The second definition is more controversial. In general terms, it is being of Jewish ancestry. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it as being "A member of the widely dispersed people originally descended from the ancient Hebrews and sharing an ethnic heritage based on Judaism."
Virginia Republican Senator George Allen, to his apparent public chagrin, meets this second definition. He also might or might not meet a third definition--a rabbinical definition-- of being Jewish, being born to a Jewish mother. The fact that his mother apparently was raised as a Christian would disqualify Allen in the opinion of some rabbis, but likely not all rabbis. The precise facts of the case would be important in making a rabbinical determination.
But I understand the anguish and the confusion that the sudden discovery of one or more Jewish ancestors can cause. It raises questions of who one's ancestors were, who one is, and what relationship, if any, one should have with the Jewish people.
It also raises questions of the sincerity of one's religious beliefs. The Spanish Inquisition was much more about investigating professed Christians of Jewish ancestry--the moranos-- who allegedly were secretly practicing the Jewish religion, than it was about investigating Jews as such. True Jews were not allowed to be living in Spain at the time.
The idea that some Christians are not true Christians carries weight with elements of the religious right. It is only a short step from that belief to the belief that these Christians may include secret Jews in their ranks.
Politicians have joked about their Jewish ancestry. John Kerry, after discovering it in the Boston Globe, went to a St. Patrick's Day celebration and proclaimed he had the "matzo balls" to be there that day. Barry Goldwater, an opponent of federal civil rights legislation, told of asking a manager of a country club that banned Jews from the golf course: "But I'm only half Jewish. Can't I play nine holes?"
There has always been intermarriage. There have always been conversions of people from one religion to another. The more the ever-increasing computerization and translation of records proceeds over time, the more people will learn of their Jewish ancestors.
New York Times reporter Susan Jacoby's memoir tells of an improbable accidental meeting in France with a very elderly friend of her late grandfather. "Your grandfather was one of the finest lawyers in America," the woman gushed. "A lot of people thought he would become the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice." This testimonial hit Jacoby like a ton of bricks. It was the first time she had gained definitive information that was she was of Jewish ancestry, and it raised many questions and concerns in her mind.
Various Christian friends of mine have told of their belief or firm knowledge that they are of Jewish descent. Some view this as a bizarre oddity of little relevance, while others identify to various degrees with individual Jews and/or the Jewish people.
Jules Lester is a militant African-American writer whose interest in, and writings about, his Jewish ancestry, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people became increasingly intense as the years went on. Finally, a Jewish friend suggested he convert to Judaism. He did convert. He then contacted his Jewish cousins, whom he had played with as a young child but had since fallen out of touch.
He told them how happy and fulfilled he felt now that he was back as a member of the religion of some of his ancestors. He hoped as co-religionist he could become closer to his cousins.
His cousins expressed joy that he had found such happiness and fulfillment. But they, living in an almost all
Christian world, had all previously converted to Christianity.
Religious beliefs are intensely personal. They can and often are influenced by one's family, but family traditions cannot control the beliefs of future generations.
Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy have Jewish grandchildren, while the ranks of Christians and Buddhists and Sihks and other religions include the descendants of rabbis and cantors and synagogue leaders.
There are about 5 million Americans who profess to be of the Jewish religion. There are many, many more Americans who have some Jewish ancestry. Senator Allen should know that he is in good company.