the Hebrew thing is a bit intimidating. I just grabbed Judaism for Dummies for my Kindle, too--thank you so much for the recommendation!

Mchelly: I know Orthodox Judaism is pretty diverse, so no worries there about me thinking it's fundamentalism. I'm fascinated by Orthodox feminism ever since I encountered an essay on the ethics of cloning by Laurie Zoloth, who identifies herself as speaking from the "curious corridor voice" of Orthodox feminist ethics. I was expecting--from my knowledge of the stricter forms of Christianity--something rigid and punitive. It was not what I expected, to say the least; I love how comfortable it is with not having all the answers, and its unspoken assumption that justice and compassion aren't at odds, but are in fact deeply intertwined. It also led me to Levinas, for which I am very grateful.

I'm in Woodinville, WA, but thank you so much for the invite, metahawk! And thank you for the information about complications with descent. I don't know if my grandmother formally converted to Christianity, but my mom was baptized.
posted by ElizaDolots at 2:45 PM on December 26, 2016

Feel free to modify advice you get to fit your personality. My mother in law is someone who is comfortable going up to strangers and starting a conversation, maybe trying to get an invite for Shabbat dinner. I am most definitely not. I find the thought of doing something like that terrifying. But I converted to Judaism- they do take introverts.

If you live somewhere with a synagogue, they might have an Intro to Judaism class. If that sort of thing appeals to you, it might be worth considering. Most of the people in it will be considering converting to Judaism, and most of those will be because they're romantically involved with a Jewish person.

There are books with transliteration of the Hebrew used in services. Conservative prayer books (I'm Conservative, so it's the denomination I'm most familiar with) seem to be getting better about this over time.

If you go to a Shabbat service, they won't pass a collection plate (many traditional Jews won't handle money on Shabbat). Someone might ask if you'd like an aliyah (to go up front and say blessings over the Torah), but you can say no. If you're a man, you might be expected to wear a head covering, but most non-Orthodox synagogues will have bins of yarmulkes that you can borrow. The kind of clothes you might wear to a Catholic or mainline Protestant church service (minus any Christian-themed jewelry or the like, of course) would probably be acceptable. Don't take out your phone or Kindle during services unless you see several other people doing it. Some traditional Jews won't use those devices on Shabbat. If you're like me and don't like not knowing what time it is, and you use your phone for a watch, get a watch. Don't take pictures unless you see several other people doing it. Turn off the ringer on your phone before you go in.
posted by Anne Neville at 8:55 PM on December 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're in Woodinville, Kol Ami is the obvious option -- that's a reform synagogue. For conservative, I would suggest Beth Shalom in Seattle. Rabbi Jill Borodin is really good with this kind of stuff. They also have a really wonderful conversion class called "Living the Jewish Year." Even though you might not technically need to convert, you would want the class in order to learn how to practice. Good luck!
posted by femmegrrr at 9:31 PM on December 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was in pretty much your exact position. As previous comments have mentioned, this is not uncommon.

Your first stop should be Barb Kessel's wonderful book, Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots. It's more of a collection of personal narratives, but taken together, they are really powerful.

I started a very short-lived discussion group with her in New York about 10 years ago, with several people in your/our very position. Lots of conversations about what the revelation meant to them (and didn't mean to them). It was really helpful to me, especially in conversations with my mother, sister, and partner's family (who were all raised as observant Jews).

Me-mail me if you want to chat.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:10 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mchelly, I'm familiar with the Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg, about whom I've read was prevented from fully participating in her faith's mourning rituals for her son when he died.
posted by brujita at 11:53 AM on December 28, 2016

[brujita, good point, I responded in MeMail so as not to derail here]
posted by Mchelly at 12:28 PM on December 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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