Whether it's a potential convert from a Spanish-speaking country who discovers proof (or at least, compelling evidence) of a matrilineal line of Jews from the anousim or Jews who seem not to be Jewish (whether a possible Erev Rav soul-root or suspicions regarding the maternal line) or adoptees who uncover either Jewish or non-Jewish maternal ancestry, the underlying identity of a Jew or non-Jew continues to intrigue many of us.
For me, it has always been an enduring interest that refreshes itself anew every so often.
(As the generation above mine dies out without doing teshuvah or without even leaving Jewish descendants in some situations, my interest in the topic is renewing again.)
Nurturing Vibrant Trees with Robust Roots
In contrast to my former more kiruv rechokim-orientation, I found myself coming into kiruv-krovim — including being mekarev myself, if you know what I mean.
At this point, I feel that sincere davening for fellow Jews reaps more than external action, like talking and other kiruv-based interactions.
Having said that, for those who enjoy hosting secular Jews for Shabbos or passing out all sorts of Jewish pamphlets or Shabbos candles or giving kiruv seminars/classes, this is not meant as discouragement!
On the contrary, if you enjoy and succeed at kiruv rechokim, by all means — CONTINUE.
You're doing a lot of good!
But despite a lot of frum focus to the contrary, I'm slowly discovering the value of getting the core into healthy shape.
In other words, my focus has become more inner-directed. Not self-centered or selfish, but a fortifying of the roots and trunk of the tree, rather than developing more outlying branches.
While I don't necessarily apply this to those who clearly succeed in bringing assimilated Jews back into the fold, I feel that a deeper focus on improving and strengthening the core is vital — perhaps even more vital than searching out the assimilated.
(If our roots are strong and healthy, branches & blossoms will develop & multiply on their own.)
I think this reflects my renewed appreciation of Rav Avigdor Miller's approach, which clearly focused on building a vibrantly healthy core: a vibrant & sincerely frum Torah community connected directly to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Certainly, I developed a love of Rav Miller's Torah in my early twenties as a newcomer to frumkeit. I listened to so many of his tapes and bought the books containing his divrei Torah and Q&As.
But I appreciate him even more now.
And anyway, I see so much in myself that needs "kiruv." I've done so much work on myself over the years, and there's still so much work that needs to be done.
Furthermore, I can't help seeing how much there is to do within the frum community.
Whether it's participating in helping mommies recover from birth, tending the needs of sick people, supporting poor people, single parents (whether divorced or widowed), kollelim & yeshivot...there is so much good to accomplish WITHIN the frum community!
Helping other frum Jews find employment, creating businesses to serve frum needs, and especially...SCHOOLS.
There is so much to invest in the frum school system to ensure our children receive all their needs (spiritual, academic, physical, emotional) and nurture their precious souls in the best way possible so that they can become the best Jews possible and merit a truly wonderful portion in the World to Come.
And many of we religious Jews very much need chizuk from each other. We need to continue deepening & expanding our relationship with Hashem, our emuna & bitachon, plus exchange "light" with each other.
In addition, the open secret that even many frum Jews feel uncomfortable acknowledging is that many of our most vital mitzvot apply mostly to Jews who are shomrei Torah & mitzvot REGARDLESS of their particular affiliation (and even if another FRUM group holds some hashkafot that produce friction against your group's personal hashkafot).
If another Jew is shomer Shabbat, shomer kashrut, etc., we have a mitzvah to love that person, give the benefit of the doubt, refrain from speaking lashon hara or rechilut about that person, and so on.
A fellow shomer mitzvot is "your brother" (or sister).
Are there dissenting and more expansive opinions?
But the core opinion across the board is that a shomer mitzvot Jew is your brother or sister, to whom all the bein adam l'chavero mitzvot apply.
This is the Gemara. (Please see Rav Avigdor Miller's Should We Love Irreligious Jews? for a very brief summary with sources.)
If one is not shomer mitzvot (and especially if a Jew is ANTI-mitzvot), then not everyone says this is "your brother."
(Please see the above link, plus Rav Avigdor Miller on Loving All Jews and Loving Your Troublesome Neighbor and Can the Rav explain to us how we could actually learn to love all Jews? for even more.)
Excuse Me - WHO Exactly Did Hashem Take Out of Egypt Again?
In my family & former non-religious Jewish community, people are intermarrying (sometimes divorcing and intermarrying again).
Among the movements for Reform & Conservative (which is actual extremely liberal) fake "conversions" are all the rage, further diluting the crumbling Jewish identity of ignorant Jews (and deceiving non-Jews) by declaring 100% NON-Jews as Jews, and making these non-Jews believe they are bona fide Jews too.
I recently received photos and enthusiastic emails about Rosh Hashanah meals, complete with honey cake and apples dipped in honey, in which not ONE participant in Jewish.
Three generations of participants...no Jews left.
Just non-Jews, some of whom think they're Jews.
And while a non-Jew acknowledging Rosh Hashanah kinda makes sense (after all, it is a day of universal Judgement), these people will celebrate a Pesach Seder too, which has absolutely no connection to their history or souls.
But they sure love singing Dayenu and eating matzah ball soup.
I'm seeing Jews die without leaving one Jewish descendant.
A Jewish line stretching back centuries...culminates in a dead end.
And many of these people lived a lifetime steeped in cheit & aveirot (married to a non-Jew), some with random mitzvot interspersed within (like lighting Chanukah candles).
And despite all the information & resources available, despite the ever-expanding copious outreach & approachability of their nearby frum community, and despite outreach efforts directed at these people, plus being davened for by frum family members or other associates — these people make no steps toward teshuvah, not even one, until & including the moment they die.
Over 20 years of being their frum relative (including striving to be super-nice and receptive, sending these people appealing videos and links to kiruv websites, Shabbos invites — and actual Shabbos hosting, davening for them, plus their their own experiences — POSITIVE experiences! — of visiting Eretz Yisrael & the Kotel & spending Shabbos with a frum family, davening at a frum shul, and so much more) resulted in...nothing, nothing, nothing.
No effort on anyone's part and no experience — no matter how pleasant — nothing in authentic Judaism has touched them one iota.
What to make of it?
Who's a Jew? No, Really - Who IS a Jew?
Rav Avigdor Miller on Are You a Descendant of Avraham Avinu?
Apparently, the Rambam states (I don't know where) that a Jew who NEVER comes back to Torah and Mitzvot is not from the seed of Avraham Avinu.
In his great integrity, Rav Miller acknowledges that this isn't necessarily set in stone: "...I wouldn’t be stubborn as to tell you definitely. There may be some exceptions to the rule."
The fact that he describes his dissenter as a "chassidishe Rav" indicates that Rav Miller respects his dissenter's scholarship and that the chassidishe Rav based his dissent on legitimate sources and not sentimental feelings.
Also, Rav Miller himself admits that it's not necessarily absolute, as stated above.
Indeed, Rav Petiyah's Minchat Yehudah describes his encounters with Jewish souls who sinned throughout a series of lifetimes, never doing teshuvah and dying as complete degenerates.
They reincarnated again, and when they still didn't do teshuvah, they spent some time in unbearable hellish suffering in the Slingshot of Hell or an Ocean of Lava (which saying Kaddish helped to lift one man out of the lava for the duration of the Kaddish), then merited an afterlife rectification from Rav Petiyah.
So who's right?
Well, we know that all the big poskim in Chazal are correct, even when they contradict each other:
- I don't think it's difficult to say that in some situations, the unrepentant Jew really isn't Jewish at all, i.e., he is not from zera Avraham.
- Yet in other situations, he is from zera Avraham and will suffer another gilgul, some kind of Gehinnom, and/or rectification by a tzaddik if he doesn't do teshuvah in his lifetime.
In short (if I'm understanding everything correctly):
- You can hold by the Rambam and it is perfectly within your right to do so.
- You can also hold by an equally solid source that disagrees with the Rambam. It is equally within your right to do so.
But you can't go trashing the Rambam or any other fundamental source in Chazal.
And, like Rav Miller says, I don't think we can claim to know for sure.
We can hold by one giant posek or another, but we can't say with our small minds that we know.
However, if you want to make the most lucrative investment in your fellow Jew, then going with those who are shomrei Torah & mitzvot seems to be the surest way to go.
Nothing is 100%, nothing is perfect, but investing in fellow shomrei mitzvot appears to be the lowest-risk investment.
What about Blobs?
(That son married a non-Jewish woman, had a non-Jewish daughter with her, then he died when his daughter was around 8.)
The Jewish male family member then married a non-Jewish woman (but got her a fake conversion first). The "conversion" was totally bogus. She never intended to keep the 10 Commandments, let alone kashrut or anything else. They lit Chanukah candles & hosted a Pesach Seder every year, but that's the limit of their "observance" as far as I ever saw.
A non-Jew cannot convert with the intention of profaning even a single commandment (i.e. "I'll keep everything EXCEPT..."); such an intention invalidates the conversion.
Anyway, they had 2 children together.
I knew this man my entire life and all I ever saw was a quiet blob who was sometimes grumpy.
He always reclined in his chair, either at the table or on the sofa.
If he was on the sofa, he clutched a beer in one hand and watched sports on TV, preferably American football.
But it didn't matter. Any sport would do. He even watched horse races.
Even as a child, I thought that was weird.
(FYI, I never saw him drunk, just indolent.)
Sure, he held down a job and provided for his family. But other than that, he was a blob. Sometimes, when his non-Jewish son Harley irked him, he said his sons name in a Brooklyn-accented warning growl: "HAWWW-LEEEE..."
But that was it.
His children never seemed to like him, even when they were young. They certainly despised him when they were older.
Toward the end of his life, this man developed mental & physical debilitation.
Due to the expense, his non-Jewish wife resisted getting care-assistance for him, despite her physical inability to care for him properly. (She was also getting old.)
A couple of months prior to his death, his non-Jewish thirtysomething-year-old son finally had it out with him, yelling at him that he was miserly and that the son was sick of the father being such a tightwad.
(The inciting incident was the son's purchase of $400 dollar tickets to attend a ball game.)
I seriously questioned the appropriateness of such a confrontation when one's father is in a both physically & mentally decrepit state.
Childhood resentments aside, it seems kind of mean.
Anyway, he died before his fake-convert wife really needed to hire professional assistance, so everyone was relieved.
And no one misses him in the least.
That's sad, but it is the most expected result based on the way he lived his life.
To me, his whole life seemed sad & meaningless (and a bit grumpy).
Anyway, I'm not a mekubal and never will be, but since learning about the pinteleh Yid and all that, it has been hard for me to accept that this somewhat grouchy indolent useless & wholly assimilated blob was from zera Avraham.
The fact that he left absolutely no Jewish continuation, and that the one Jewish child he produced never displayed any connection to Judaism and also died with no Jewish continuation hints something to me.
I can't know for sure, but I'm with the Rambam in this particular case.
"You Know, Some of My Relatives are Jewish..."
There are the people converting to Judaism who discover a possible Jewish ancestor, whether a mother who gave them up for adoption or a long-dead great-great-great grandmother.
A chassidic friend of mine was approached by a co-worker who said, "I see that you're Jewish. You know, some of my relatives are Jewish."
"Oh?" said my friend. "Like who?"
"Well, my mother for one," came the reply.
His Jewish mother married a non-Jew, then she died when he was a toddler. His non-Jewish father made a second marriage to a non-Jewish woman, who raised this man as her son.
So he felt he was fully non-Jewish.
Fortunately, my chassidic friend managed to gently break the startling news of his true identity to him and he showed up at her and her husband's Pesach Seder that year.
Jews Under Cover in the Middle East
In the course of conversation, he revealed his mother's mother was a Jew from Yemen.
After a brief pause, my husband asked him if he realized that made him Jewish?
Yes, he was aware of that, he said.
But he was well-entrenched in the Muslim-Arab lifestyle, including marriage to a Muslim-Arab woman, with whom he had children.
His story represents the greater tragedy among the Yemenite-Jewish community.
One of my sons, who attends a yeshivah with many Yemenites, said that literally everyone has a story of an aunt or great-aunt who was taken by Muslims in Yemen and forcibly absorbed into the Muslim community.
Yemen borders on Saudi Arabia and these borders are new, relatively speaking. Based on some of the pro-Judaism attitudes coming from some Saudis today, one cannot help but wonder whether they are descendants of these stolen Yemenite Jewish girls.
The truth is that families all over the Muslim world have stories like this.
Rav Alon Anava has mentioned his own family's story, explaining how because of this, he has Jewish cousins is Syria & Lebanon who believe themselves to be Muslim.
My sister-in-law's aunt or great-aunt suffered the same fate in Morocco. She was abducted & forcibly married to a Muslim.
A couple of years back, one of this abducted woman's sons contacted the Jewish relatives in Eretz Yisrael.
Though they accepted him with open arms, he betrayed their trust somehow (my sister-in-law didn't go into any detail), so as a result, they felt they could not trust him in their homes.
He returned to Morocco, leaving his mother's Jewish family members feeling disappointed & exploited.
"All in all, he was raised as an Arab," she explained to me. "That's his identity and value system. He could not relate to us at all and was just trying to exploit the situation to his advantage."
Heart-Breaking True Story
We know a man who's great-aunt in Yemen was taken by Muslims in her preteens.
One of the things they did to break these girls was to force them to eat non-kosher food. (Then it was easier to forcibly marry them off to a Muslim and everything else that followed.)
But this Jewish girl refused.
So they locked her in the cellar and told her she couldn't come out until she would eat their non-kosher food.
She died in that cellar.
A 110-Year-Old Mystery
Born Mabel Rubin to Jennie Rubin from Russia & Moe Cohen from New York, she was almost certainly Jewish, but baptized and raised by church-going Americans from the time she was a baby.
Needless to say Mabel-Ann lost all her Jewish identity.
Even when she discovered her real roots, it seems like she never returned.
She had at least one daughter, Judy. Did Judy also have a daughter? It doesn't say.
But this probably-Jewish girl born in 1909 could easily have Jewish descendants today.
Maybe she has descendants converting or thinking of converting, with no knowledge that they are actually Jewish.
On the other hand, if you go by the Rambam, you could also postulate the reason why Mabel-Ann was basically lost to the Jewish people is because she is actually not from zera Avraham, despite the seemingly Jewish ancestry of her mother.
How's that for a whole big hodge-podge of "Only God knows"?
The Undiscovered Baby Exchange
(Yes, we're getting back to where this post started.)
When Irish-Catholic Alice Collins Plebuch took a DNA test for fun in 2012, she discovered that her proud Irish-Catholic father was most likely an Ashkenazi Jew.
Research nixed any possibility of illegitimate relationships or a hidden adoption.
It took years and a couple of lucky "coincidences" to discover the truth.
To make a long & convoluted story very short:
In September 1919 at the Fordham Hospital in New York, nurses accidentally switched the Irish Catholic baby Jim Collins with the Jewish baby Phillip Benson.
(The identifying mother-baby bracelets standard for today only came about in the 1930s-40s. In 1919, hospital births weren't common and certain practices hadn't yet developed. Hospitals relied on the nurse's memory and mother's facial recognition to determine whose baby was whose.)
So the Jewish family went home with a non-Jewish baby.
Did they ever suspect he wasn't really theirs?
No one knows, but interestingly, the parents of his first wife, Esther Abulafia, did not believe he was Jewish when they first met him.
Of course, they had nothing on which to rely their suspicions. They met the Bensons and saw they were bona fide Jews.
As far as the Bensons were concerned, this person was their biological son.
Except that he wasn't.
Think about that.
And think about how this probably wasn't the only time that happened.
(Even Rabbi Meir Lehmann has a based-on-a-true-story book about such a switch — I think it's called Del Monte.)
Furthermore, I wrote a post a long time ago with other stories along these lines:
Only Hashem Knows, So Just Stick Close to Him
The Non-Jewish Yeshivah Bachur
In many cases, the person converts. (The guy in the above example — the husband of a wonderful couple I met while becoming frum — converted & is an exceptionally fine Jew.)
But what if the issue hadn't been caught?
Or what if his parents hadn't told him he'd been adopted? (That happens less nowadays; but still.)
There's a famous story of an exemplary Ponevich yeshivah bachur in Bnei Brak who discovered his mother's conversion wasn't kosher. (That's a bizarre situation for a sincere convert, by the way. How did that happen? Not sure.)
Everyone was sure he'd convert too.
But he didn't.
Instead, he said: “Why should I be Jewish? That's so hard. I can be a kosher goy, a Ben Noach, and be a tzaddik. It’s much easier to be a tzaddik Ben Noach than a Tzaddik of a Jew.”
Then he removed his kippah and left.
Here's a link to the story (scroll down toward the end):
And what if that issue hadn't been caught? How would things have continued?
What if he'd married a Jewish woman, as happened with Esther Abulafia, who spent her much of her life married to a non-Jew?
Looking to Our Tzaddikim & Their Tefillot for Guidance
The Phillip Benson-Jim Collins switch is certainly chilling.
Esther Abulafia's parents are described as observant.
The initially expressed suspicions as to their future son-in-law's Jewish identity.
Yet their daughter unknowingly married a non-Jew.
She didn't want to.
Her parents didn't want her to.
But she did.
How on earth can one prevent such a hidden mix-up from happening?
Practically speaking, the best advice is found in our tefillot.
Looking over tefillot for parents to say for their children, I was struck by how concerned the tzaddikim were for ALL the future generations until the end of time.
For example, the Admor and author of Archot Aharon includes in his prayer a plea that one's children merit spouses from mishpachot kasherot v'hagunot (kosher and halachically proper families).
Rav Eliezer Papo, author of Pele Yoetz, composed several prayers for parents to say for their children, which also included kol yotzei chalatzeinu (everyone to issue from us) and kol zereinu v'chol hanilavim eleinu (all our seed and all those attached to us -- i.e, those who join our family, via marriage, etc.) to be without any blemish. (He even includes a plea for all descendants to be from zera anashim — human origin — a topic beyond the scope of this post.)
In Sefer Tzavat Abba, page 24, the tefillah includes a plea for there to be nothing passul (nothing flawed that nullifies one's descendants) "in my seed and in the seed of my seed until the end of all generations, and may there not come into our hands and not into our seed and not to the seed of our seed until the end of the generations any transgression and passul and ugly thing..."
The book Tefillah L'Ani offers a prayer for "our sons and our daughters, our grandsons and our granddaughters, and about all that issues from us until the end of the generations." It asks that we merit "holy and pure neshamot" that are clean from "kol shemetz shel pagam" (any and all unholy speck of blemish).
"Neshamot" implies specifically Jewish souls.
The above prayer repeats the whole "ad sof kol hadorot" (until the end of the generations) several times.
In reading all the tefillot written by tzaddikim for parents to say over their children, it's impossible to miss their concern for completely kosher zera throughout all generations until the end of time.
Clearly, they foresaw the problems we've been seeing on a sharp rise over the past 150 years.
And again, there are hints in these prayers not only about obviously halachically forbidden unions (non-Jews & mamzerim & betrothed/married women), but spiritually undesirable unions (like with Erev Rav or non-human beings, etc).
In short, there's a lot to daven for.
So for those of us concerned about this issue (and I think it IS a concern, especially nowadays), we've got these beautiful prayers to help us out.
And other than that, we'll need to wait for Mashiach to come and sort us all out.