We rabbis often lament about how many issues divide our people. We pray differently, we keep kosher differently, we talk about Israel differently, etc. The truth is that while these topics make us debate with each other and cause us to affiliate with our own congregations and communities and organizations, they don’t change the fact that we’re all part of the Jewish people. The only issue that truly does divide us in the sense that it keeps us from uniting as one people is the issue of Jewish identity—what’s commonly called “Who’s a Jew.”
The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement (in North America, not in Israel) to consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as fully Jewish changed the rules of the game. In my first decade as a rabbi serving communities of young Jewish people (both on a college campus and at a Jewish camping agency), I’ve been asked numerous times by patrilineal Jews whether I consider them Jewish. At the end of a Birthright Israel trip a young female participant asked if I would be willing to officiate at her wedding even though her mother isn’t Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi I find these to be the most challenging questions I’m asked. My Reform and Orthodox rabbinic colleagues respond to these questions without much hesitation or difficulty. The Reform rabbi is able to cite the movement’s resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames the answer with cut-and-dry legal wording, explaining that the definition of Jewish lineage according to halacha (Jewish law) is a child born to a Jewish mother or one who undergoes proper conversion.
Now a mega celebrity is catapulting the topic of patrilineal descent right onto our dinner tables just weeks before the High Holidays. Rabbis might feel inclined to include this issue in their Rosh Hashanah sermons this month. Gwyneth Paltrow has long been considered a Jewish actress by her fans and those in Hollywood who know that her father was Jewish. Paltrow’s mother is Blythe Danner, the actress known most notably for her roles in television’s Will and Grace and the movie Meet the Parents. Now, Paltrow has announced that she has been in the process of a conversion to Judaism since discovering her ancestors were famous rabbis. This has led to confusion among many who thought Gwyneth Paltrow was already Jewish.
Conversion is an option for patrilineal Jews who wish to remove any genetic doubt about their heritage, but it can also be an insulting suggestion. We are now facing the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s 1983 resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and are having their own children. Gwyneth Paltrow will likely go through a mikveh conversion to formally (and halachically) become a member of the Jewish community (and remove any doubt that she’s 100% a Jewish celebrity), but that resolution won’t work for every man or woman who grew up thinking they were unequivocally Jewish. The mere mention of a conversion process can be taken as an insult to an individual who grew up as an active member of the Jewish people. So what are we to do for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who don’t want to convert? Maybe we just need a big name celeb like Gwyneth Paltrow to bring this issue to the fore.
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I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”
Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.
Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.
As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.
In the section of the Torah relating the events leading up to the much anticipated reunion of Jacob and his estranged brother Esav, we are told that Jacob is left alone to spend the night. He is left alone – without his large family – in the darkness to contemplate his fate when he would once again come face to face with his brother. In this night of utter aloneness a man wrestles with Jacob until the break of dawn leaving him injured.
It is possible that the Hebrew term alone (levado) actually means a sense of despair. And while biblical commentators have theorized that the being with whom Jacob wrestled was either an angel, God or even Esav himself, my own interpretation is that Jacob wrestled with himself. It was depression.
Jacob was not really alone on that fateful night. His loved ones were just on the other side of the river, but he felt alone. He had a large family who loved him and he had great wealth, but he was struggling with his inner demons. Feeling anxious and alone, our patriarch was left in the dark to wrestle with himself.
Depression often goes undetected and untreated. In the United States, between two and four percent of people suffer from clinical depression translating to about 17.5 million Americans. Like Jacob, they too are wrestling internally and praying for healing and recovery. We must constantly remind them that there is hope and there is help.
As dawn breaks, Jacob’s opponent begs him to let go. Not until you bless me, Jacob says. From that point on, Jacob is transformed and known as Israel. Transformation is possible, but it comes out of a difficult struggle.
Our responsibility is to recognize and accept those who are wrestling with depression. We must listen to their cries for help and be present for them. The loss of Robin Williams, a truly gifted performer, is painful for everyone who was entertained by him. Let us work to help others who suffer from depression before it is too late.
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