When Madeleine Albright “became” Jewish

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When Jews learned yesterday of the death of Madeleine K. Albright, a career diplomat and first woman to serve as Secretary of State, a little bell rang in their brains. Or, in their souls.

Secretary Albright was born in Czechoslovakia; fled with his family to Britain; and eventually found success in his adopted country, the United States. His story is one of a successful immigrant.

It wasn’t until she became Secretary of State that she learned something she had long suspected.

His family was Jewish. During World War II, out of fear for the safety of the family, her parents had converted to Roman Catholicism. They had raised their children Catholic and never told them about their Jewish heritage.

26 family members, including three grandparents, had perished in the Holocaust.

This is how Madeleine Albright became a member of one of the most vibrant denominations of American Jewry: Jews by Surprise.

Consider these people who in recent years have discovered that they are Jewish, or somehow Jewish, or “Jewish adjacent”:

  • Tom Stoppard, the English playwright. He was born Tomáš Sträussle, in Czechoslovakia. In 1993, he happened to have lunch with Czech relatives. At that lunch, Stoppard learned that his parents were Jewish, and that all four grandparents, great-grandparents, and three maternal aunts had died in the camps. Decades later, already in his eighties, he would write his devastating play “Leopoldstadt”, about a Jewish family in Vienna.
  • Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, senator from New York and presidential candidate, turned out to have a Jewish stepfather.
  • John Kerry, former Secretary of State, discovered that his grandparents were Jewish. (What about former Secretaries of State and the “I discovered my Jewish roots” thing? Not to mention Henry Kissinger, who never had to discover those roots).
  • The Lemba, a South African tribe, which has been proven to have Jewish roots.
  • The Pashtuns of Afghanistan may be descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes – as documented by Hillel Halkin in his travelogue, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of the Lost Tribe of Israel.
  • The descendants of the Crypto-Jews of the American Southwest, whose ancestors had fled the Inquisition and who, even today, return to Jewish customs and identity.
  • Nathan Englander’s short story ‘The Gilgul of Park Avenue’ from his book For The Relief of Unbearable Urges – in which a Manhattan wasp, in the back of a taxi, suddenly finds himself gripped by a Jewish identity .
  • My friend Robin. She is a ‘cradle Episcopalian’ from a very old family – so old that she can trace her ancestry to William Tyndale, a figure in the Protestant Reformation, who influenced the translation that became the King’s Bible. James. It’s as old as that in the western world. And yet, last summer, she told me over lunch that she had recently found out that her grandfather was Jewish – an Austrian Jew who hid his identity.

And yes, Madeleine Albright.

There are more “surprise Jews” in the United States than you might think.

A tear forms at the corner of my eye thinking of my friend, one of American Jewry’s greatest sociologists and demographers, the late Gary Tobin. Gary passed away in 2009, far too young.

One of Gary’s greatest accomplishments has been his outreach to Jews of Color – his absolute commitment to the diversity of the Jewish people. He was an early outspoken critic of anti-Israel attitudes on the college campus.

Gary knew that there were many ways to “count” Jews in the United States. Gary said: Look beyond the official numbers – to the many Americans who have Jewish family backgrounds and who might be “potentially” Jewish. The 2020 Pew study indicates that 3.4 million non-Jews have a Jewish parent – “of Jewish descent” – many of whom are Christian or of other faiths (Wiccans, Unitarians, “Spirituals”).

To this should be added the children and grandchildren – and now, great-grandchildren – of Jews who “escaped” their Judaism as a life-saving technique during the Holocaust.

Conclusion: there is a lot of religious fluidity in America today. There are many people who have someone Jewish in their family tree, and not even that far. There are many people who could — I insist could — come to regard Judaism as a religion.

The door is open. Because it has never been closed.

One last story. Forty years ago I became assistant rabbi of a congregation in Miami. Mr. Figuera, an old black Cuban man came to attend the services. He decided he wanted to convert to Judaism. He studied diligently, and I am proud to say that our members reached out to him, even driving him to the synagogue.

Months later, he fell very ill. When I visited her in the hospital, I asked her the question I never had time to ask.

“Mr. Figuera, why did you want to convert to Judaism?

Her eyes were shining with tears. “Rabbi, when I was a little boy, my mother told me that when she was a little girl, her grandmother told her that when she was a little girl, on Friday evenings they would go to the basement and light candles.

“And that for some reason just on Easter they wouldn’t eat bread.”

It was clear that Mr. Figuera was a descendant of crypto-Jews in Cuba – Jews who had fled the Inquisition and who had hidden their Jewish identity for generations. (The number of people in the Caribbean, and in Spain itself, with Jewish roots is invaluable).

Shortly after, Mr. Figuera died. A young couple from the congregation offered to bury him in their family burial place. In all my years as a rabbinate, I have never experienced an act of chesed, loving-kindness, as profound and as powerful as this single gesture.

And so it was on a hot, humid August day in Miami that we buried him there, each of us taking turns in spades, each of us sweating through our clothes.

It was holy sweat. Or, if you like: the perspiration born of inspiration.

As we turned to leave the grave, I turned around and said, “Welcome home, Mr. Figuera. Welcome to the house.”

Decades ago, the Jewish people welcomed Madeleine Albright “home”. To be clear: his recovery of his buried Jewish identity was not the greatest feature of his long and distinguished career.

Frankly, one of her last moments came four weeks ago, in the pages of the New York Times, when she spared no mercy to Vladimir Putin:

Mr. Putin forged his path by abandoning democratic development for Stalin’s playbook. It gained political and economic power for itself – by co-opting or crushing potential competition – while working to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance in parts of the former Soviet Union. Like other authoritarians, he equates his own welfare with that of the nation and opposition with betrayal.

Today, all Americans mourn Mrs. Albright.

We American Jews do it too – remembering that she was, however belatedly, one of us.

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