Family & Education

Let’s be fair to fathers

Is it right that Jewishness is generally passed down through the mother's side? It's time for a rethink, says Karen Glaser


It’s Father’s Day on Sunday, and I’ll be celebrating the holiday with the rest of the nation. Yes, I know it’s not one of our holidays, but honouring your father (and mother) is the fifth commandment, so let’s go with it.

Although, actually when it comes to being Jewish, every day is a Father’s Day, for me.

It was Dad who introduced me to wonderful books about Jews and Jewishness when I was a little girl. It was Dad who explained the history and geography of Israel to me on the family holidays there that punctuated my childhood. It was Dad who, when I hit my teens, helped me understand the complex hatred that is antisemitism.

These days I sometimes write about this hatred in my job as a journalist and when the piece is particularly tricky I often reach for the phone so I can run the argument past Dad. He’s always been my barometer on Jewish affairs. He has made me the proud and political Jew that I am.

Yet for the halachists it is my lovely mum alone who makes me Jewish. She is Jewish, so I am too. Dad doesn’t count because he’s a patrilineal Jew.

I abhor this interpretation of Jewish status, this insistence on the illusory purity of the matrilineal line, this dismissal of patrilineal Jews.

The Nuremberg argument alone is sufficient for my disdain: if they were good enough for Hitler to murder as Jews, why are they not good enough for us to let them live as Jews? But I also think the halachists’ position lacks common sense. We are a minnow people at a time of rising antisemitism. It is clearly in our interests to welcome people who consider themselves Jewish, who throw their lot in with us.

And on the eve of Father’s Day, let’s remind ourselves that Jewish fathers can transmit their love of Judaism and Jewishness, as much as mothers can.

Dads like Rob Berg. He is president of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand, a job which sees him organise the country’s Yom 
HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and events like Chanukah in the Park. Since he moved from Britain to New Zealand 14 years ago, Rob has also only ever fed his daughter Keziah kosher meat from the one shop in the whole of Auckland where you can find it. It is imported from Australia and very expensive for it, but he coughs up willingly — the Jewish dietary laws are non-negotiable.

For her part, his 19-year-old daughter is rarely seen without her Magen David earrings and when we spoke she relayed how just that morning she’d given a non-Jewish friend the marshmallows from her milkshake. “Gelatine. Ugh!” she giggled, “It just weirds me out. It’s how my dad raised me.”

Her dad also raised her with his non-Jewish wife. They are now divorced, but the fact her mum isn’t a member of the tribe has never affected Keziah’s Jewish identity, she says. “I’m very proud of who I am. And that’s thanks entirely to my dad, the most important person in my life.”

And to her detractors, those who say her fervently Jewish dad doesn’t cancel out her non-Jewish mum, she says this: “You are being unfair. It is wrong that irrespective of our Yiddishkeit, how we feel about Jewish issues, and what we do for the Jewish community, some small-minded Jews will never see us as one of them.”

Charley Cohen, 30, agrees wholeheartedly. He grew up in Chingford with a proud Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mum who embraced all things Yiddishe. The family observed the festivals, didn’t touch pork, and until he was 24 and met Ariella via the Jewish dating site Jswipe, Charley never doubted he was Jewish

But some of Ariella’s friends and in-laws, all raised in the bosom of Orthodoxy, did express doubt, and it was hugely upsetting for Charley. “For a while, I was a bit lost, to be honest,” he says. “Nothing was ever said to my face, it was always to Ariella behind my back, but that was actually worse because I’d like to have been able to respond. In a way, I guess that’s what I’m doing, finally, with this article.”

Charley’s riposte is also the traditionally Jewish family he has created with Ariella. The couple’s sons Rafi and baby Lior are both circumcised; Rafi, four, attends a Jewish primary, and the family are members of Radlett Reform Synagogue. “I’m every bit as committed to raising my sons as Jewish as Ariella is. And she is every bit as angry as me that some people don’t see me as Jewish.”

For Nathan Abrams denying children like his Jewish status is a stain at the heart of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic being the operative word for the matrilineal definition of Jewish status does not appear in the bible. In the collection of writings that make up the Hebrew bible, Jewish status is actually patrilineal. It was altered to the female line in rabbinic times because of the perceived needs of that age.

It’s time for another rabbinic rethink, says Nathan. “What is the point of a Judaism that says a person who is born Jewish but does nothing to be Jewish is somehow better than the child of a Jewish father?”

Meanwhile Abrams, professor in film at Bangor University, is doing what he can to raise his kids as identifying Jews. “We celebrate the festivals and I try through regular conversation to counterbalance the Jesus stuff they’re learning at school. I often cook Jewish, too. I make a mean challah and we’re having falafel for dinner today.

“Ultimately, they will decide their path in life, but I want them to be in no doubt that they can take the Jewish one if they want to.”

Jeffrey Cohen, 72, is a patrilineal Jew who has only ever walked the Jewish path. As a boy he went to Talmud Torah five times a week and was always top of the class. Until, that is, the mother of the boy who always came second announced Jeffrey wasn’t a halachic Jew, and he was kicked out.

His dad died when Jeffrey was 15, so father and son never had an adult conversation about being Jewish. But Jeffrey knows his dad was a life-long anti-fascist and committed Jew who fought in the battle of Cable Street, and he says his father’s identity politics live on in him.

Unlike his dad, though, Jeffrey married “in” — twice, noch — and says he’d never contemplate a serious relationship with a non-Jewish woman. He volunteered in Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars and made aliyah two years ago. Against that background, it should surprise no-one that his two children have also gone on to lead full Jewish lives.

However, none of this mattered when his late wife, a psychotherapist and grief counsellor, volunteered to visit Jewish patients at Barnet Hospital under the auspices of the United Synagogue.

“It was thanks, but no thanks,” says Jeffrey, “you’re married to a non-Jew.”

Academic Pete Newbon is also married to a non-Jew but, unlike Jeffrey, he grew up with next to no Yiddishkeit. His Jewish granny left the community after she met Pete’s grandfather who wasn’t Jewish: she knew her traditional family wouldn’t approve of her marrying someone outside the faith. As a result, Pete’s father didn’t have much of a Jewish upbringing, and didn’t really see himself as properly Jewish.

Pete, a director of anti-racism group Labour Against Antisemitism, is doing things differently with his daughters.

“I’m not religious at all, but I have introduced the girls to Jewish foods and we are working our way through the Genesis and Exodus stories,” he says.

“I’ve told my eldest very, very little bits about the Shoah, but it feels like it’s a fuller conversation that’s on the brink. And all three are really curious about this country Daddy is very excited about called Israel where it is very hot. We’re going to go on a family holiday there soon.”

“Sometimes they’ll say: ‘are we Jewish?’ And I’ll reply: ‘sort of’. I want them to feel there’s an element of choice in all this.”

Sarah Silvey-Fine’s choice is conversion. The 29-year-old feels “completely Jewish”, but says she wants to formally convert for the sake of the children she hopes to have with her traditionally Orthodox fiancé.

She’ll do this through the Masorti Movement which has indicated that the process will be swift. Sarah has three Jewish grandparents, teaches in a Jewish school and was raised on Jewish food and humour.

Not that any of this mattered to some of the Jewish men she dated before she met her fiancé.

“They didn’t see me as Jewish and it hurt. It also meant that when I went on Jewish dating sites, I was always a bit fearful, worried people would think I was being deceitful.”

When Sarah told her late father Michael Fine that she planned to convert, he was delighted. “He always wanted me to marry Jewish and was happy to know that I’ve become more observant than he was.” He would also have been delighted to see his family’s story in this article, says Sarah, who says our interview has been “very special to me.” Michael died of Covid-19 and this is his beloved daughter’s first Father’s Day without him.


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