Our late mother pretended to be Jewish. What do we do now?

Question: Our mother was married in an Orthodox synagogue in the UK and buried next to my father in a Jewish cemetery. However, we discovered that she was not in fact Jewish - she only pretended to be - and never converted. What should we put on her headstone and how does this affect my siblings’ and my Jewish status?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Wow, that must have come as a shock. I cannot imagine how you must be feeling, believing in something as integral to your mother as her Jewish identity and then learning that it was all a lie. This is a form of the deepest betrayal not just to you and your siblings but to the Jewish community as a whole. If your father was also unaware of her true status, then his entire marriage was built on a lie. If he was aware, then he too is to blame.

Orthodox synagogues in this country have a fairly rigorous process for determining Jewish status before allowing a couple to marry so I find it difficult to imagine how she managed to slip through undetected. Although I do suspect that it must have involved some pretty devious machinations on her part. All this does is to reinforce the need for an Orthodox marriage authorisation process that is as thorough and rigorous as that of the London Beth Din.

As to your specific questions; the more significant of the two concerns your Jewish status. Unfortunately, I have to inform you that as your mother was not Jewish, neither are you. I realise this may sound brutal but it is also honest and I think you deserve some honesty at this point.

I cannot detect from your question just how observant of Judaism you are. If you practised Judaism all your life, you should find it relatively easy to convert. The most time-consuming aspect of the conversion process is absorbing the rhythm of Jewish life and practice. If you are already familiar and comfortable with Jewish observance and committed to it as well, a Beth Din may decide to convert you almost immediately. If however your knowledge of and commitment to Jewish practice is lacking, then it will require a significantly longer journey towards conversion.

Regarding the headstone, I would avoid any Hebrew words, dates or phrases. Instead I would just engrave her English name and her dates of birth and death. Living a lie is bad enough. The last thing you want to do is to perpetuate that lie even indirectly by engraving the kind of wording that might in any way indicate to future generations that your mother was Jewish.

On a personal note, I wish you success in whatever path you choose to take. You can not change the past but you can ensure that the future is shaped by honesty, clarity and truth.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The first question is, why did she hide her non-Jewish status? That also applies to your father, who colluded in the pretence. Presumably she wanted to be Jewish, but had been unable to convert (whether it was because there was no facilities at the time, or because she was rejected by the rabbinate, or because she felt it might hurt her own parents).

The exact cause is irrelevant beside the fact that she clearly supported her Jewish husband, ran a Jewish home and brought up her children as Jewish. Your surprise (and perhaps anger) at her cover-up should be mitigated by the way she actually led the vast majority of her life. She may never have had a certificate to register her change of status, but she clearly earned it over several decades.

As for your status: technically you are not Jewish. However, any rabbinic court with an ounce of commonsense and compassion (which are important Jewish values) would instantly recognise that whatever the technical irregularities, your identity and lifestyle have been Jewish since birth.

Certainly that would be the view of Progressive synagogues. The Reform Beth Din would consider it insulting to ask you to convert, as if you had just been introduced to Judaism for the very first time. Instead, following an interview, it would issue a document regularising your status. The Liberals would anyway recognise someone as Jewish who had one Jewish parent and a Jewish upbringing.

The headstone itself needs no special wording different from what you may have originally intended. Its purpose is to mark her resting place; it should also record details of her life (name and dates), along with any expressions of affection or admiration by those who mourn her.

It should also be stated that there should be no question of moving her body. There is talmudic precedent for non-Jews (if that is what she is) being buried in a Jewish cemetery, while it would be desperately unkind to separate her from her husband. Let them lie side by side, in death as in life.

Presumably the reason both your parents never revealed the truth was because, by that stage, they felt it might undermine your confidence or self-perception. Try to forgive them. They should have sorted out the paperwork long ago, but their strongest legacy is that they wanted you to value your Judaism.

    Last updated: 9:52am, April 23 2009