Proving shes Jewish was a Dutch treat for my cousin

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“I want to join the synagogue,” my cousin Sheila told me a few years ago on a visit to San Francisco from Amsterdam, where she lives. “But the rabbi won’t let me, because I can’t prove I’m Jewish.”

“Prove you’re Jewish?” I said. “Of course you’re Jewish.”

She explained. “Everything is more regulated in Holland than here, and if you are not ‘registered’ as Jewish, then you simply aren’t. You need the papers.”

Sheila grew up in the apartment house next to mine in the Bronx. Both children of poor, struggling immigrants, we were reminded of our Jewishness daily by the Irish and Italian kids who chased us for “killing Christ.” With my cousin’s bouncy “Jewish” curls and my aquiline nose, proving we were Jewish was not on the list of our daily problems. Sheila’s grandparents even lived in Israel and her father had been born there.

On her 19th birthday, Sheila abandoned the Bronx, boarded a ship and sailed to Israel, where she learned Hebrew, worked and studied at Hebrew University. It was in Israel that she met her Dutch husband. They moved to Amsterdam, married, had two sons and divorced. She has worked as a successful translator there for decades.

My now 60-year-old cousin wanted to make sure that when she died, she would be buried in consecrated ground. She also wanted to participate in the many classes and trips offered by the Amsterdam synagogue, some of them sponsored with money from Holocaust reparations. But to participate, she needed to belong. And to belong, she needed to prove she was Jewish.

But how do you prove you’re Jewish? Alas, our very Jewish parents had been political leftists and did not belong to any synagogue, so she couldn’t show membership. Nor did the many documents that cluttered her drawers and attested to her existence — birth certificates, diplomas, marriage licenses — state that she was Jewish.

“I even speak Hebrew,” Sheila had exhorted the Amsterdam rabbi. 

“Anyone can learn a language,” he replied.

“This could never happen here,” I told Sheila. “In the Bay Area, the synagogues are so excited about finding a real Jew that they will practically kidnap you.”

I was kidding, of course. But, sure enough, a few days later, she was standing in front of the synagogue on Dolores Street, when the rabbi came out.

“Why stand out here?” he asked. “Why not come in and join us?”

We were bemoaning her sad situation in front of the Castro Theatre while waiting in line to buy tickets to the Jewish Film Festival, when we bumped into my old and dear friend Sandy, a gay rabbi. 

I had known Sandy since my early 20s when we both went to the same psychologist in New York who pumped us full of LSD to cure us of childhood traumas, and, in Sandy’s case, to also “cure” him of his gayness. (In his early years as a rabbi, when being gay was still a shameful secret, I occasionally went with Sandy to social events at his congregation on Long Island to promote the illusion that he was “dating” and that, who knows, a wedding might be in the offing.)

When Sandy her my cousin’s story, he smiled beatifically. “Leave everything to me,” he reassured us.

We never read the letter that Sandy wrote to the Amsterdam rabbi. But from what we could gather, he described Sheila as a member of a proud Jewish pioneer family that had lived in Israel and Palestine for generations. 

Her grandfather, Sandy wrote, had been a member of the Jewish Legion that had fought with Britain against the Ottoman Turks in World War I. 

Every word was true. And if Sandy hadn’t known Sheila and her proud Jewish family quite as long as he claimed in the letter, who was to say?

After the Amsterdam rabbi received the letter, Sheila was instantly admitted to the synagogue. 

Sandy died recently, but I always think of him whenever I get an email from my cousin from some exotic locale where she is cavorting with other members of her synagogue on one of their wonderful trips. 

She has never been happier.

Gail Todd, an author, tour guide and grandmother, lives in Berkeley.