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How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

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Author Topic: How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?  (Read 947 times)
Tovah Silverstein
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« on: March 04, 2008, 01:25:07 am »

Mark Rashkow, whose wedding was saved by Farber’s intervention, described him as “relentless.” Rashkow came to Israel from Chicago in 2003 to woo the woman he loved as a young volunteer 30 years before at Kibbutz Hazorea. Both he and she were at the end of long marriages. A year later, just days before their wedding, the local rabbinate informed him that he had yet to show he was Jewish. A rabbinate official in the town of Afula, near Hazorea, dismissed a letter from his Conservative rabbi in America, saying, according to Rashkow: “It doesn’t interest me. He’s a goy.”

Growing up in Chicago, Rashkow said, “I thought my first name was ‘kike’ until I was 12.” But when he found Farber via an Internet search just a few days before his planned wedding, the only leads Rashkow could provide him with were his maternal grandmother’s name and her approximate year of death. “Seth Farber, to me, was like an angel sent from heaven,” said Rashkow, who told his story at an exuberant pace. Farber began phoning Jewish cemeteries, working late into the Israeli night to reach Chicago in daytime. On the fourth or fifth call, he succeeded: the voice at the other end had the name listed in a section of the graveyard belonging to a society of Jews who’d come from Sokolow, in Poland. A cemetery employee sent pictures by e-mail of the gravestone, which was replete with Hebrew.

The next step was finding a birth certificate for Rashkow that showed his mother’s name, and one for his mother that listed her mother — thereby establishing his link to the gravestone. A lawyer whom Rashkow knew in Chicago rushed to the courthouse to get the papers. Farber then contacted the Chicago Rabbinical Council, an Orthodox body recognized by the Israeli rabbinate, to certify Rashkow as Jewish. The faxed letter arrived a day before the wedding, and Rashkow was able to marry the woman he had dreamed of for 30 years.

Suzie, Sharon’s mother, called Farber on a Sunday morning, the start of the Israeli workweek. He asked her for her grandmother’s maiden name, which she didn’t recall, and told her to ask someone in Minnesota to find her maternal grandparents’ tombstones.

“The hunt is on,” he wrote me in an e-mail message that night. He contacted the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which provided the names of the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Minneapolis and his predecessor. Farber called both. Neither knew Suzie’s family, and the synagogue had no record of her grandmother. An old friend of Suzie’s in Minneapolis went to the courthouse and got a copy of her parents’ marriage license, signed by a rabbi. Farber did a Google search for his name and found that he had been a leading figure in the Conservative movement — meaning the license was at best weak supporting evidence before an Israeli rabbinic court. Once again, the link to an Orthodox community was missing.

Farber went to the Web site of Ellis Island and ran searches for Suzie’s family members in the repository of records of the “teeming masses” that arrived there. The manifests of arriving ships list “race or people” of immigrants, and “Hebrew” — meaning Jew — is one designation. But he was unable to locate any record of Suzie’s grandmother. “I’m a little less confident than I was,” he told me on the third day of his hunt.

Online, he found the Portage County Historical Society of Wisconsin. He sent the group an e-mail message about Suzie’s mother, born as Belle Mersky in 1907, asking “if, by any chance, there might be synagogue records of her birth available to you.” It was a geographical near miss; Wausau is in neighboring Marathon County. His message was forwarded to Rabbi Dan Danson of Wausau’s sole synagogue, a Reform congregation. But it had no archives of births from before 1988. Another dead end.

By now, though, Farber had phoned the Marathon County Register of Deeds, seeking Suzie’s mother’s birth certificate. The request, he was told, had to come from an immediate relative. Fortunately, Danson offered to help, and Suzie sent him the necessary information by e-mail. By Friday morning — five days after Suzie first called Farber — Danson was at the Wausau courthouse with the papers and $20 of his own money. Belle Mersky’s birth certificate, faxed to Farber’s home, showed that her mother’s maiden name was Rose Reuben.

Suzie’s niece visited the Jewish cemetery in Minneapolis where her grandparents were buried. The tombstones, originally placed flush with the ground, were now covered with grass and sod. She went home, returned with a shovel, and uncovered the evidence. In the photo of the gravestone that she sent by e-mail, above the name Rose Mersky in English was Hebrew: “Rachel, daughter of Moshe,” with the date of death, the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Elul, in the year 5714 (1954).

A week into the search, evidence was coming together. In a school project her son once did, Suzie found a family photo of her grandmother’s grandfather, Mikhael Ludmersky, an archetypal 19th-century Eastern European Jew with a white beard and black cap. From her family’s Conservative congregation in Minneapolis she received yahrzeit cards for her grandparents — records used to remind relatives of the anniversaries of their loved ones’ deaths, when the kaddish prayer should be recited. Even given the source, it was supporting evidence.

Farber arrived at the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court about two weeks after Sharon’s first visit. He’d called and arranged with a judge to be squeezed in before the day’s docket of divorces. He had power of attorney, so Sharon didn’t need to appear. He wore a black suit and a gold tie, and his face was narrow and taut. “Now I’ve moved up from detective to lawyer,” he said. He was ushered into a tiny courtroom, where three rabbis, dressed in the black coats of the ultra-Orthodox, sat at a raised bench. Farber approached and made his case to one. He showed the series of birth certificates of Sharon’s maternal line, with the surnames Goldstein, Mersky, Reuben. “These are all clearly Jewish names,” he said. He presented the picture of the tombstone of Rachel, daughter of Moshe, and the photograph of Mikhael Ludmersky in his black cap, and the rest of his exhibits. The judge said to wait outside.

Twenty minutes later, a clerk called Farber in and presented him with a one-sentence judgment stating that Sharon is a Jew.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.” His last article for the magazine was about the construction of Israel’s security barrier through the West Bank.
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