Joelle Asaro Berman was born to an Italian-American mother and a Jewish father in 1983, the very same year that Reform rabbis voted to recognize as Jewish the children of such unions, provided they made “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.”
Berman has been making such public and formal acts her whole life. Growing up in Fair Lawn, N.J., she was active in her family’s Reform temple, a regular at the movement’s summer camps and a leader in Reform’s North American Federation of Temple Youth. As an adult, she’s worked primarily in the Jewish community — first for the teen magazine JVibe, now for the Foundation for Jewish Camp — and she davens at an independent minyan in Brooklyn.
Raised in a self-described “Reform bubble,” Berman didn’t even know there was anything controversial about her status until age 13 when she attended a Young Judaea meeting and — after introducing herself and sharing her background — was publicly told she was not really Jewish.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I even knew what patrilineal descent was” until then, she says, noting that many of her friends came from interfaith families, “and I couldn’t tell you who had a Jewish father or mother. It never felt like an issue.”
Although only formalizing what many in the Reform (and Reconstructionist) movement were already doing, the 1983 ruling broke with the almost 2,000 year-old “matrilineal descent” tradition of Jewish lineage being transmitted exclusively through the mother. Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to stick to the traditional, halachic definition.
How does it feel to be a committed Jew yet to know that not everyone accepts you as a member of the Tribe?
Despite the Young Judaea humiliation (a representative of the youth group apologized to her years later after she wrote about the experience), Berman gave little thought to the issue until her 20s, when — working at JFL Media and, for the first time, coming into contact with more traditional Jews — she went through a few years of soul-searching, wondering “Am I a lie?”
At 26, however, this poised, fashionable and tough young woman, who acknowledges that her personality is such that “people don’t want to get down with me about this,” has moved beyond the angst.
“In the end, the way you conceive your identity is small compared to your actions,” she says, adding that, “the more you grow up, the more you realize not everyone is going to agree with you. You have to be OK with the way you look at yourself.”
Although the 1983 patrilineal descent decision clearly smoothed the way for her to assume leadership roles in NFTY and Reform summer camps, Berman notes that her parents would probably have raised her as a Jew regardless.
“It wouldn’t have held them back,” had there been no official movement-wide endorsement, she says.
“This issue of who’s in and out feels like an issue that will die with this generation,” she predicts. “The Jewish community has to reconcile its desire to be continuous with the rigorousness with which it defines who’s in and who’s out. Those are two contradictory goals.”
Like Berman, Laurel Snyder, editor of the anthology “Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes” and a product of a Catholic mother/Jewish father family, says she grew up completely unaware that anyone regarded her as any different than kids with a Jewish mother and gentile father.
Attending a large Reform Hebrew school in Baltimore, “no one ever asked me which parent was Jewish,” she says, even though patrilineal descent was not official policy until she was 9.
Despite her own obliviousness to the patrilineal issue, Snyder, at her father’s suggestion, underwent a Conservative conversion before leaving home to attend college in Tennessee. “He didn’t want me to find myself in a situation where I wasn’t accepted,” she explains.
While many people in her situation feel insulted at the suggestion that they convert, Snyder, a poet and novelist who currently lives in Atlanta, says the process for her was very simple, and not unpleasant.
“At the time it felt good to be able to tell people I’d had a conversion,” she says. “It felt like a show of seriousness.”
While Snyder and Berman are not sure to what extent the patrilineal descent decision has affected them, 50-year-old Jonathan Freund, whose mother traced her ancestry back to the Mayflower and whose father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, is deeply grateful for it.
“My wife and I, our home, our children would not be Jewish without the welcoming of patrilineal descent,” he says.
Not raised Jewish, Freund and his wife, also “patrilineal,” grew interested in Judaism shortly before their wedding, when they took an Intro to Judaism class together.
“For me, very quickly it became this whole new universe,” he recalls. “I just loved it.”
The two, who live in Los Angeles, joined a temple, ultimately sending their two children, now 13 and 10, to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp.
A few years ago, Freund had a bar mitzvah, got a master’s in Jewish education at the University of Judaism and left his film job to work as director of educational and inter-religious programs for the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis.
None of this would have happened had the Reform movement not been so welcoming of people with non-Jewish mothers, he says.
“People say you could have converted,” he says. “But we weren’t going to do that. We had to come to it in a Reform way, gently and at our own speed.” n
This is third in a series on the legacy of patrilineal descent. To see the two previous installments or read other “In the Mix” columns go to http://intermarried.wordpress.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.