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Suddenly Jewish
Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots
Barbara Kessel

Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life

2000 • 144 pp. 6 x 9"
Jewish Studies / Biography / Ethnic Studies

$19.95 Paperback, 978-1-58465-620-3
$17.99 Ebook, 978-1-61168-302-8

Check your ebook retailer or local library for ebook availability.

“The stories in Suddenly Jewish are dramatic, funny, and at times heart-wrenching . . . it will definitely touch your soul.” Hadassah Magazine

Dramatic personal stories of the unexpected discovery of a Jewish heritage.

One woman learned on the eve of her Roman Catholic wedding. One man as he was studying for the priesthood. Madeleine Albright famously learned from the Washington Post when she was named Secretary of State.

"What is it like to find out you are not who you thought you were?" asks Barbara Kessel in this compelling volume, based on interviews with over 160 people who were raised as non-Jews only to learn at some point in their lives that they are of Jewish descent. With humor, candor, and deep emotion, Kessel's subjects discuss the emotional upheaval of refashioning their self-image and, for many, coming to terms with deliberate deception on the part of parents and family. Responses to the discovery of a Jewish heritage ranged from outright rejection to wholehearted embrace.

For many, Kessel reports, the discovery of Jewish roots confirmed long-held suspicions or even, more mysteriously, conformed to a long-felt attraction toward Judaism. For some crypto-Jews in the southwest United States (descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition), the only clues to their heritage are certain practices and traditions handed down through the generations, whose significance may be long since lost. In Poland and other parts of eastern Europe, many Jews who were adopted as infants to save them from the Holocaust are now learning of their heritage through the deathbed confessions of their adoptive parents.

The varied responses of these disparate people to a similar experience, presented in their own words, offer compelling insights into the nature of self-knowledge. Whether they had always suspected or were taken by surprise, Kessel's respondents report that confirmation of their Jewish heritage affected their sense of self and of their place in the world in profound ways. Fascinating, poignant, and often very funny, Suddenly Jewish speaks to crucial issues of identity, selfhood, and spiritual community.

Click here for TABLE OF CONTENTS

Reviews / Endorsements

“Kessel has successfully tackled a complex issue, adding considerably to our understanding of those who become ‘suddenly Jewish.’”The Buffalo Jewish Review

“Kessel supplements the accounts of her interviews with material on the psychological difficulties faced by those whose association with a family or a group is drastically altered by the information that their roots they thought they had are not their roots at all.” Kliatt

“Overall, Kessel’s interviewees, with their disparate experiences, shared something deeper than Jewish genes. ‘The most prominent finding I encountered was the human need for authentic identity,’ she says. ‘People profoundly wanted to know who they really are, even if they ultimately rejected their identity. They all wanted to know what it was they were rejecting. I don’t think you can build a relationship with anyone — including yourself — on the foundation of an identity that is false.”London Jewish Chronicle

From the Book:

"We walked into the day room at the hospital, and there was a man who looked exactly like Grandma. And also looked unmistakably Jewish. After a long conversation that mostly centered on his 'remarkable' life story, I asked the obvious: Uncle Abraham, are you Jewish? 'Aren't you?' he answered with a puzzled look. It's so trite that I hate to say it, but it's absolutely true: in that moment huge inexplicable parts of my life made complete and overwhelming sense."

"When we got to the partisans, I was weak with tuberculosis. They shaved my head because I had lice. They took away my crucifixes and told me I was Jewish. That was the lowest point in my life. I grabbed the scissors and didn't know who to kill -- myself because I was bald, sick and Jewish, or my mother because she was the cause of it all."

"The following February, I went to Minneapolis to meet Grandma Maggie. She showed me more family pictures. We found Great-grandmother Stern's photo. My mom offhandedly remarked, 'Shelley thinks we look Jewish.' Grandma said, 'Well, we are. We're a bunch of German Jews!' My mother's jaw dropped. 'Yeah,' Grandma said, 'we used to be Jewish. Now we're Catholic. It's part of the past. So be it. It's not big deal.' My ears perked up. I was Jewish . . . all the pieces clicked together all of a sudden, like 'k'ting!' Everything made sense. I can't even say exactly what it explained but it did. It felt like a kind of completion."

"Well, in 1945, when I was six, my father found me. He showed my photo to my Polish grandfather, who demanded money. My father paid him and that was that. My father put me in a cab and we moved right away to the city. I was terrified. What does this Jew want with me? I didn't understand his language. I didn't understand why he was kidnapping me. All I could think was that it was almost Passover and he needed a Gentile child's blood to make matzo. That's what we had been taught."

"When we entered Berlin, our father got so excited. 'I lived here during the War,' he said. And then, two blocks later, he said, 'And here . . . And here.' 'How could you live in so many places?' we asked him. 'Well,' he said, 'I only stayed a few days in each place.' A light bulb went off in my head. 'Oh, so . . . you mean . . . you're Jewish? We're Jewish?' And my father looked at me and said, 'Kind of . . . sure . . . of course.' My feeling was 'Of course? wait a minute . . . ' "

BARBARA KESSEL is Director of Administration of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. A freelance writer of nonfiction and poetry for 25 years, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Hadassah Magazine, and Midstream.

Thu, 14 Mar 2019 13:08:08 -0500