Dare to Ask: The basics for being Jewish
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
Is it true that to be recognized as a Jew your mother has to be a Jew? And
how come I only see white-skinned women who are Jews? Can only white people be
Kofi, Episcopalian male, N.Y.
You only see white-skinned women who are Jews because you aren't looking hard
Sarah, 35, New York
If you were to visit Israel, you would find the Falasha, who are from
Ethiopia and are black-skinned Africans. Also, there are many Jews who are
Persian, Arabic and even Chinese, Indian and Japanese. What you see are those
Jews who are derived from Eastern Europe, who, of course, are white-skinned.
Sasha A., 25, Los Angeles
According to Jewish tradition, if your mother is a Jew, that makes you a Jew.
(They went with that definition because there was no definite way of knowing who
the father was.) Regarding whether only white people can be Jews: no. If your
mom is a Jew, you're a Jew no matter what your color. And people of all colors,
nationalities, religions, etc. are permitted to convert to Judaism.
Laurie B., 55, Jewish, Boston
There are different Jewish sects, and at least some of them accept converts.
Some black guys who have converted are Sammy Davis Jr. and Rod Carew.
Cal, 47, agnostic, Lakewood, Calif.
We thought actor Adam Sandler would be great for this one, but were
devastated to learn he got it wrong in The Chanukah Song with:
O.J. Simpson, not a Jew!
But guess who is . . . Hall of Famer Rod Carew - he converted!
Apparently, while the baseball star had 3,053 career hits, a .328 lifetime
batting average and a Jewish wife and kids, he never actually converted. (Sammy
Davis Jr. did, though.)
So, sadly, it was on to the less-funny but more-informed Orthodox Rabbi
Benjamin Blech, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism
and an assistant professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York.
"Judaism is a religion, not a race, and it permits conversion to it, so
anyone can become a Jew, no matter what color. I've had several students who
were black, and one became a rabbi . . . the clincher is Moses, who was married
to a woman who was black, Zipporah," he said.
But just so you know, conversion isn't a quick "git 'er done" type of thing.
As Blech noted, there are books to be read, oral exams to be taken and, at the
end of the process, bet din, where a Jewish court of three rabbis really grills
you until it's satisfied you know the material, privileges and responsibilities
of becoming Jewish.
On the other hand, if Mom's Jewish, you're automatically in, according to the
"It's a maternal link . . . the reasons might be that the mother is in the
greatest position to influence the spirituality of the child - has the most
power over what the child becomes," Blech said.
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
column comments to phillip. email@example.com. You can also hear his
podcasts or watch his