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The Jewish myth of matrilineal descent

I’m Jewish because my mother was Jewish. She was Jewish because her mother was Jewish. And so on, down the ages – matrilineal descent.

Apart from her penchant for preparing Danish herring at any and every conceivable opportunity, my mother had little that was Jewish about her. She was neither religious not Zionist, the two defining streams of Judaism in the modern day. I don’t think she ever went to shul, except on weddings, bar mitzvahs etc., she took no part in Jewish community activities in Johannesburg, where she lived, and there was little about Israel that attracted her. Even her choice of bridge partners –she fought with them regularly, so there were several –was ecumenical. She spent her last years in a non-Jewish home for the aged.

Barely Jewish as she was, my mother was a paragon of Jewishness when compared to her own mother, of whom I have no Jewish memories whatsoever. Born in Whitechapel, in the poor, east-end of London, she spoke English with what we took to be a Cockney accent and was more a hovering shadow than a concrete presence. She ended up in a home for the aged run by the local Jewish community, cursing Jews and blacks in equal measure, if I remember correctly.

I never knew, and have no information about, my grandmother’s mother. Her husband, my great-grandfather, came from Shavl (today Siauliai,) a shtetl in Lithuania, and my operating assumption is that she came from Lithuania as well. But the rest is lost in time.

I had a Jewish father, too, by the way, and his side of the family was a lot more Jewish than my mother’s side. That was particularly true of my paternal grandmother, who spoke in a thick Yiddish accent and planted a tree in Israel whenever a grandchild was born. But they don’t count when it comes to Jewish descent, I understand, so I am compelled to depend on my tenuous and malnourished maternal roots for my Jewishness.

I have been assured by crusading Jews who know a lot more about these things than I do that I am Jewish to the core, despite the scanty evidence that I can present. My tiny, spectral maternal grandmother, who seemed to spend her life perched on a couch arguing with herself, is my guarantor of a lasting Jewish heritage stretching back to biblical times. Whatever the women in my family did or neglected to do during their lives, they carried the indestructible Jewish seed in their wombs and passed it down like a relay baton, generation after generation, until it landed up in me.

More to the point, the Jewish seed grants me inalienable rights in Israel, the country in which I live. I may consider my Jewishness to have been more than a little wanting in practice, but the authorities in Israel – rabbinical and civil – are a lot less restrained. I am logged as Jewish in the population registry (confusingly, as my nationality, rather than my religion) and that, in the eyes of the state, makes me lord of the land.

I came to Israel under the Law of Return, a right that is reserved for Jews only. My Jewish birthright to land that I’ve never even visited exceeds that of people who have been living there for centuries. If I drive through the West Bank, I do so on roads that are closed to the Arabs who live there. Were I to be judged in the West Bank, it would be by a civil court, rather than the harsh military courts that judge the local population.  

In the Knesset, I have lovely people of a fascist persuasion fighting tooth and nail for my Jewish rights. I have a prime minister who remembers the Holocaust on my behalf and is dedicated, again on my behalf, to ensuring that such a thing never happens again to any Jew, including me. I have a massive rabbinical infrastructure dedicated to ensuring that the blood of my children is not polluted through marriage to a woman who cannot produce a matrilineal chain as impressive and as abiding as my own.

It’s really good to be a Jew, but – between us –isn’t it the biggest load of rubbish?

I don’t even know who my great-grandmother was, never mind her mother and the one before her. For all I know, one of them lied about her origins or was a gypsy adopted by a kind Jewish family in the bogs of Lithuania. There could be, and probably are, converts, Cossacks, rapes, mistakes and all sorts of other mishaps in my family history – each one of which makes a mockery of my matrilineal Jewish descent. I’m probably a lot more heathen than Hebrew – more Khazar than kosher – but that doesn’t make the slightest difference to the rabbinical bureaucrats, who stick doggedly to the party line: my mother was Jewish and therefore I’m Jewish.

I really can’t take this garbage seriously. It’s a farce – a lot less scientific than playing the roulette table and a lot less fun as well. Why not establish a religion for everyone who has blue eyes or for every third person in a randomly chosen group. The result will not be any less homogeneous than the so-called Jewish People of today. The irony, of course, is that Hitler believed it was possible to identify a biological basis for Judaism – and we believe the exact same thing. But Hitler was wrong and so is the Jewish myth of matrilineal descent.

I have no problem with people identifying themselves as Jews, just as I have no problem with their identifying themselves as Hindus, vegans, bisexuals or communists. But to maintain, as Judaism does, that there is a long chain of command, emanating from the mother, that confers on them divine rights and obligations – and, in the case of Israel, imperial prerogatives – is utter nonsense. It is primitive superstition that should have died out with the Neanderthals.

My family’s history in Jewish eastern Europe is important to me, but that’s because of who they were, not what they were. I imagine that I’d be just as interested in my roots if they were embedded in the soil of the Scottish highlands or the pampas of Argentina. I’m Jewish only if I choose to be Jewish. My mother has absolutely nothing to do with it.