Shema: listen, heed, pay attention.


Four years ago I officially became Jewish.  It was something I felt strongly about, thought at length about and could not go on without doing.  There is no real explanation as to why.  I grew up in an atheist household, was baptized Catholic because the woman who became my godmother was very concerned about my spiritual life (or rather, afterlife), and I attended a Presbyterian school for all of my middle and high school education.  I don’t know where my spirituality came from, but I felt it, strongly, at all times.  I often credit my godmother; I have never met a person who was more exemplary of true faith, any faith.  She was the kindest, most tolerable and understanding person to walk this earth, she was worthy of great admiration.  Yet, I cannot say that it is because of her that I wanted to be Jewish, for obvious reasons.  I think that part came from my soul.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

Here, I have often discussed my soul’s connection to something seemingly so foreign.  Yet, recently I heard a sermon that brought back thoughts of my seemingly inexplicable connection to Judaism.  “Judaism is a religion of listening, not seeing. . . . Listening is the sacred task. The most famous command in Judaism is Shema Yisrael, ‘Listen, Israel.’”  Interestingly enough the Shema has been one of my favorite prayers, from the very beginning.  I’ve always felt a very strong emotional connection to those very foreign words; I close my eyes and open my heart and I feel like I am coming home.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

My choice to become Jewish makes a lot more sense in terms of listening than in terms of seeing.  There was no visible reason for my feelings, there was no physical manifestation of my connection, but if I closed my eyes and listened to the deepest parts of myself, the choice was clear as day.  Although, I guess that expression doesn’t really work here.  Rabbi Sacks notes that “[t]here is something profoundly spiritual about listening.”  And I have always felt that, really felt that.  Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that “Jews and Judaism taught that we cannot see G-d, but we can hear Him and He hears us. It is through the word – speaking and listening – that we can have an intimate relationship with G-d as our parent, our partner, our sovereign, the One who loves us and whom we love. We cannot demonstrate G-d scientifically. We cannot prove G-d logically.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

Accordingly, I felt I had found merit to what I always thought; my soul felt a connection I listened to and regardless of how inexplicable, it was real.  Yet, I could not leave it well enough alone, because not having clear answers just doesn’t sit well with me.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

As you may have read I have become obsessed with genealogy; I am on a half-dozen genealogy websites and have taken three DNA tests.  Every time I log on or review my results something new jumps out at me and I try to pursue it until I hit a wall.  It’s a thrilling and exhausting process.  Two weeks ago I went back to Family Tree DNA and did just that.

Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

There is a lot of discussion about proving Jewish roots through genetics, but there are no real answers.  Allegedly Ashkenazi genetic ancestry is easier to ascertain that Sephardi, which sounds logical.  Consequently several companies will advise they can’t assign Jewish genetic ancestry with certainty, but if you have a large number of Jewish genetic matches then the chances that you are Jewish are pretty high.  So given my varying percentages of Jewish ancestry, I decided to focus on my matches and that of my parents.  In my best Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw voice I asked: could my inexplicable connection come from my blood and not be inexplicable or foreign at all?

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As you can see my percentages assigned to Jewish genetic ancestry are all over the place, ranging from 0% to almost 11%.  23andMe actually gives me a pretty good guesstimate of what their .2% could be and even shows me where my ascertainable Jewish gene is.  Many would probably call this “noise,” percentages so small that they could be false and assignable elsewhere.  However, this “noise” was music to my ears.  Really, I don’t think it is noise at all.  Science is certainly not my forte, but if it was just noise I don’t think my matches would confirm my genetic connection.  Looking at my matches across the websites I was surprised by the number of matches who were of Polish Jewish descent (a woman whose parents perished in the Holocaust, a man whose Jewish roots can be traces to the Ottoman Empire, a daughter helping her father trace their Sephardi ancestry), countless Goldbergs, Cohens, Levins and even a Moroccan Jew.  That noise, that sound only my soul could hear, it was begging for me to shema.

V’hayu had’varim ha’eileh asher anokhi m’tzav’kha hayom al l’vavekha.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.

The most surprising thing about all of this was that I shared most of these matches with my father, not my mother.  I always thought if I was Jewish it would be on my mother’s side, but it seems that if I am Jewish that connection is, at least, much closer in time on my father’s side.  I know that to many Jews that doesn’t make me Jewish, but I respectfully disagree.  I disagree for many reasons, including the fact I carry those ancestors with me; their lives, their suffering, their blessings are all part of my genetic makeup and their gender can’t change that.  I also am Jewish, officially and by choice; I find most comfort in Hebrew prayers, I find my light in shul, I have a Jewish family and will raise Jewish children (when the time comes).  I hope to find that Jewish genetic link in my tree, I hope to know their story, I hope to connect to them by name.  But even if I don’t, I am and will always be Jewish; my descendants will never have to wonder.  And if down the line anything happens, my story is lost to time and anyone wonders who their Jewish link is they can contact the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and get a copy of my Certificate of Gerut.  In it, my descendants will find my commitment to live in accordance with the Jewish religion, be one with the Jewish people, come what may, and raise my children as Jews, and I hope it will mean as much to them, as it does to me.

V’shinan’tam l’vanekha v’dibar’ta bam
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them…


2 responses »

  1. Muy hermosa tu reflexion. Sabes cuanto creo en la libertad de pensamiento y pensando en esta decision al leer tu escrito, en la dificil ruta que decidiste tomar espiritualmente, hallo mas valeroso y admirable escoger ser judio que nacer judio. Un pueblo perseguido, criticado, estigmatizado y literalmente tratado de borrar de la faz de la tierra y escoges libremente poner sobre ti por “escogencia” semejante historia, poner en tu pecho la letra que aun te puede costar la vida, lo sabemos las dos. Cuando veo esos muchachos fornidos y rabiosos, veo el odio que puede costarte la vida. Y has elegido eso, elegiste escuchar ese idioma milenario que resuena hermoso y llena tu alma pero te trae a una realidad horrorosa de discriminacion tambien milenaria. Algo muy grande y sagrado y profundo y libre y valeroso te ha hecho escuchar esas palabras. La fe vino contigo, lo se porque soy tu madre. La opcion fue y es tuya. Entre todas esas religiones que te rondaron, tus oidos quisieron escuchar esta version de Dios, la mas dura, dificil, azarosa y valiente. Y hasta tus genes tendran que doblegarse.

    • You should write a blog. But you are right. It often seems like a more difficult choice. I must admit I never thought what we are seeing would happen. You did. It definitely doesn’t change how I feel or change my choice, but it brings a new and sadder perspective to what we are witnessing.

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