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How Can Grandma Make Me Jewish If I Don’t Believe In Anything?

How Can Grandma Make Me Jewish If I Don’t Believe In Anything?

How one-quarter can make a whole Jew

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Dear Ask-The-Rabbi,

Last week these dudes in fedoras pulled a bar mitzvah on me.

I’m twenty years old. I never had a bar mitzvah. Simple reason: I’m not Jewish. My dad’s not Jewish. My mom’s not Jewish. But I let out to these guys that my mom’s mom is Jewish.

Next thing I know, they wrap out these black leather straps and boxes on me and tell me I’m getting bar mitzvatized.

So I protest. I don’t believe in Judaism, I tell them. I don’t even know anything about it. If I don’t believe, how can I be Jewish?

Besides, I really don’t look Jewish.

—Ryan Ching

Dear Ryan,

I can sympathize. I mean, nobody’s going to tell you that your Buddhist grandmother makes you a Buddhist. As far as I know, the same applies to any religion. If you don’t believe in it, how can you be a part of it?

Neither does one Irish grandmother make you Irish.

But being Jewish is not about religion, Being Jewish is not about religion, or about nationality. It’s more like being born into a tribe.or about nationality. It’s more like being born into a tribe. And this tribe is heavily matriarchal.

That’s how the rules of the tribe work: Since your mother’s mother was a member of the tribe, that makes her Jewish, too. Which, in turn, makes you Jewish.

Escape Is Futile

So now you’re thinking, “How do I get out of the tribe.”

You can’t.

You see, this is a covenantal tribe. It started off as a family of descendants of a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, some three and a half thousand years ago. But then, the people gathered at Mount Sinai and made an eternal covenant.

From that point on, it became a one-way street. You can get in, if you join the pact. Or just by being born into it. But there’s no way out.

That may not make much sense to you, but there’s deeper stuff going on here. A person is not just a bag of meat wired together with neurons and programmed by DNA. There’s something more inside, something mysterious and unpredictable. Something we often call a soul. And souls come in different flavors. You may not look Jewish from the outside, but on the inside, you have a Jewish soul.

There's Money in the Bank

What does that mean for you?

Think of it as something like being told that your poor old grandma left you a hefty trust fund,Think of it as something like being told that your poor old grandma left you a hefty trust fund. and all you need to do is drop into the bank and take out the cash. Lots of cash.

If that happened, you might say, “Well, I don’t really believe that my grandmother had any cash to leave me, so I’ll pass, thank you.” Right?

I doubt it. My guess is that you would at least risk a visit or two to the bank to ask some relevant questions.

In this case, your grandmother has left you a heritage of timeless wisdom, a great history, and a lifetime membership in the oldest and most amazing worldwide tribe, spread over the entire globe. And a Jewish soul.

There’s a good chance your Jewish soul will resonate with that wisdom. There’s a good chance the history will be meaningful to you. There’s a good chance the rituals and holidays will enrich your life. And you might find it cool to be a bonafide member of a global community that accepts you unconditionally, just because you’re a member of the tribe.

Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s worth a try. Maybe start here.

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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Anonymous Pierrefonds January 1, 2018

How I wish my Jewish children could see how our identity is precious. I read from non-Jews how they long to belong, some even have dreams! I pray that someday (maybe the 3rd generation :)) they return and understand what gift we have been given. Shalom to all of you who take this so seriously and thank you for giving me hope. Reply

Lydia Segal Canada October 17, 2017

Unlike Ryan above, my father's side of the family was Jewish. By them I was raised, but as a Catholic as my father had promised that any children would be taught Catholicism, as per my mother's faith.
My father and his mother raised me. I feel a loss - as if I should have been Jewish. Now I am neither. Reply

Pete WA November 14, 2017

Prov 3:18

"She is a tree of life to those who cleave to her. And happy is everyone who guards her."

Is this what you mean by "matrilineal descent" and "grandma."? Reply

The Editors November 6, 2017

Many readers have posted questions concerning the rule of matrilineal descent—that Jewishness follows the mother and not the father.

We have recently revised an article on our site that directly addresses this issue: Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal?

If you have this question, please review that article. If you still have questions, post them there and we will attempt to answer. Reply

Anonymous Canon City November 6, 2017

My Jewish grandmother had 3 daughters and one son, my father, None married a Jew, each had children. Does that mean my cousins are Jewish and I am not? They are not interested in Judaism and I am. Reply

Stella Texas November 4, 2017

How to prove one is Jewish I was told to prove one is of Jewish descent one has to have evidence in paper to prove that one is Jewish.
When I was a young girl my grandmother use to tell me stay away from those who are Catholic. I was not told why. In my grandmother's home she would have guests every Friday evening and I use to set up the big table with gramas best dishes. I use to say to myself boy they must like to party every Friday. My grama and grampa had flocks, but never raised pigs. When grama passed away they covered the mirrors, turn the pictures down, and many other strange things not understanding why. Grama died and was buried on the same day she died and the people walked all the way to the cemetery and buried her. There was no church services like today when people die. Later on mom let us know we were Jewish. I have no papers to prove that I am Jewish. As mom made it known to us. Reply

Anonymous Staten Island November 9, 2017
in response to Stella:

You are almost certainly Jewish. You only need to prove it for certain purposes, like marriage in Israel if you are not native Israeli. (Don't ask.) In my case, I could take a picture of my grandmother's gravestone and hope it would convince them. For the rest, don't worry too much. Reply

Gabriela Hirschberg Amsterdam, Netherlands October 22, 2017

Jewish grandfather My grandfather is Jewish. I felt Jewish from the age of seven onwards. I just read the article above. You are not Jewish according to the halacha so what is the problem??? I wished I would be accepted as a Jew. Well, I must say I am always made welcome by the Chabbad but was told that I am not allowed to the berachot as I am not Jewish. Reply

Azriel NC October 24, 2017
in response to Gabriela Hirschberg:

Just go through their formal conversion process and you’ll be officially considered a Jew Reply

Dorine europe October 20, 2017

Think of it as something like being told that your poor old grandma left you a hefty trust fund.

Believe me being Jewish is having a hefty trust fund. What God has instore for you is something you cannot imagine. It goes far more than you can think or wish for.

You are blessed for being a Jew. Go and find out. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona October 20, 2017

It would seem to me that Ryan (or anyone else, for that matter) always has a choice as to what he wants to be. It doesn't matter whether it's Jewish, Christian, Muslim, etc. The option is there to choose. Case in point: The person who converts to Judaism has made a choice.

And, I, too, am interested in knowing how the rabbis explain matrilineal descent when many of the moms in ancient times were not Jewish. Reply

sunil subba India October 20, 2017

Go with the flow, as sometimes theres no time to think for e.g to learn swimming it does not help to theorize about swimming you simply have to plunge in.Once you embrace Judaism and go with the flow,clarity would definately enter into your life.The mitzvahas help in the action field as it is rich in connecting you to the path of divinity.Finally i wish you all the best in your journey as a full fleged Jew. Reply

Abe London October 19, 2017

Goes back to whom? So are you telling me I'm only Jewish because my mother is and my mother is only Jewish because her mother is and so on...?

How far back does this go and who to?

Nobody who is Jewish by blood has an unbroken matriarchal lineage that extends all the way back to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leach. Reply

Rob W. Pittsburgh, PA, USA October 19, 2017
in response to Abe :

Mom's Upline Are you sure about that? Even if that is true, then one's matrilinial line still might go back to a Gentile lady who became a Jewess before bearing at least one of her kids. Reply

Tzvi Freeman October 19, 2017
in response to Abe :

That "nobody" sounds a little over-confident. Do you have evidence for that statement?

At any rate, the other route is through giur—adoption into the Jewish People, sometimes known by the very poor translation "conversion." Reply

Diane kehn November 24, 2017
in response to Abe :

From what I remember in my yeshiva training, Abraham was the first Jew. So to have Judaism go through the women seems strange to me. Abraham was the first convert, no? Reply

Abe London October 20, 2017
in response to Rob W.:

100% sure You're still forgetting that the Torah clearly is following a male line. It's goes to great lengths explaining this. And who is this most important gentile lady that gives us our whole identity? So important that the Torah forgets to mention her. Pretty sure about that since they all had sons. Reply

Abe London October 20, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

Quite sure because they all had sons Quite confident since they all had sons. There is one exception of Dena but there's no tribe of Dena. Sarah had Isaac. So we don't go back to Sarah through our mothers. Rebecca had Jacob, so that's Rebecca out. 3 of Jacobs wives all had sons, Leah had sons and one daughter. The 12 tribes would have married Egyptians and Canaanites. In fact the all important female line is completely missing from the Torah. As a nation we cannot trace at all a line that goes back to the so called matriarchs through our mothers. How can anyone be adopted into the Jewish nation when we ourselves are not a nation unless Jewishness goes through the father. Reply

gershon Brooklyn October 31, 2017
in response to Abe:

First of all, according to Jewish traditional teachings Dina had a daughter, born from a Gentile father, who after wandering for a while ended up in Egypt and married Yosef who as well was exiled by his own family. Secondly, there is another traditional teaching that states that all of Yaakov's sons were born together with their twin sisters and were marrying them. According to this it is possible to potentially trace the linage through matrilineal line.You might say that there is a different opinion in the Talmud that says that sons of Yaakov were marrying the Canaanites.To this the possible answer is that the Jewish nation became a nation only at the time of receiving the Torah and all had to actually convert as they were considered according to Torah law as bnei Noach(chilren of Noah) beforehand. Only then they became full fledged Jews and through the Divine revelation of Torah laws the Jewishness is established through a matrilineal line ever since. Reply

Abe London November 9, 2017
in response to gershon:

Medrash to the rescue Medrash to the rescue. Amazing how the most important people who give us our Jewish identity are left out of the Torah. And the pains the Torah goes through to list father and son etc is all but ignored. And the story of the Jewish! People doesn't go back to Abraham. Tell me if it all started at mount Sinai then why choose any special lineage that goes through the father? Judaism going through the mother goes back no further than the second temple. Reply

Pete WA October 18, 2017

If Ryan gets a Bar Mitzvah because his grandmother was Jewish, then somebody needs to inform Ryan, and quickly, what the consequences are for violating the Torah.

He stepped into the mobile Mitzvah maker believing in the laws and punishments of his nation, and leaves an entirely different man with different responsibilities and obligations.

From 7 to 613 commands. He'd better start unrolling those scrolls. Reply

Pat Grand Rapids October 25, 2017
in response to Pete:

Isn't a 13 year old Jewish boy automatically Bar Mitzvah. He just doesn't necessarily have to have a ceremony. Because in Hebrew, the meaning is, the son of the commandment or(daughter at 12 has, Bat Mitzvah.) Reply

Pete WA October 26, 2017
in response to Pat:

I would have to come to the conclusion that he isn’t actually Jewish until he accepts the commands. My guess would be that when he stops assenting to be ruled by national idols and bowing to worldly leaders and their need for sacrifices, then he is automatically a Jew.

Of course, in our world right now this process doesn’t usually happen until the age of 18 or thereabouts. Reply

Pat Grand Rapid October 30, 2017
in response to Pete:

If a child is born of any denomination and that child at 18 decides that he or she finds no solace in the religion of their parents I think it's better to find G-d in their own comfort zone and that is nothing any religion can teach you. I chose to convert to Judaism at 70.. I feel I'm happier as a Conservative Jew then a Roman Catholic.. Reply

Pete WA November 6, 2017
in response to Pat:

I think basically, a Jew is not an idolator. And I don't think it matters which religious group you belong to or favor because the laws pertain to all humanity. For a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, the Torah is included with their books. It isn't so much which group a person belongs to while they study the books, but rather what decision they make in terms of binding themselves to a particuar law that determines their true faith and calling.

A Jew doesn't beong to a nation. A nation alllows many things a Jew could never be allowed to do.

And a Jew has more severe consequences for violating his laws.

So why be a Jew? Because God is our God and not the nation or its politics. And God is responsive to us unlike politicians and bureaucracies which are called "wood" and "stone." Reply

Pat GRR November 11, 2017
in response to Pete:

. The old saying is true today as it was years ago. Want to lose friends. Talk religion and politics. The two just don't mix. Reply

Claire Taylor Loveland, CO October 18, 2017

I found out a couple of weeks ago via Ancestry DNA that I'm more than 1/3 Jewish. Having been raised Southern Baptist, I was surprised! This short article was perfect. I'm anxious to discover my Jewish roots, so the link will be where I'll start. Thank you! Reply

Susan Hirshorn Boca Raton, FL October 20, 2017
in response to Claire Taylor:

Welcome to the tribe! Reply

Moshe Canada October 18, 2017

You say if your mother's, mother's mother and so on... You claim Judaism is matriarchal. Then you say... "You see, this is a covenantal tribe. It started off as a family of descendants of a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham..." Where in the Bible does it say your mother is the one who must be Jewish? Both Rahab and Ruth were pagans and found their way into the tribe and the line of David no less!
When did the Rabbi's determine Jewishness came through the mother?
PS, Both my parents are Jewish. My wife is Finnish,but my children have grown up Jewish. My wife has not undergone any "rabbinic" conversion, but has adopted the same mentality as Ruth, who by the way didn't have rabbinic approval (tongue in cheek). Reply

Anonymous El Paso, TX via chabadelpaso.com October 22, 2017
in response to Moshe:

No, not tongue in cheek. Keeping to what the Torah says is always best. Reply

Pat Grand Rapis October 25, 2017
in response to Moshe:

I had the same problem 5 relatives.# !) Yes we're Jewish #2) Maybe we are,don't know for sure #3) Depends who you talk to.#4) No, we're not #5) Well, around Easter which would be about Passover time, grandma would do odd little things that didn't belong on Easter Sunday. So go figure. I didn't argue I just converted, One of the happiest days of my life. Reply

Anonymous October 18, 2017

Mom's mom is not Jewish, although her father's family name is (Sephardic) Jewish. Only Dad has matrilineal Hebrew roots that extend all the way to the Middle Ages. Despite that, I still get tons of dreams about specific Hebrew practices and times and dates on the Hebrew calendar, and I even had several dreams on mystical Jewish teachings that I wasn't even remotely familiar with. The dreams fall right smack on the dates that they should be based on content and the Hebrew calendar Torah portions. I don't understand what I'm supposed to do with all these Jewish inspirations if I'm not even Jewish. Reply

Chana California October 22, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

I think your Jewish soul is speaking to you. You have the DNA of your ancestors. The Orthodox believe when a person coverts to Judaism it is because they have a Jewish soul. Generations may leave the fold, inter-marry, but usually it is the third generation that returns. I was not always aware of my Jewish roots most of my life, but had experiences when doing something like lighting candles or traveling on the Sabbath of having awareness. Whoa - wait a minute, why did it feel so special to light those candles and why was I so uncomfortable taking a long drive on Saturday? Returning to the fold, the religion of my ancestors those experiences now make sense to me. There is so much we do not fully grasp about the Covenant God has made with us Jews. How it affects us spiritually, how our ancestors experiences may be buried in our DNA, translated to our subconscious. Hummmmm, something to think about. Shalom dear heart. Reply

Anonymous November 8, 2017
in response to Chana :

Thank you, Chana. That makes a lot of sense. I feel like something that was asleep in our bloodlines is waking up in my generation because even my younger sister is getting the Hebrew-themed dreams now. We have to keep on referring to this website to figure out what the symbols mean in our dreams, and they are falling within a week of the appropriate Torah portions. For instance, why did I dream that I had to sleep at 5PM on a Friday and only get up at 6PM on a Saturday? I had no idea that the Sabbath starts on the eve of Saturday. In a dream I had to remove my leather ballet shoes and wear canvas rubber shoes before entering a booth for my wedding? A rabbi explained to me that this is what must be done on Yom Kippur and before the Feast of Booths. Also, why did a dream show me that my siblings, Mom and I had to go through a portal where there was a paper pinned to the right-side post with nothing but a wind to hold it up miraculously? The rabbi told me it was a Mezuzah! Amazing! :) Reply

Eleanor Skibo Pennsylvania, USA October 18, 2017

Why would would you want to get out of the Jewish tribe, the Irish tribe and so forth? Accept the tribe and find some good positive pointers in the tribe and you just may come out a better person for it! Reply

Donita October 18, 2017

Thank you for your gentle and informative response. My great grandmother's family was Jewish. I did not discover this until mid-adulthood. I truly have experienced what you described....my very soul being nourished by connecting with this heritance. While, I would not recommend assaulting people with sacred ceremonies, I would most definitely encourage those with Jewish heritage to explore what this means....even if you currently believe in nothing...or embrace other faiths. Chances are you will be amazed! It is more than an intellect journey. The collective history and truths ressonnate across time and brings forth meaning, nourishment, and life in a way that is difficult to fully put in human words. Reply

Morris Las Vegas October 18, 2017
in response to Donita:

Very nice Reply

Chana California October 25, 2017
in response to Donita:

Beautifully spoken! Reply

Elisheba Flore USA October 18, 2017

1) You mention being Irish in the article, isn't that a nationality too?

2) "And this tribe is heavily matriarchal. (...) It started off as a family of descendants of a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, some three and a half thousand years ago."

- How can Judaism can be matriarchal when the Torah states that Judaism is passed down from man to son some 3 1/2 thousands years ago? Besides, some men in the Torah ( Moses, Joseph...) didn't have Jewish wives...

On what basis our Sages ruled of making Judaism matriarchal?

(genuine inquiring) Reply

Pete WA` October 18, 2017
in response to Elisheba Flore:

I think it comes from a misunderstanding about the Hebrew word for "mount" as in "Mount Sinai" being "HR" and pronounced like the English word "Her."

So "Mount Sinai" becomes "her son." And a mount is very much like the belly of a pregnant woman, or mother with son, out of which springs Torah, which requires Rabbis. Reply

Tzvi Freeman October 19, 2017
in response to Elisheba Flore:

Elisheba—and others asking the same: We have an article on our site dealing with matrilineal descent Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal?, as well as Was Jewishness Always Matrilineal?.

All your questions are answered there, and in the responses to reader comments. Reply

Elisheba Flore USA October 19, 2017
in response to Pete:

Thank you for this explanation, Pete, but this might only works for English speakers. For example in French 'her' is being said 'sa' which is nothing close to the Hebrew word for 'mount'. First translations of the Torah were not in English but in Greek... Reply

Elisheba Flore USA October 20, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

Thank you, Tzvi. Reply

Elisheba Flore USA via chabad.org October 20, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

I went and read the articles that you mentioned, Tzvi, yet it didn't give me a clear answer. For example, in the article called 'Why is Jewishness Matrilineal', Pasuk Devarim 7:3-4 states "(...) Your shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from ME (...)"

1) If for a Jewess to marry a non-Jew is prohibited, how come the children from that union are considered Jewish?

2) Does Pasuk Devarim address to a woman when it says "your child"? In ancient times (and still today in weddings) the father traditionally gives his daughter in marriage, no?

Not intermarrying is definitely simpler.

However, it happened throughout Jewish history that sometime children were born within a Jewish home from a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father because of a rape - 'has v'shalom. In this case, because the mother was Jewish the child would still be considered to be Jewish?

Could this explain why our Sages instituted the matrilineal descent... to insure the continuity of our People throughout ages? Reply

Susan Boca Raton, FL October 22, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

Thank you. I read the articles. It explains a lot of the questions/comments here. Reply

Dina Leah USA October 20, 2017
in response to Elisheba Flore:

I think you hit the answer. It’s definitely known who the mother was & not easy to ascertain who the father was in many cases in Jewish history. Therefore, that’s one reason for matrilineal descent. They didn’t have dna testing back then so impossible sometimes as in cases of rape to know if father was Jewish.
Ironically, deciding if one is a Cohen or Levi comes down via the father, not the mother. So if father unknown or not Jewish, then the person is Israel. My husband’s father was not Jewish. He is Jewish through his mother. His mother’s father was a Levi, so his mother was, but my husband cannot be since that part comes from father-as mentioned Levi was one of the sons of Yaakov. Reply

gershon new york October 31, 2017
in response to Dina Leah:

you can com with many explanations and logical justifications why the matrilineal linage is establishing the Jewishness . But the Torah laws being the Divine revelation are above and beyond the human logic and understanding. Just as you cant fully grasp why cheeseburgers are forbidden by the Torah law the same would apply in our case. The fact that the Sages are the ones who established the matrilineal law in the Talmud does not diminish that its a word of G-d as the Sages by connecting and nullifying themselves totally to G-d were only the channels through which G-d's Will became known to us. Why is it so and how, we cant fully understand and grasp but the fact is that we have Divine teachings that reveal this to us.
Please note that sometimes Talmud refers to people whose father is not a Kohen as kohanim, obviously not as an official status so to say but at least a general sense. By the same token your husband is a Levi in a general sense. Reply

Rafael Palacios Indiana October 18, 2017

Fantastic explanation! I heard the saying, "Everyone is Jewish until proven different"! That make my brain spin for a few days! I don't know and don't want to know which one is my tribe, I just know where I came from even if I don't agree with Judaism... Reply

Azriel NC October 18, 2017

Matrilineal lineage Question on the Matrilineal lineage. With that logic Boaz & Obed, King David grandfather & great grandfather were not Jewish. Is this correct? Why only the mother and not the father? When did this ruling occur? Why? Why is it binding? What does the Torah say about such conclusion. Can somebody make rational sense of this Halachah rule? Thank you. Reply

Yisroel Baltimore December 31, 2017
in response to Azriel:

Matrilineal descent means the mother is Jewish. She could be born Jewish or she could be a giyores (female convert).
Ruth was a giyores. In fact, she shows us the mindset of a proper giyores, “where you go, I shall go,” etc. etc. Many of the laws of giyur (conversion) are learned from the Biblical Story of Ruth. Reply

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