When John Kerry ran for President in 2004, the world learned (along with Kerry) that his grandfather had been a Jew: Fritz Kohn, who married a descendant of the Maharal of Prague, converted to Catholicism, and became Fred Kerry. The man who headed the Massachusetts state Democratic party at the time reportedly told the candidate the ancient joke about the Jewish man checking in at a posh, restricted hotel:

Hotel Manager: Are you sure you aren’t Jewish?

 

Man: My good sir, I am not Jewish, my father was not Jewish, and my zayde olov hasholom wasn’t Jewish either!

That’s not the punch line. The joke is that Kerry didn’t get it. To appreciate Jewish humor, you need a Jewish sensibility. Kerry’s grandfather may have been Jewish. He isn’t.

Are you sure you aren't Jewish? John Kerry

Are you sure you aren’t Jewish? John Kerry

Then there is Ralph Branca. Baseball fans above a certain age will recognize his name as the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who served up Bobby Thompson’s home run, the “shot heard round the world” that gave the New York Giants the pennant in 1951.

Joshua Prager, nephew of the talk-show host, wrote a book showing that Giants’ manager Leo Durocher (“Nice guys finish last”) had put a telescope behind center field to steal signs from the Dodger catcher. Thompson knew what pitch was coming.

Branca grew up in a devout Catholic family of 16 in the Bronx. Prager later wrote a long article in the other Times (New York) about Branca’s Hungarian-born mother. She was, it turns out, Jewish. Most of her family perished in the Holocaust. When Prager told him, this was news to Branca.

What did it mean for a devout Catholic to learn at age 89 that his mother was Jewish? Not much — about the same as what it meant to Kerry to find out about Grandpa.

Those who wondered why Prager wrote such a long article about this don’t get it. We Jews are a small tribe. When someone defects, we feel it. The defectors join very big tribes that don’t notice roster additions.

There have always been many non-Jews with a Jewish past. Some were historical figures, like Heinrich Heine (he came back!) or Gustav Mahler (who didn’t). Some are celebrities, like former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Her surprise at finding out that her family was Jewish made the news. Others write books to report their own discoveries. Stephen Dubner, half of the Freakonomics team, was raised Catholic and didn’t learn till adulthood that his father had converted during World War II. Dubner then told the world how he rejoined his Jewish family and reclaimed his heritage.

No soul-searching, no hard feelings

This theme of authenticity, of finding out who you “really” are, is a staple of the heartwarming tales printed in Jewish periodicals or shared in Jewish camps and youth groups, of Jews brought up in Polish convents or told of their unsuspected heritage by grandmothers on deathbeds. The moral of such tales is that people, especially Jews, must discover who they really are.

I love these stories as much as anyone. Each ends with another soul for our tiny and beleaguered people. But I have a perverse hobby, which is to find and catalogue other kinds of people with Jews in their background, those whose ancestors did not leave the fold for a ticket to European society or to conduct the Vienna Opera. They just up and left. For their descendants, a Jewish past is at most a curiosity.

At an office holiday party a few years ago, for instance, I learned most of my (non-Jewish) staff had Jewish grandfathers. Violet, from Indiana, told me her father’s father was a Jewish man from New Brunswick, Canada. Carla, an Italian woman from East Boston, said her father’s family was Jewish. They had refused to come to her father’s wedding and cut off all contact with him. She didn’t know why (though I did).

I met her dad. A nice gent, about as haimish and angst-filled as John Kerry.

Then there are my students. There was, for example, Josh Rosenfeld. Not much noteworthy about a medical student with that name. Except that Josh Rosenfeld is black.

Josh’s paternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Austria. He is apparently quite close to them. His father married an African-American woman and raised Josh in Rosedale, a black neighborhood in Queens, New York. Josh himself married a woman from Sierra Leone, so it’s clear who he thinks he really is.

Then there was Malalani, who looked as Hawaiian as her name. She grew up in Honolulu. Her father is a non-denominational Protestant minister. And, oh, by the way, her mother’s mother was a very small lady named Blumberg.

So it’s not true that Jewish kids don’t go to medical school anymore. Parts of them do, anyway.

The Jewish ancestry of people like Josh and Malalani is not newsworthy, even to them. No soul-searching, no hard feelings, no plumbing of some authentic, “real” self. Grandma threw pots. Uncle Jim played semipro softball. Zayde olov hasholom was a rabbi. Whatever.

I bother to ferret out the background that means so little to them, because it means a lot to me. I’m still in the tribe, even if they’re not.

The adoption and assignment of personal identity is an endless puzzle. Why is Tiger Woods black? Why isn’t he Thai? Why is Barack Obama black? Why isn’t he white? (It turns out he is descended from the first black slaves in America — through his white mother!)

People like the Jewish forebears of my staff-members, or of John Kerry, Madeleine Albright and Josh and Malalani, have been leaving the Jewish fold forever. If they hadn’t, there would be many more of us. Some who left were seduced, some were coerced (or murdered) — but many just up and left. Why did so many Jews in the former Soviet Union intermarry? Because Russian society was open and hospitable?

Why we get the jokes

Polina is one of my patients. We converse in Yiddish. Like many a husband of a Jewish woman, hers doesn’t say much. One day I asked Polina whether Viktor speaks Yiddish too.

She looked shocked. “Er is doch a goy!

Even if you don’t know Yiddish, you can figure that one out. Polina needed to get married. She found Viktor. That’s her story, an old and common one. Why do you think Jews look like the people in the countries they come from? You think it was the weather?

And yet, despite all this attrition, what’s amazing — miraculous, if you like — is not that so many have left but that some of us are still around. We’ve overcome trials, survived oppression, even defied entropy, the homogenizing process that gives Holocaust survivors Sierra Leonean grandchildren not because they had a quarrel with God but because they had this son, and he met this girl. After losing so many for whom being Jewish didn’t mean much, we still have those for whom it means a great deal.

Some are outsiders, who help define us whether we like it or not: anti-Semites who think we run the universe; philo-Semites who are sure we have The Secret. (South-Korean mothers consult books about raising children according to the Talmud. Really.)

But mostly it’s us, the ones who are still here, completing cycles of Daf Yomi, writing books, winning prizes, and generally making a disproportionate amount of noise. We know the story, and we still get the point.

Which is, of course, why we get the jokes.

Am Yisrael chai!

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