Why aren’t we Jewish? Berkeley boy asks mom — and pursues an answer

Those who know Mateo Aceves agree he has a Jewish soul. Mateo believes he does, too.

While he wasn’t exactly raised as a Christian, the 12-year-old grew up in a family that celebrated Christmas and Easter. “But they never had anything to do with Jesus,” he says.

His first exposure to Judaism came through his friends, and he enjoyed lighting the candles at Chanukah. At his first seder, he found the Exodus story “cool.” When he attended a Rosh Hashanah service, he liked how interactive it was.

When he was about 7, his mother had a Jewish partner. She moved in with the Aceves family, and they began celebrating the Jewish holidays at home. That only piqued his curiosity further.

As it turns out, it’s more than a passing interest.

On June 1, Mateo will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at Berkeley’s Kehilla Community Synagogue. According to halachah, however, he is not Jewish because he is not the child of a Jewish mother and has not undergone a conversion.

“I definitely do feel Jewish,” he says matter-of-factly, in an interview in his North Berkeley home. “I didn’t at the beginning, when I was first studying about how it all works. But now I believe in God in a Jewish way. Anyone can believe in a spirit that controls the world, but I believe that Jewish law was written in accordance with God.”

Mateo has spent two years in religious school at Kehilla. And as the community is affiliated with the Renewal movement, neither matrilineal nor patrilineal lineage to Judaism is relevant.

That Mateo will be treated just as all the other b’nai mitzvah will certainly raise eyebrows in more observant circles. “We basically regard people who are Jewish as people who regard themselves as Jewish,” says David Cooper, acting rabbi of Kehilla.

Interestingly, Mateo’s mother Christine’s version of events differs slightly from her son’s. According to her, his affinity toward Judaism actually began even earlier. To her astonishment, Mateo came home one day when he was about 5 and asked, “Mom, why aren’t we Jewish?”

Then, when he was 6 or 7, he asked her the ethnicity of his sperm donor. Christine, who is of Mexican and Irish descent, told him then that his donor is indeed Jewish — a fact that Mateo did not disclose in the interview, even though he knows it himself.

Christine, an emergency-room nurse and avid cyclist, sent Mateo to a Jewish day camp, Kee Tov, which also could have had an influence, she muses, although, “I sent him there because it was a good camp, not because it was Jewish.” She also says that among her Christian friends, her home was the least Christian of all of them.

Cooper has been a teacher of Mateo’s. In Cooper’s mind, Mateo’s identification with Judaism is genuine and not just a passing phase.

Mateo is “in it forever,” Cooper says. “He’s determined to live his life according to whatever rules he sets up for himself, and, apparently, being Jewish is one of them.”

Engage in a theological discussion with Mateo, and it’s easy to forget he has barely reached adolescence. But the baggy shorts, the stud in his left ear and the baseball hat all serve as reminders.

He is precociously bright and speaks to the subject with the seriousness it requires. With the familiarity he has with Jewish concepts, it’s just as easy to forget that halachically, he isn’t a Jew.

Take the Holocaust, for example, a subject he is well-versed in, as a self-described “World War II buff.”

After reading a great deal about that chapter of Jewish history, he has come to the conclusion that “there are too many novels written about the Holocaust for kids. They should be writing true stories about it for kids. Such tragic events don’t need stories with happy endings.”

When asked whether he feels a personal connection to Jewish history, he pauses for a moment, and then answers, “Sometimes the teacher will say, ‘This is your history,’ and I think, ‘Is it my history or not? My family is not like that.'”

He thinks about it a little longer. “I haven’t come to a decision on that.”

He does feel a connection to Israel, and hopes to study there during high school or live on a kibbutz one day. At the same time, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the current situation. “I don’t know what to feel, but I don’t like it now,” he says.

As someone who was raised with no religion at all, Mateo can’t really explain his desire to have spirituality in his life. But he can articulate why it is the Jewish faith that speaks to him.

So much of Christian theology is “Please, God, forgive me,” he explains. Judaism, on the other hand, is “‘Thank you, God.’ It’s much more positive.”

Additionally, he appreciates the egalitarian nature of Judaism, noting that in the time of Masada, “women were taught Torah and were recognized as members of society.”

Expanding on his views, he adds, “Overall, Judaism has a good moral basis, although some of the really Orthodox stuff I don’t agree with.”

Mateo attends Shabbat services every once in a while, and says that he can feel the energy when so many around him recite the prayers simultaneously. Christine occasionally lights Shabbat candles on Friday nights at home as well.

“Mom has picked it up,” he says. “She’s a little wrong on the Hebrew sometimes, but she’ll get it.”

Mateo has already spent two years in Hebrew school at Kehilla, entering at the suggestion of his mother’s ex-partner, who is still involved in his upbringing. While she didn’t push it on him, she did say that Hebrew school was the proper way to learn more. “She opened the door for me,” is the way Mateo puts it.

Even in Kehilla’s inclusive atmosphere, Mateo says that some of his classmates don’t quite understand his motivation.

Most of them are forced to go to Hebrew school, he says, while he is there because he wants to be. Kids his age are usually so overcommitted, with sports and possibly learning a musical instrument — he himself is a “soccer fanatic,” and plays the clarinet and piano — that spending additional hours in Hebrew school is the last thing they want to do. However, he is one of those strange kids who choose to go on his own accord.

“They think I’m lucky to have that choice,” he says, adding that he is against forcing Hebrew school on kids.

Describing Mateo as “extremely intelligent,” Cooper says he “absorbs things super quick and has a very durable retention, so what may take another kid five or six times to sink in, he can hear with the corner of his ear and hang on to it.”

Mateo says his mother is incredibly supportive, both emotionally and financially, as the family had to join Kehilla so he could attend Hebrew school. Christine admits she is bewildered why her son would take on such a difficult challenge, especially since Judaism requires learning another language. Yet she expresses pride that he’s working so hard, and especially on “something so thoughtful. It’s not for the presents or the money, and it’s completely not motivated by me,” she says.

“It’s really important for me to support him but I don’t understand it, exactly. I guess there are worse things he could be into.”

Some of Christine’s Jewish friends have expressed skepticism about Mateo’s Jewishness. “I don’t know,” she says. “Of course I’m going to respond differently to him than if he were a stranger, because he is my own kid.”

Mateo’s 10-year-old sister Reyna says she doesn’t identify with any religion but she thinks it’s “cool” that her brother is Jewish. He wants her to participate in his bar mitzvah by playing her flute.

Mateo knows that while he will always be considered a Jew at Kehilla, in the greater Jewish world that will not be the case. “He may decide that the actual process of doing the bar mitzvah will constitute his conversion, and I would allow that,” says Cooper. On the other hand, most people going through conversion at Kehilla do have one according to halachah, complete with appearing before a beit din (rabbinic court), immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) and for men, a symbolic circumcision.

“I’ll make him aware of these options and he’ll have to make these decisions. A lot of kids his age, I wouldn’t be sure they’d grasp it fully, of what the implications are, but I don’t have any concern about that with him,” Cooper says. “He’ll get it all, and make his own decision.”

If Mateo does decide to undergo a ritual conversion later in life, that’s fine too, says Cooper. “I hope he goes through something from the traditional approach, but it’s not my intention to force an answer upon him.”

For now, Mateo thinks his bar mitzvah will be his entree into life as a Jew. “When I get older, I might officially convert if I want to be more Orthodox,” he says. “But if I stay at Kehilla, I don’t need to. I feel Jewish myself, my family does and all my teachers know I’m Jewish.”

Lev Hirschhorn, Cooper’s 11-year-old son, who is a close friend of Mateo’s, agrees. “I never thought it was strange,” he says of his friend’s desire to be Jewish. “It was his decision. Being Jewish isn’t about your birth; it’s about what you believe. He seems very Jewish to me.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."