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How Do I Know If I Am a Jew?

How Do I Know If I Am a Jew?

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Lots of folks wonder if they are Jewish. It may be that they feel an inner pull toward Judaism and Jewish people. It may be that there was a secrecy among the older generation that leads them to believe that the family tree is more tangled (and fruitful) than what meets the eye. It may be an unusual family name or unusual family traditions. Or it may just be curiosity.

So how are we to determine who is Jewish, and what are we to do with the information once we have it?

The Basics

Judaism is passed on exclusively through the biological female line. This means that if you trace your Jewish lineage through your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother (etc.), you are Jewish, even if all other branches of your family are not Jewish.

(On the flip side, if your maternal line leads to a non-Jew, even if you live in New York, eat bagels with a schmear, and are deathly afraid of dogs, you are not a Jew.)

But Judaism is not only conferred by blood. If you convert to Judaism under the auspices of a bona fide Orthodox beit din (ecclesiastical court), you are 100% Jewish, and so are all offspring born to you after your conversion (if you are female).

In Practice

If you have been living as a Jew as part of the Jewish community for your whole life (as has your biological family for as long as anyone knows), it is safe to assume that you are Jewish. The same would apply to someone who either converted or is the direct descendant of a (female) convert.

If you have been living as a non-Jew and wish to establish your maternal Jewish heritage, you may need to provide more evidence than “I once asked Aunt Charlene if we were Jewish and she stared back at me blankly.” For a host of reasons beyond the scope of this article, genetic testing would not be sufficient either.

It’s not that the Jewish community is hostile toward people who’ve dropped their tribal affiliation for a generation or two. It’s just that they want to make sure that you are indeed a member of the tribe before establishing you as such.

Chances are that you’ll need to dig for old documents (or a Jewish person who can actually testify about your ancestor’s Jewishness).

The exact type of documents needed can vary widely. For example, in Russia, Jewish people had their ethnicity written in their passports. The problem is that the Russians sometimes considered the children of male Jews to be Jewish. In addition, many people purposely got rid of the dreaded “fifth line” in their passport, since systemic anti-Semitism made it hard for Jews to advance in Soviet society. Thus, the passport of a great-grandmother who was born before intermarriage became common would possibly be a good piece of evidence.

In some parts of Canada, legally-recognized birth records were typically kept by synagogues until the 1990s. Thus, a record of birth or marriage from an Orthodox synagogue would be very significant. In the U.S., by contrast, synagogues did not keep such good records, and whatever was recorded often disappeared when old congregations closed. There is a much smaller chance of finding a conclusive document of Jewish identity deep in an archive there.

There are rabbis and rabbinical courts that specialize in documentation from various parts of the world. Rabbis who have experience in this field may often be skeptical. Experience has taught them that documents can be forged, and they have learned to ask hard questions and dig deeply before conclusively identifying a person as Jewish.

But that should not stop you from digging. After all, if you do not look, the odds of finding anything are even smaller.

If you discover Jewish ancestry deep in maternal past, but have been living as a non-Jew, it is customary for you to dip in the mikvah, not as a conversion (since you already are Jewish), but to symbolize a clean break from your non-Jewish past.

I’m Jewish, Now What?

For some folks, discovering that they are Jewish is mind-blowing. They suddenly need to become part of an unfamiliar community and learn a new culture, belief system and way of life they may not even have known existed. The good news is that you can and should take it slowly. Get out a few books from the library, sign up for some emails from Chabad.org, and get to know the folks at your closest Chabad House.

G‑d knows you well (after all, He created you). He does not expect you to scale the wall in one day. Grow a bit in your Jewish knowledge every day, and add slowly but surely to your Jewish observance. Gradually, you’ll feel more and more an integral member of the Jewish community. It may take a year. It may take a decade. But there will come a time that you’ll look around yourself and say, “Yes, this feels like home, and I am comfortable here.”

What Happens If You Draw a Blank?

There are some folks who have good reason to believe that they are Jewish but lack the documentation to prove it. If you are such a person and you are truly committed to living a Jewish lifestyle (Shabbat, kosher, etc.), you may undergo what is known as giyur lechumra, a conversion just to be on the safe side.

What happens if you discover that you have paternal Jewish ancestry or can uncover no concrete knowledge of a Jewish past at all?

You have a choice. You can continue to live as a non-Jew with a special connection to Judaism and Torah. Living under the rubric of the 7 Noahide Laws, you can maintain (and grow in) your status as a good friend of the Jewish people even if you are not a Jew.

And if you wish (and circumstances allow for it), you may choose to convert to Judaism. Only conversion done by a bona fide Orthodox beit din will achieve your goal, so make sure to do this one right.

In very short, conversion consists of learning about and then accepting the Torah’s commandments, circumcision (for a male) and immersing in a mikvah, all under the guidance of the beit din. Note that once you convert, there is no going back. You’ll be obligated to live a full Jewish life, so make this decision carefully.

Why Me?

It is perfectly normal to question why G‑d sent you down this circuitous route. Why could you not have been born to a family named Goldstein in Brooklyn and sent to day school with a bunch of fellow Jews? We may never know the answer to this question. We do know, however, that nothing is by accident.

Everywhere in the world, there are sparks of holiness waiting to be elevated. It is the purpose of the Jewish people to encounter these sparks and bring them back to their source in heaven. Some of those sparks are easy to find. But the most precious sparks of all are the ones hidden in the darkest, deepest corners.

Every single soul has a specific mission in life, and the hardiest, holiest souls are tasked with the most difficult missions of all: bringing back the most special sparks. Perhaps your soul is one of those brave few who have the wherewithal to serve G‑d in the unique circumstances G‑d placed you in.

This may not make the load any lighter, but it does tell us that you are not being punished or rejected. On the contrary, G‑d gave you this difficult path because he believes in you. And if He believes in you, so should you believe in yourself.

Useful links:

What to Expect at a Conversion

Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?

The Discovery of Planet Earth (on the Seven Noahide Laws)

Should I Convert to Judaism?

I Just Discovered I Am Jewish. What Do I Do Now?

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Elaine USA October 27, 2017

Where to look to find out your matrilineal lineage. This is Elaine. After the passing of my Grandmother there were many in my family who say that her mother was of Jewish origin. She was my maternal grandmother, I have a daughter and she has a daughter. We were raised Catholic when my grandmother married a Catholic during WWI. What would be the best course of action to investigate if our heritage is truely Jewish. Reply

Louise Leon PA, USA October 15, 2017

Shalom rav. Since Christianity arose from Judaism and the Muslim religion follows in the steps of Judaism......seems to me that we are a whole lot more alike than not. To push the point, a whole lot of "non-Jews" have Jewish roots. Reply

Hanna Lelystad September 2, 2017

I have a question. I read the Tenach but i see that the bloodline goes through the father. Avram yaakov . Can anyone tell me where this changed? This is a serious question btw. I have had negative responses before. I really would like to know. It's not meant as insult . Reply

Menachem Posner, Author September 3, 2017
in response to Hanna :

That is an excellent question, worthy of serious exploration. I suggest that you begin by reading this article: Was Judaism Always Matrilineal? Reply

Rodolfo Cervantes California August 17, 2017

Since I was a child I was told that some of my ancestors were Sephardic Jews (probably "conversos"). The physical features on my Mother's side of the really reflect that. My Father's side is Native American. My Mother's family never ate pork (which is unusual for Mexican people) but ate a lot of lamb. On the other hand my Father's family were big swine eaters (they also ate a lot of seafood, as well as goat, lamb. beef, turkey, chicken, deer, and acorns). Be that as it may I am definitely attracted to Judaism.
Rodolfo Reply

Lillian Texas November 13, 2017
in response to Rodolfo Cervantes:

My ancestors too were Sephardi, both maternal and paternal sides. My father's family never hid their identity but my mother's did because they had some wealth and were obviously afraid of loosing it. I am Cuban and no-one in my family has ever been catholic but my mother always kept a picture of the virgin in the house. She said her mother told her that he had to keep it where people could see it, but never pray to her. My maternal grandmother left 2/3 of the inheritance to her oldest son and 1/3 to the youngest and my mother only received a dowry. My grandmother only allowed my mother to marry my father after checking out his genealogy. My mother would tell me her mother told her "he is from the right family" but he is poor so think about the needs you might have in the future. Well they married and here I am. I know my ancestors were Jewish from both sides, but can't prove it because Cuban records are practically non-existent. So, I have to undergo full conversion. Reply

Anonymous New York June 4, 2017

My great grandfather was Jewish, (or great great granfather) was a Jew, and was forced to convert. It comes down from father's blood, but comes up in DNA reports. I'm slowly starting to convert back to it, would I still be considered bloodline Jew. Reply

Menachem Posner Chicago May 19, 2017

Matrilineal descent is not a Chassidic concept. It has been the law since Sinai, well before the Chassidic movement was born. Please see the article where the topic is explored more at length (including the reader comments)
About matrilineal descent, I recommend "Was Jewishness Always Matrilineal? by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. Reply

Dillan KMS May 15, 2017

Well apparently I'm a Jew Reply

M. Diane May 24, 2017
in response to Dillan:

Hi Dillan, I said the same thing to myself (my mother, and everyone else); but, I was much much more excited about it than you seem to be! LoL!! Reply

David Halterman San Francisco, CA May 8, 2017

"... genetic testing would not be sufficient either." Why not? Seven to ten years ago, out of curiosity I had my mtDNA tested. Out of the blue, I found out that I was Jewish. In fact, I'm a direct descendant, through my mother, to one of the four woman in Israel who in the first century CE which 80% of the European Ashkenazi Jews can trace their ancestry back to. These test are 99.9% accurate. If genetic testing is good enough to prove paternity why not Jewishness? Reply

Rand Freedman U.S April 25, 2017

To the man from Rochester? Yes indeed the Torah...from Genesis, mentions only descendants from males. But? The fact is then? As with Muslims now? The man could have several wives and it was....assumed then that the same man fathered all the children. Muhammed had 9 wives and 13 children which is self control. I'm sorry about the name calling. As a holocaust victim the only thing I havent been called is anything regarding my religion. I'm on my 4th block of 6. They're all Christian. Their Jews live isolated and hide from the rest so obviously I'm alien to them. Multi what? Buckle of the what? Yeah suah. To your...um...dilemma? HaLevy is obviously as Jewish as the Tfilin. Words are weapons but they do not kill. I tell the Christians I'm saved because I have always been adherent to my Judaism. Just alter the term a little. In this 40 days of Omer counting I think your best shield is that you are a Jew whether mother or dads side. Do not take that for granted. Jews for Jesus is bad. Reply

Harold Cleveland April 19, 2017

We know our mother was Jewish and we know our grandmother was Jewish but do we know, or could we prove, our great grandmother or our great great grandmother?

The author also explained that if there is a break in the matrilineal descent or a non Jewish female then you are not Jewish.

It seems to me that very few Jews can be assured that there were all Jewish females for 192 generations. Present year 5777 divided by 30 years per generation.

So who says you're not Jewish if you say you are Jewish. When and where are you required to prove you are Jewish? Reply

Menachem Posner April 25, 2017
in response to Harold:

There is a concept known as "chazakah." This means that if a specific circumstance or pattern is established, we assume that it will continue unless there is a specific reason to believe otherwise. Thus, if a family is established within the Jewish community for as long as we remember, we assume that their Jewishness continues back indefinitely. Can this be proven? No, but neither is it expected to be proven. Reply

David Halterman San Francisco, CA May 16, 2017
in response to Harold:

The DNA I referred to is mtDNA. which is only passed down through the material line of your mother, her mother etc. Reply

David Heller HaLevi Rochester, NY April 17, 2017

My Mother was not Jewish but My Father's line was 100% Jewish and I am also a direct paternal descendant of Yom Tov Lippman Heller so where does that put me? I have felt Jewish my entire life I was called a Jew boy most of my childhood and was not even raised Jewish. My grandfather was orphaned when he was 7 and the Jewish Traditions were never handed down. In the Torah the maternal lineage is never mentioned only the paternal line so why only the maternal line which is never mentioned in the Torah? Reply

Anonymous May 8, 2017
in response to David Heller HaLevi:

It is extremely troubling that Orthodox Judaism keeps pushing the maternal lineage whereas we see the opposite example in the Torah. In fact we see that Judaism could be inherited through either the mother or the father by intermarriage. All Ruth had to do was marry a Jew and say "your G-d is my G-d". Chassidim try to impose halakhah on pre-halakhic era (like saying Avraham kept the Torah and halakhah too) It seems unsure whether the matrilineal heritage developed during the Babylonian times or after the destruction of the second temple but especially in Chassidic Judaism, it also has a lot to do with esoteric stuff as the soul is more connected to the mother in Kabbalah. Sad really as I know many second generation Holocaust survivors whose entire families on the father's side went through the Shoah and the children want to live as Jews yet are not considered ones while I have met Chinese and Mesoamerican converts who are now fully considered Jewish. This is ridiculous Reply

Randi S Freedman U.S February 8, 2017

To Sophie I feel your pain. Consider if.....you had no love from your mother at all. As a disabled child I needed tons of attention and got zero. Was shut out of almost all of life. Experienced next to nothing my peers did. In every way I feel Orthodox but going all the way is impossible since I don't feel comfortable around women and my disability self care, in some ways, prevents it. I am sorry for your anguish but you are lucky. Reply

Sophie January 23, 2017

Both of my parents were raised in Toronto as Orthodox Jews. Both are of Jewish ancestry. My mother insisted that we be raised in non Jewish neighbourhoods, that we change our family name to a common, WASP name. She taught us that God does not exist. She spoke ill of Jewish people and tried to make us afraid and ashamed to tell anyone that we were of Jewish ancestry.

The circumstances of my life are in many ways highly unusual and both incredibly fortunate and horrifically unfortunate. I eventually made efforts to attend synagogues, to learn Hebrew, to learn of my heritage. I greatly appreciated learning in synagogues. Making these efforts was extremely difficult for me. I would often weep, after attending services. I felt that I did not know how to belong and that I could not do anything right. It was extremely difficult to persist through this anguish. I went to Israel and wanted to visit synagogues. I was too afraid to attempt it, even once.
You cannot reach me by emai Reply

Anonymous Rockland County, NY January 5, 2017

What are my options? Mother is Jewish... My mother was secretive about her past, but immersed herself and me in Jewish literature, took me to the local shul for cultural events, and longed to go to Israel. After I left home another family member told me she was Jewish. She was born in Germany in the 1930's so had to keep her identity hidden, is my guess. Sadly, we are no longer on speaking terms.

I was raised as a Christian, but she questioned what Iearned in Sunday school, asking how I could believe in all this... I was a child, I didn't think to challenge her, but was deeply confused. She insisted I dress modestly as a child; all the other kids at school wore jeans, and I wore high-necked tops and skirts. Still, we all went to church together for years, until she decided she couldn't do it anymore.

Recently my mother "converted" to Judaism (in quotes since I believe she was always a Jew), and is active in her community.

Where does that put me? I'm married to a non-Jew and feel like the door to Judaism is closed to me. Reply

louise leon PA. USA November 27, 2016

Amen to that, Randi Couldn't agree with you more ! Reply

Randi Freedman US November 25, 2016

for Louise Louise? While we say that women are born with more blessings than men so they don't have to pray as much? There is no such thing as the best Jew. Any Rabbi will tell you that. We don't strive to be more perfect than G-D we strive to model ourselves in his likeness so that we can be the best person we can be and the best role model for others. Reply

louise leon PA November 23, 2016

To Randi Freedman One question....how does one become the "best" Jew you refer to. And if you or someone you know is the "best" Jew, what does that mean for all the rest of us Jews ? Reply

louise leon PA. USA November 11, 2016

Who am I really? Some of my best friends are more Jewish in spirit, ethics, worldview etc. than many Jews I know. I am Jewish by blood but as importantly by the kind of life I have chosen to live. Reply

Randi Freedman US November 11, 2016

conversion Preaching to the choir Omaha. I think though, and thank you for saying I have good advice, that you must take a giant step back and maybe read Pentateuch and Bible on your own time and connect with Jews when and where you see fit? Its not always Shul where the best Jews are found and not always Jewish communities where the best Jews are found. Reply

Anonymous Omaha, NE November 10, 2016

Randi Freedman Good Advice I like your post they've been helpful. I've had this Jewish connect feeling for years but when I first met a Rabbi where I live it felt more like I was being drafted into it by many of the Jews here rather than them letting me decide my own true feelings an discerning for myself so I had to step away with very hurt feelings. It was like I was being pulled away from the very G-d they speak of instead of being drawn even closer to that G-d. Ever since it has been difficult for me to trust the Jewish community where I live and so now I don't go by any religious label. But the more I try to disconnect from all things Jewish it seems the more G-d has other plans for me. I was very disappointed to learn just how blinded some Jews can be to the realities before them. I didn't have problems with the Rabbis I've met but some of the bickering and such of the congregation people? Then the anti-Semitism I encountered floored me, especially just for asking questions about Judaism. Reply