My son, the Christian?!

CHAPTER 7: So, nu! who's a Jew?

So, as the title states, who exactly is a Jew? And who isn't one? At a time of unprecedented mixing between the races we find ourselves in a society inhabited by folk of all hues and mixtures of traditions. My own children have the culturally confused heritage of English secular Judaism mixed with Polish Catholicism. My wife comes from a German/Polish background; her German mother is an Atheist and Polish father a Catholic. What does that make our children? According to one definition they are not Jewish by birth, but another tradition would make them as Jewish as they wish to be and yet another tradition, the Nazi one, albeit for the wrong purposes, would make them Jewish on account of their grandparents' background and nothing else. If you go to Israel and expect to see a nation of olive skin and brown eyes you'll be surprised at the blond hair and blue eyes you'll see, even in that bastion of national identity, the Israeli Army. These days, contrary to the belief of some, you can't measure your Jewishness by the size of your nose. Mind you I am reminded of a true story of a friend, a Gentile, who only discovered when he was in his twenties that his father was Jewish. His first words at this discovery were, 'Ah, so that explains the nose!'. This story aside, we need a better way of defining Jewishness, which brings us back to our original question, 'Who is a Jew?'.

A. Back to the Bible

Let's first go back to origins. One thing that everyone agrees on is that all Jews can trace their origins back to the Patriarch, Abraham, about 4000 years ago. I bet you didn't know that he came from a family of Iraqi idol-worshippers - though, of course, the country wasn't called Iraq in those days. He came from a city called Ur in the region known as Mesopotamia. Ur is one of the oldest recorded cities and its ruins are still visible today, though you'll need to travel to the edge of the al-Hajar Desert in Iraq to see it. Abraham, then known as Abram, according to the Bible, had a divine calling and left his home city and moved to the area of Canaan, now modern day Israel. Abram was the first man to be called a Hebrew, a name coming from Eber, his ancestor and a descendant of Shem (from whom we get the name 'Semite', a term usually used for anyone of Middle-Eastern origin, and 'anti-Semitic', a term curiously only used in relation to Jews), who, in turn, was a son of Noah. Shem, who spent all that time in the Ark with Noah and his family, was still living at the time of Abram. Mind you, he was 465 years old at that time and probably the oldest man alive. What conversations they could have had together!

So God called Abram and, because Abram responded in the right way, even so far as being willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, he was granted certain promises. He was granted, on behalf of his descendants, the title deeds to not only the land he now lived in but to a much larger area (more about that later). As mentioned earlier, his name was changed from Abram to Abraham, which means 'father of many'. This title makes sense now as Abraham is revered not only by Jews, but also by Arabs, who also trace their origins back to him, through his son Ishmael. Christians also see him as a sort of 'spiritual' father, and he is spoken about in glowing terms at various places in the New Testament

But there is no such thing as a free lunch! Much squealing must have been heard in camp on the day Abraham and his son were circumcised. They didn't have the benefit of anaesthetic or the trusting nature of an 8-day-old baby! Abraham was 99 years old when he was snipped. And no men in his household escaped from this ordeal, even foreign servants. They were all put to the blade. You see, Abraham and his descendants had to visibly show their acceptance of these promises by God, and, through the rite of circumcision, we had a physical reminder of this 'covenant' between God and his people. And this rite has continued through the ages to modern times, for all Jews, whether religious or 'traditional Jews'. Of course circumcision has now broadened its appeal, whether out of health (possible prevention of cancer) or fashion (e.g. English upper classes), but the Jews had it first! Although for many Jews it has become just one facet of the various rituals that have come to us as 'Jewish traditions', one must not forget that its origins are very much religious origins.

Abraham had two sons. The first was Ishmael, the 'forefather' of today's Arabs. God told Abraham that Ishmael was to be a wild donkey of a man who would live in hostility with all his brothers, a fairly accurate prediction when we consider that the second son was to be the 'forefather' of the Jewish nation. This man was Isaac, who's name means 'he laughs'. You may say that he had little to laugh about in his early years, having been almost frazzled on Abraham's altar as a burnt offering. But things got better. He got to marry Rebekah, who was very beautiful and a distant relative. He also had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Esau became the manly one, the older and the stronger, a hunter by profession. Jacob, the younger by a few minutes, was the weak girlie one. He was quiet and preferred to hang around at camp. He was mummy's little favourite! Today he would be the accountant or estate agent (no offence intended!). He was such a weed that he was betrothed to the beautiful daughter but was tricked into marrying the ugly daughter and only found out in the morning, presumably because he was so drunk the night before to notice! Now, with Woody Allen in mind, rather than Kirk Douglas, which one became the ancestor of the Jewish people? Why, Jacob of course. To get the full story you'll need to read the Bible, but needless to say Jacob lived up to the popular (but incorrect) translation of his name (according to the NIV Bible 'Jacob' figuratively means 'he deceives' although it actually means 'heel grabber') and cheated Esau out of his inheritance as the first-born. But Jacob was still the chosen one of God and even had a wrestling match with him! Could this be the same man whose second wife hired him out to his first wife for a night of passion in return for a bunch of vegetables? Yes, it was, and we can only presume that his life of hardship strengthened him mentally and physically. Jacob survived the bout with the Almighty (three rounds, one submission) resulting in, for him, a new name. His name was now Israel, which means 'He struggles with God'. This is the origin of the name, Israel, and, as we'll see later, this new name was to be very apt.

The Jewish people have, at certain times, been known as the 'Children of Israel'. We can look at this literally and we discover that Jacob (or 'Israel') had twelve sons. The ten boring ones were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin. The two interesting sons were Joseph and Judah. Joseph is interesting not only because Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical about him but because his story is so extensively documented in the pages of the Bible. It is also a great story (why do you think a musical was made about it?). Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and it is from his name that we get the name, Jew. Just as Jacob received the blessing that rightly belonged to his elder brother, Esau, here we see Judah leapfrogging over three elder brothers. Reuben, the eldest, forfeited his blessing by sleeping with his stepmother. The other two, Simeon and Levi, had too violent a nature ( they slaughtered all the men in a city in vengeance for the rape of their sister) to be trusted with a divine mandate.

So, that's where the word Jew comes from, like it or not. Jewish origins are religious in their nature, all early Jewish history comes from the pages of the Bible. Jewish history started with these men, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah and as time passed, beliefs, attitudes and traditions were handed down and built upon. By this means a Jewish identity was strengthened and a sense of 'Jewishness' was the binding force that kept this people separate. Every man knew who he was and where he came from. Genealogies, or family histories, were kept, tracing one's ancestors through the male line (i.e. Solly begat Hymie who begat Moishe and so on), the understanding was that you were only Jewish if you had a Jewish father. These genealogies were meticulously recorded and stored. One reason was because the Messiah of Israel, when he was to come, would need to have an impeccable pedigree and there would need to be proof of his royal lineage.

Of course people then ( as now) were allowed to convert and join the Jewish community with full rights, the only provision being circumcision for the men. These people were known as proselytes and have always been welcomed with open arms by the Jewish community.

B. When is a Jew a Jew?

Since those times until recently, Jews have been a people without a land, a people in exile. They lived then, as most Jews today do (unless they are living in Israel), in the Diaspora, which means 'dispersion'. Although the Biblical tradition states that 'Jewishness' comes through the male line (which is why the genealogies, apart from the odd exception, only showed the men), the rabbis stated that, to be a true Jew you need, as a minimum requirement, a 'Yiddishe Momma' (a 'Jewish mother' for those unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of Yiddish). This deviation was brought about through practical reasoning. During times of extreme persecution, the identity of one's father was sometimes doubtful and, even when the father was known, one didn't particularly want one's child brought up as a Russian Orthodox or as a Cossack. You always knew who your mother was and, even if you had the blond hair and blue eyes of an unknown father, you would still be brought up under the protection of the Jewish community as one of their own. Of course intermarriage has also occurred on a voluntary basis and explains why Jews from a given country, such as Germany, France or Ethiopia, in many cases look just like Gentiles from the same country. When the Ethiopian airlift arrived in Israel at the time of the African famines, many a voice was heard to exclaim, "But they're schwartzers!", only to be answered, "Yet heimische schwartzers, nu?". Roughly translated into the Queen's English this becomes, "I say, these chappies are coloured chappies!", followed by, "Oh yes, my good man, but they're one of us!".

Others have become Jews through marriage (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor - though I think her synagogue attendance has dropped off a little in her later years) or preference (e.g. Sammy Davis Jnr ). To become a Jew a non-Jew has to undergo some formal study. In the orthodox tradition a man still has to undergo circumcision and a woman has to learn how to make a good chicken soup (I think, though I may be wrong). It's a lot easier in the reform tradition, which just goes for the basic studying and a formal declaration. If this is all in the context of a marriage, it is sometimes referred to as a 'mitzvah marriage', defining it as a mitzvah or a 'good works', by adding to the household of Israel.

It's not so straightforward to stop being a Jew. Of course you can simply deny your background and not tell anyone. This is quite easy to do if you move solely in Gentile circles, though your racial characteristics, to say nothing of ritual scars, may prove a bit of a give-away! But this is becoming more and more common, and is something that I have lapsed into at times in my life. Sometimes, particularly when you're going through a time of personal rebellion, you say to yourself, 'I'm an individual, I don't want to be labelled'. You don't want the cultural baggage of a 'different tradition', particularly one that, as a rule, is looked down upon by your peers. I know of at least three cases in my family alone when first names or surnames have been changed to hide one's Jewish identity. Many entertainers, particularly those from immigrant families, have changed their names in order to further their career. It is doubtful if Sid James (of 'Carry-on' fame) would have been so endearing to the British public if he had kept his name - Solly Cohen! The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the governing body of Jews in this country, have highlighted assimilation, where for one reason or another Jewishness is lost, as the biggest threat to the Jewish community today. It has been estimated that now, in America, about half of Jewish marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, with less than a fifth of the Gentile partners converting to Judaism! This is an unprecedented situation and could be seen, at worst, as a form of national suicide on the part of the Jews of the Diaspora. At this rate surely Jews outside Israel could end up as a marginalised minority community, with little or no influence on society.

During the nineteenth century there were many cases of Jews becoming Christians, in name only, in order to further their career in society at large, usually in the realm of politics. An example of this was Benjamin Disraeli, the English prime minister and Karl Marx, the philosopher, who were both, in fact, brought up as 'Christians' by Jewish parents. In earlier times, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, some Jews in Spain and Portugal, as an alternative to death, accepted a form of conversion to Christianity, though still preserving Jewish traditions in private. They were known as Marranos, which meant 'swine', giving you an idea of the high esteem they were held in! In the Talmud, one of the books of Jewish tradition, it says that 'an Israelite, even though he sin, remains an Israelite'. This basically means, once born a Jew, you remain one, whatever mischief you've been up to and whether you like it or not.

Many books have been written exploring the issue of Jewishness and trying to define whether a Jew belongs to a nation, a race, a tradition, a religion or a state of mind. I don't wish to add any more to this discussion except to mention one interesting fact, which is now explored ...

C. When is a Jew not a Jew?

The best test you can have of your 'Jewishness' is to see if the State of Israel would grant you citizenship. In 1948 the Knesset, the parliament of Israel, formulated the 'Law of Return'. This states that any Jew can receive Israeli citizenship the moment he or she sets foot on Israeli soil. It doesn't matter if you do or don't believe in God or the Bible, or whether you're a communist, an astrologer, or even a convert to Hinduism - as long as you've got the papers to prove you're a Jew, you're welcome. There is only one group of people who are definitely not welcome and they are Jewish Christians, or Messianic Jews. In fact, at the time of writing, Israel's Parliament (the Knesset) is now considering a law which would make it illegal to distribute leaflets or information that could 'persuade' another to change their religious views - there's no doubt which religion is in mind here, and who are being targetted! I'm not banging a drum here, I'm only stating facts. It's OK if you have no belief in God, or believe that God is another name for Nature or even believe that God has three heads and a tail! All of these are acceptable, Israel will welcome you with open arms. But if you believe that the Jewish Messiah has come and his name was Jesus Christ (actually Yeshua Ha Mashiach was his proper Jewish name), then, in the eyes of the Jewish establishment you have 'lost your Jewishness'. You have become the enemy, or, in the eyes of the orthodox, you've died and, if you come from an orthodox family, a funeral will be conducted for you!

These are strong reactions indeed. You can be a mass murderer or a compulsive adulterer, but you can still be Jewish and will be allowed your very own place in the State of Israel - albeit in a maximum security prison. But in the eyes of a State that claims, as a whole, not to even be religious, your Jewishness can be stripped away like the skin off a banana, simply by believing in something they disagree with. Now take one step back and with a clear, rational mind just consider for a moment what you've just read. Why should one's beliefs provoke such a reaction? Is it rational, or is there something going on here that needs further investigation? I personally believe the latter.

D. There's something special about these folk

Now speaking as an ex-Jew (according to the argument above!), I am extremely proud of the achievements of my people and conclude that there is definitely something special about these folk. Now there are about 12.5 million Jews world-wide (1995 figures), out of World population of 5,300 million. This means that about 0.25% of the world is Jewish; about 1 person out of every 400 eats gefilte fish and reads the Jewish Chronicle (This is probably a bit of a generalisation as not even most English Jews read the J.C. and some of us actually hate fish!). So one would naturally expect that 0.25% of the worlds' scientists, musicians, entertainers, writers etc. etc. would, on average, be Jewish. Well, it hasn't worked out like that, something has gone wrong in our calculations, our decimal point has gone haywire! Just looking in the period since the mid nineteenth century we find that about 25% of the world's scientists have been Jews. That's a full one hundred times too many! It has been estimated also that, in 1978, over half the Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. Over 50% of the main contributors to the progress of mankind that year coming from 0.25% of the population! The mind boggles.

(i) Jews who have shaped our lives - the facts

Here is a partial list of people of Jewish ancestry who have 'made it' in the world at large in the last couple of hundred years, rather than just being known in Jewish circles.


Elie Wiesel , Isaac Bashevis Singer , Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Jack Rosenthal, Philip Roth, Leon Uris, Nora Ephron, Erica Jong, Harold Robbins, Hugh Schonfield, Neil Simon, Norman Mailer.


Edward G Robinson, John Garfield, Lee J Cobb, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Robin Williams, Melvyn Douglas, Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss, Walter Matthau, Lawrence Harvey, Winona Ryder, Gene Wilder , Maureen Lipman, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Benjamin, Elliot Gould, Michael Douglas, Anouk Aimee, Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Barbra Streisand, Alma Cogan, Helen Shapiro, Milton Berle, George Burns, Danny Kaye, Lenny Bruce, The Marx Brothers, Bud Flanagan, Sid Caesar, Woody Allen, Harrison Ford, Mel Brooks, Sophie Tucker, Dinah Shore, Eddie Fisher, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Topol, Billy Crystal, Marty Feldman, Jerry Lewis, Sid James, Jack Benny, Frankie Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Elkie Brookes, Neil Diamond, Leonard Cohen, Harry Houdini, Howard Werth, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff, Paula Abdul, Jackie Mason, Theda Bara, Fanny Brice, Bernard Bresslaw, Bernie Winters, Alexie Sayle, Ben Elton, Joan Rivers, Lionel Blair, Marjorie Proops, Claire Rayner, Uri Geller, Ruby Wax, Dani Behr, Tania Bryer, Muriel Gray, Ron Moody, Warren Mitchell, David Baddiel, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock), William Shatner (Captn Kirk), Saatchi & Saatchi, David Copperfield, David Suchet, John Suchet, Lou Reed, Mark Knopfler, Goldie Hawn, Vanessa Feltz, Stephen Fry, Debra Winger, Vidal Sassoon, Linda McCartney, Marc Bolan, David Schneider, John Bluthal, Miriam Karlin, Miriam Margolyes, Janet Suzman, David Kossof.


The Warner Brothers, WIlliam Fox, Louis B Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis Selznick, Adolph Zukor, Jack and Harry Cohn, Jesse Lasky, Lew Grade, Lord Delfont, Steven Spielberg, Sam Wannamaker, Michael Winner, David O Selznick, Joseph Mankiewicz, Alexander Korda, Billy WIlder, Roman Polanski.


Benjamin Disraeli , Sir Herbert Samuel , Anatoly Scharansky , Leslie Hore-Belisha , Manny Shinwell , Leon Blum, Leon Brittain, Lord Young, Nigel Lawson, Gerald Kaufmann, Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Howard, Greville Janner, Edwina Currie.


Milton Friedman , The Rothschilds, The Montefiores, The Samuels, the Sassoons, The Montefiores, The Goldsmiths, The Montagus, The Mocattas, George Soros.


Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir George Henschel , Gustav Mahler, Mendelsohn, Offenbach, Georges Bizet, Benny Goodman, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lionel Bart, Jerome Kern, Larry Adler , Steven Sondheim, Sammy Cahn, Jacob Epstein, Marc Chagall.


Albert Einstein , William Herschel , Neils Bohr , Albert Michelson ,Heinrich Hertz, James Franck, Paul Ehrlich, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Isidor Rabi, Claude Levi-Strauss, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Buber , Karl Marx , Heinrich Heine, Spinoza, Sigmund Freud , Alfred Adler, Jonas Salk.


Harold Abrahams, Mark Spitz, Gary Jacobs, Ronnie Rosenthal, Joel Stransky, Eyal Berkowitz, Phil Cohn (as we're struggling in this category, I'm putting forward my grandfather, a useful boxer in the '20s in the East End, I'm told, and the first and last time he'll ever be written about).

(ii) Yes, Jews have shaped our lives - the puzzle

Now I've finished wallowing in national pride. Let's face it, most books you have read on the subject would have just left it with the above lists in order to leave the impression in your mind of 'look at us, aren't we great! Don't the facts speak for themselves?' But we need to say what is usually not said explicitly. There is something special about these folk! But what is it? Is it in the genes, a biologically inherited characteristic? Is it the environment, perhaps something about being herded into ghettos and forced into inward contemplation? These are definitely contributory factors probably in the same way (and it has to be said) why Afro-Caribbeans excel at music and sport (how many white sprinters / heavy-weight boxers / basketball players etc do you know?). But Jewish people have impacted the world in so many different spheres and have influenced the thinking of the world so dramatically, that we need to look deeper at this situation. The three men who have, arguably, most influenced the 20th century, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, were all Jewish, as were the founders of two of the main world religions, Judaism and Christianity. Even Mohammed, the founder of Islam, drew greatly from Jewish sources. I'm sure someday someone will discover that the Buddha was a victim of the first Diaspora who got lost and ended up in India!

Like it or not, we Jews are pretty religious too. There is a joke that is told, in various forms, by Jews the world over. It goes something like this, in a heavy Yiddish accent:

'Sadie Cohen, an elderly Jewish lady from New York goes to her travel agent.
"I vont to go to India."
"Mrs Cohen, India! It's filthy, it's too hot, and it's full of brown people!"
"I vont to go to India."
"But it's a long journey. And what will you eat? The food's too hot and spicy. You can't drink the water, you can't eat fresh fruit or vegetables. You'll get ill. Plague, cholera, typhoid. God only knows. Can you imagine? And no Jewish doctors. Why torture yourself?"
"I vont to go to India."
So arrangements are made and off she goes. She gets there and despite the noise, the smells, the crowds, she gets to the ashram, a holy place. There she joins the long queue waiting to see the guru, the holy man. She's told she'll have to queue for three days. Out comes her knitting. Eventually she's at the head of the queue. She's told firmly that she's allowed only three words with the guru.
"Dat's OK."
She's ushered into the inner sanctum where the guru is seated, ready to bestow blessings on eager disciples. Again she's reminded by an aide that she's only got three words. Unlike every other visitor she doesn't prostrate herself at his feet. She stands right in front of him, her arms crossed, staring at him fixedly and says,

"Marvin, come home."'

You may laugh but Jews form a large proportion of both leaders and followers of many spiritual movements, some of them decidedly dodgy. You'll see them in yoga and meditation classes, New Age cults, Hindu and Buddhist groups. One guru had so many Jewish disciples that he called them 'Hinjews'. Jews are not always as material minded as people think, many seem to spend their lives searching to fill a spiritual 'hole in their heart'.

So, what is special about this folk? And where does it say that these people are special, chosen for some purpose? Where does it say "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." The Bible, of course. How could the writers of the Bible have known about Einstein, Freud and Marx (though it's hard to discern what sort of blessing we received here, considering the fruits of their endeavours - the atom bomb, overpaid psychiatrists and communism), to say nothing of the scores of other major influences? How could they know about 'this one solitary life' , the Jew, Jesus, written about in a famous essay?

"Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never travelled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself ... I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life."

Like it or not the above is true, though the effects felt on the Jewish nation as a result of this particular 'solitary life' has been one of the tragedies of history, a subject that we will explore in the next chapter.

So the Bible predicted that these 'chosen people' would be a blessing for the world. How could the writers of the Bible know that, at a time when the Jews were but a small group of people amongst many others in a small part of the world, they were to become a major influence on the world? How did these writers know that out of all the ancient people such as the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Edomites and Ammonites, only the Jews were to survive as a people? How many Hittites do you know? Is there an Amalekite down your road? Do you know any Canaanites at work? Of course not. Although all of these people were contemporaries of the Jews, none of them have survived - just as the Bible has predicted!

So Jewish people consider themselves 'chosen', though the mechanics and reason for it generally eludes them. Indeed, God did choose them for a very special task, to give the Bible to the world and to provide a people from who's midst the Messiah of the World would come. But did it end there? Did God have further plans for His people, the Jews? Whether He did, or He didn't, there have been people who have had very clear plans for the Jews throughout history. Now read on ...

Where to go next Next page Previous page Reviews, manuscript history and plea to publishers Why do Jews have special problems in identifying Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah? The story of my family Introduction

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