Unearthing China’s hidden Jewish past


When Shi Lei finished a presentation about China’s hidden Jewish past recently, his California State University, Northridge (CSUN), audience was full of questions.

They wanted to know more about the former synagogue in Shi’s hometown of Kaifeng and about his Jewish ancestors who settled there 1,000 years ago. One yenta, however, had more contemporary concerns on her mind:

“Is there a nice Jewish girl back in China for you to marry?”

Perhaps, but there can’t be too many, given that only about 500 people in Kaifeng, a city of more than 4 million in eastern China, identify themselves as Jews. How that came to be is a largely untold story that goes back centuries.

“I don’t think many people hear about Chinese Jews in Kaifeng,” Shi told the capacity crowd of about 100 on March 2. The tour guide, who has studied in Israel, visited the university as part of a cross-country speaking tour.

Originally, the Jewish merchants who were his ancestors came from Persia to China via the Silk Road. The first to settle was a group of about 1,000 that arrived in the late 10th or early 11th century. At the time, Kaifeng was China’s capital, and they were received by the emperor.

Shi said the emperor was pleased with their wares and happy to welcome them into his country. They were allowed to follow their own customs and even received citizenship. There was one problem, though.

“The emperor was confused about the names of these Jews. How to pronounce their names? No clue. What to do?” Shi said.

An easy solution, he said, was to give them the emperor’s own surname and those of his six ministers.

In 1163, the Jews bought property downtown and built their first synagogue, its size and location evidence of the merchants’ success. The structure, which no longer exists, mimicked the architecture of Asian temples.

Eventually, Shi explained, the Jewish community realized that the path to success in China was not through business but by civil service. In a way, this led to the community’s undoing.

“They [became] more and more involved in Chinese learning, but somehow at the expense of their Judaic studies,” Shi said.

Over time, they became ignorant of Jewish practices and began to intermarry. Their last rabbi died in 1810, and after rebuilding the synagogue numerous times over the years due to river floodings, they abandoned it in the 1850s.

“They forgot, in a word, all the Jewish practices,” Shi said.

They did not forget, however, their roots. The fact that they came from a Jewish background continued to be relayed from generation to generation as part of the culture’s stress on ancestor worship.

“These words — ‘You are Jewish. You are from Israel.’ — get passed down,” Shi said.

He speaks from experience. Always filled with a desire to go to Israel, the 33-year-old studied there for several years before returning to Kaifeng. Others have followed his example.

While Shi said that Israel does not consider the Jews of Kaifeng to be Jewish according to halachah, the community in China is in the process of revival. Individuals study Hebrew together, and even though there is no rabbi or synagogue, they celebrate major holidays and Shabbat in their own way.

Some physical reminders of the ancient community still exist. Inscribed stone monuments provide evidence of its history, not to mention Torahs and manuscripts housed around the world. (The Skirball Cultural Center offers occasional exhibitions on the Jews of Kaifeng and permits private group tours of related items from its collection.) Little remains in Kaifeng, however, where Shi has turned his grandparents’ house into a mini-museum dedicated to the city’s Jewish history.

He takes joy in talking about his past, like how the Jews of generations past circumvented a requirement to have a tablet in every house of worship praising the emperor by adding the word “shema” in golden Hebrew letters above the required inscription, indicating that God was above all else.

But he likes talking about the future, too.

“The community died,” he said. “Now it’s living again.”

Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, said she believes Shi’s presentation offers an important way to remind people that Jews can be found across the globe.

“It’s a way to really show that we are a diverse people and we’re very interesting,” she said.

Shi’s speaking tour was sponsored by Kulanu. The New York-based nonprofit, whose name means “all of us” in Hebrew, supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.

“Kulanu stands for the idea that the Jewish world is a diverse world, that not all Jews are white or American or Israeli, that there are Jews in places you never thought of,” said Harriet Bograd, the organization’s president. “We think that American Jews are enriched by a knowledge of that.”

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’


Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS’s hit drama, “Numb3rs.”The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while “outing” the family as Jewish.
 
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father’s revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them — an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
 
“This episode gives us a glimpse into Don’s soul,” Morrow told The Journal. “Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life.”
 
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think “C.S.I.,” “Law & Order” and their various spinoffs), “Numb3rs” stands out for its focus on family and “unexpected shades of character,” according to Newsweek.
 
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight’s show — their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on “Taxi”; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on “Northern Exposure,” and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous “neurotic shlubs,” in his own words, before landing the “Numb3rs” gig.
 
“When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant,” Morrow says with a laugh.
 
Even the series’ creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to “out” the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
 
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch’s son in “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway 15 years ago.
 
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark — “something to do on a Saturday afternoon” — and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
 
“I was frightened for David,” the older actor recalls. “His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an ‘object’ in it.”
 
Hirsch’s character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
 
Hirsch’s solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical “tough love.”
 
“Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong,” the younger actor says. “I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big ‘shut up’ or ‘That’s you, kid,’ or ‘get with the program.’ It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my ‘acting father,’ because I feel I owe him my career.”
 
When Krumholtz eventually left “Conversations” to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
 
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz’s “Conversations” salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as “more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew.”
 
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the “Westchester” remark.
 
“I was as working class as they were,” he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood “Numb3rs” character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
 
“Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave,” he recalls.
 
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father (“suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy”), and he has channeled those feelings into his “Numb3rs” character.

John Kerry’s Jewish Brother


When Cameron Kerry fell in love with Oak Park, Mich., native Kathy Weinman, he chose to convert from Catholicism to Judaism.

Little did he know that he already had a strong Jewish connection. His father’s parents were Jewish — a fact uncovered last year when the Boston Globe hired a genealogist to check into the family roots of his brother, John Kerry, the Democratic presidential frontrunner thought by many to be of Irish background.

The Kerry family was traced back to a small town in the Austrian empire, now part of the Czech Republic. There, the paper discovered that before immigrating to America, the Kerrys changed their name from Kohn and converted from Judaism to Catholicism.

“It was mind-blowing,” said Cam Kerry about first learning his grandparents’ true history from the newspaper story. Also surprising to him was the number of Jews in his synagogue who came up to him with similar stories. “It’s an American story, ” he said.

It also could be a powerful Jewish story if John Kerry wins the White House. He would be the first president of the United States with Jewish roots.

“If my zaydie could see this election,” said Anne Weinman, Cam’s Farmington Hills mother-in-law, who with her husband, Joe, originally emigrated from Eastern Europe. “Joe and I are first-generation Americans and it was inconceivable back then that we could be connected to the president of the United States.”

“We have to pinch ourselves once in a while. It’s amazing to have a ringside seat to history in the making,” added Cam’s wife, Kathy Weinman.

Kathy and the couple’s two daughters, ages 13 and 17, have also participated in making history. They were in New Hampshire during the primary. Her daughters campaigned for their uncle, knocking on doors, making calls and holding up signs. Their elder daughter worked in Iowa and volunteered for the Kerry campaign last summer.

Cam, 53, has taken time off from his law firm, Mintz Levin in Boston, and from his position as an adjunct telecommunications law professor at Suffolk Law School there, to work on his brother’s presidential campaign. Last week, prior to the Michigan Democratic caucuses on Feb. 7, he was in Detroit stumping for his brother. He stayed with his in-laws in Farmington Hills, where, Anne said, she keeps a kosher kitchen, and Cam, who is knowledgeable of Jewish dietary laws, is one of the few people she trusts in it.

Role Of Judaism

Cam’s wife, Kathy, 49, attended Oak Park High School and went to Hebrew school at Congregation B’nai David in Southfield, Mich. Her mother is a former English teacher at Berkley High and her father was part-owner of Murray Lighting in Detroit. The Weinmans now belong to Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield.

After graduating from the University of Michigan law school in 1979 — magna cum laude — Kathy got her first job at a law firm in Washington, D.C. At the same firm she met Cam, also a magna cum laude graduate (of Boston College Law School). The two were married in 1983. Though brought up Catholic, he decided to convert to Judaism before the marriage.

“I was influenced by Kathy,” Cam said. “Judaism is deeply held and meaningful to her. Early on, we established we would raise any children we had as Jewish. So it flowed from that. To be a full participant in their religious education, I would convert.”

Cam said what appealed to him about Judaism was the role of study in the religion, that it valued learning and intellectual pursuits, which were comfortable and a part of his upbringing.

He added that standing on the bimah for each of his daughters’ bat mitzvahs as a full participant made his religious commitments well worth it.

“Judaism is central to us,” said Kathy, who is active in her suburban Boston synagogue, Temple Israel in Brookline. “Judaism is a core of my life and important to our family.”

When asked how the Catholic and Jewish sides of the family relate, Kathy replied, “It’s a terrific relationship.”

She said that candidate Kerry was supportive when his brother converted to Judaism. He and his family have attended both nieces’ baby namings and bat mitzvahs. Kathy said she is very close to John Kerry’s two daughters.

And the Weinman and Kerry families have become mishpachah, said Anne Weinman. Cam’s late “blueblood” mother, Rosemary, whose heritage goes back to colonial times with family names like Winthrop and Forbes, and his late father, Richard, were wonderful people proud of all four of their children: Peggy, John, Diana and Cam. She adds that the Kerry family — including Cam’s parents and John — were present when Cam and Kathy’s daughters were named at the temple.

“Religion has never been an issue between Cam and his [side of the] family,” Kathy said. “John’s always loved participating in our happy occasions. He’s always been there and part of our family.”

The Weinmans say they are very active in the Kerry campaign. They support the candidate because of his stand on the environment and education, Anne said.

“I have a greater appreciation for the early caucus and primaries and the role they play,” Kathy said. “Our country is so big and it’s impossible for everyone to know the candidates. But the Iowans and the people of New Hampshire get that opportunity. We saw them get to know my brother-in-law and his opponents. They made their judgment from the place of knowledge and understanding.”

Of course, when asking Cam or the Weinmans why people should vote for Kerry, you won’t get a strengths-and-weaknesses kind of answer. However, the warmth and intimacy of the reply gives another insight into this political family of diverse backgrounds.

“There’s nobody else I want by my side in a tough situation than my brother,” said the easygoing Cam, who has been at his brother’s side for all of John’s campaigns for office. “In times of war and great economic challenge, he’s the kind of leader we need.”

This article originally appeared in the Detroit Jewish News.

Viva la Cinema!


In Veracruz, Mexico, there lived a group of people who for generations had avoided eating pork and lit candles on Friday night without knowing why. In the early 1980s, some members of the group discovered their Jewish roots and converted to Judaism, and now, 20 years later, are still struggling for acceptance from the Jewish community in Mexico.

Their story is being told in "Eight Candles," a 2002 Mexican documentary, one of nine Jewish films being shown in Mexico’s first Jewish film festival.

"This opportunity is amazing, because for this first time the documentary is going to confront its intended audience," said "Eight Candles" director Sandro Halphen, who lives in Mexico City. "I hadn’t found venues to reach out to them."

The Jan 25.-Feb 3 sold-out festival aimed to teach local Jews about their heritage and non-Jews about a community that is sometimes misunderstood.

"We are looking at this festival not as a Jewish event," said Aron Margolis, director of the nonprofit Mexico International Jewish Film Festival. "This is an excellent opportunity for Mexican society to get to know the Jewish community. The Jews in Mexico are known as a community that is very closed and doesn’t let people in to get to know us. But the more they know us, the more they understand us."

There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, a predominately Catholic country. Most live in Mexico City. The sold-out festival in Mexico City is one of only a handful of Spanish-language Jewish film festivals in the world.

The Mexico festival features nine films, including "The Burial Society" (Canada) "Time of Favor" (Israel) and "Trembling Before G-d" (United States), a documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Chasidic Jews.

Margolis hopes the Spanish-translated films can be shown elsewhere Latin America.

Seder Helps Poland Jews Reclaim Roots


Three years ago, Los Angeles entrepreneur Severyn Ashkenazy gathered in Warsaw, Poland, a small group of American and Polish Jews, all of whom had fled their native land during the Holocaust, and hosted the first Passover seder in that city since 1945.

They savored Ashkenazic delicacies of their homeland, and their festive meal was filled with song and camaraderie that symbolized rebirth of the Jewish community in Poland.

Before World War II, there were some 3 million Jews and 450 thriving synagogues in Poland. But in 1994, when Ashkenazy, a vibrant survivor in his 60s, went back to his native land for the first time since he was a child, he could only find a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It was springtime, Passover was coming and the city was ablaze with lilacs and cherry blossoms. Not only couldn’t he find a place to celebrate the holiday, but most of the depleted Jewish population wouldn’t admit to being Jewish — they wanted nothing to do with the religion that had caused so much grief. (During the Holocaust, 90 percent of the Jews in Poland were killed.)

Then and there Ashkenazy decided that if there was a supportive, progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, these “quiet Jews” could reclaim their identity and make peace with their past.

And so he began Beit Warszawa (congregation of Warsaw). His first order of business: to host a Passover seder. It wasn’t easy convincing people to attend.

“But we are a people who were constantly saved by miracles, so our group [three Poles and eight Americans] persevered,” Ashkenazy told The Journal.

“The first Seder [in 2000] had just 20 people, eight Jews and a smattering of Poles, who weren’t brought up Jewish and were unconscious of their roots,” he said. “We also welcomed some curious Christians — we were happy they were interested and encouraged them to participate.”

The fledgling seder was held in a hotel; the room was near the garden.

“We ate our favorite foods, we sang, but most important, it was a place for people to feel safe being Jewish,” Ashkenazy said. “Now we celebrate all the Jewish holidays and more and more people just appear. We’re never sure of the numbers, but they just keep increasing.”

Now in its third year, the congregation boasts 300 people, most of whom will be in attendance this Passover. Ashkenazy has recruited a number of Los Angeles leaders to visit and lead services. This year, Cantor Mindy Harris, ritual director of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, will officiate at the Beit Warszawa services. Ashkenazy’s good friend, Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts in Beverly Hills, also plans to lead services there soon.

Baron said he finds Ashkenazy’s journey particularly prescient for Passover.

“God didn’t just give Moses the power to part the sea and save his people. He told his disciple to have the Israelites go forward — the first step of the faithful into the sea would save them,” explained Baron, the author of “Moses on Management” (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

“It’s the power of taking a leap of faith to stand up against a tyrant and declare your freedom,” Baron said, noting that Ashkenazy also took a leap of faith.

Seeing the impact this experience made on his father, Ashkenazy’s son Adrian, newly graduated from law school, wanted to contribute to the new congregation. He traveled with his father to Warsaw and decided to host the first Oneg Shabbat, and called it “one of the most meaningful acts” of his life.

At his father’s house in Beverly Hills, the 28-year-old Ashkenazy spoke about the impact that one of the new congregants had made on him. While recruiting Polish Jews to join in the activities of the new congregation, he met with actor Andrzej Blumenfeld, who was most recently seen as the restaurant owner in the Academy Award-winning film, “The Pianist.”

“We met for drinks,” Adrian Ashkenazy said. “I mentioned that I was hosting an Oneg Shabbat. He immediately shut down. ‘I’m not interested,’ he said adamantly. ‘Not me. Not my kids. I don’t want anything to do with it.'”

Two years later, Adrian Ashkenazy showed up at the Beit Warszawa Rosh Hashana service.

“The first person I saw was Andrzej, with his children, having a wonderful time,” he said. “He told me that while filming ‘The Pianist,’ in one scene, he and Adrien Brody hid under the floorboards of the restaurant to escape being found by the Nazis.”

Adrian Ashkenazy said Blumenfeld told him, “‘It forced me to come to terms with my fear of becoming Jewish. I realized the man in the film was me, a Polish Jew, although I had not even said that out loud for years. I had kept my religion buried.'”

“Soon after, Blumenfeld, as well as his son, openly declared themselves Jewish,” Adrian Ashkenazy said.

Community Briefs


Prime Minister ToutsMuseum

If there was any doubt that the Polish government is takingseriously plans to build a Museum of Polish Jewish History in Warsaw, they wereput to rest Feb. 5 in Beverly Hills.

That’s when Leszek Miller, prime minister of Poland, metwith about 100 area Jews to reaffirm his commitment to the long-plannedproject. “We want to reach beyond the image of Poland as a place of martyrdomfor the Jews,” said Miller in his brief prepared remarks. “The museum will be agreat educational project, and a symbol of our new approach to the history ofthe Jews.”

Miller’s appearance before the gathering of Jewish religiousand communal leaders, including Holocaust survivors and elected officials, wasorganized by the Consulate General of Poland in cooperation with the AmericanJewish Committee (AJCommittee). It took place during the first visit by aPolish prime minister to the West Coast, according to Consul General KrzysztofW. Kasprzyk.

Miller announced the establishment of the Museum of theHistory of the Polish Jews in Warsaw last January. The multimedia museum, to bedesigned by Frank Gehry, is to be completed in 2006.

Polish officials, who say that as many as 80 percent of Jewsacross the world can trace their roots back to Poland, hope the museum willspur Jewish tourism to their country. They are also hoping that Jewish donorsabroad will help fund some of the museum’s estimated $63 million cost.

Among other exhibits, the museum will recreate the homes andstreets representing 1,000 years of Jewish civilization in Poland. The Naziinvasion and deportation to death camps claimed the lives of the majority of Poland’s3.5 million Jewish population, which had been the largest in Europe.

Miller said the museum is part of an agenda ofreconciliation between Poland and world Jewry that includes the restitution forJewish property, restoration of Jewish cemeteries, commemoration of victims atdeath camps throughout Poland, and increasing ties between young Jews and Poles,and between Polish and Jewish entrepreneurs. The museum itself will demonstrate”how important a place was occupied by Jews in the history of Poland,” saidMiller.

AJCommittee Los Angeles chapter President Peter Weil saidMiller’s appearance, amidst high level visits with high-tech entrepreneurs anda previous state visit with President George W. Bush, was a clear indication ofthe value the Polish government places on its relations with world Jewry.

Along with Miller and the consul general, guests heardremarks from Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJCommittee’s West Coast regional director;County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Adrien Brody, star of “The Pianist,” andmuseum director Jerzy Halberstadt. 

For more information the Museum ofPolish Jewish History in Warsaw, go to www.jewishmuseum.org.pl . — Staff Report

 

Media “Blitz”New Israel Fund Cuts Back

The New Israel Fund will centralize and scale back its U.S.offices in the hopes of pumping $1 million more toward peace and social justiceefforts in Israel. The Washington-based group, which promotes peace and civilrights programs in Israel, will close regional offices in Los Angeles, Bostonand Chicago, and expand hubs in New York and San Francisco, the group announcedFeb. 6.

For the three-person Los Angeles staff who will soon faceunemployment as a result of consolidation, the recent news brings mixedreactions.

“I still strongly believe in the importance of theorganization and the value of its work in Israel, and I understand that theinternational board that made the decision took a lot of issues intoconsideration in reaching its conclusions,” said Los Angeles New Israel FundDirector David Moses. “At the same time, I’m deeply disappointed in the closingof this office. We’ve had 4 years of continuous growth and increased visibilityin the Los Angeles Jewish community and I’m very proud of what we’veaccomplished here.”

The move was aimed at lowering the group’s overhead andconsolidating operations, and should largely fund the additional $1 million for Israel, officials said. The fund said it has awarded $120 million to 700Israeli groups since 1979. — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Kerry’s Jewish Roots


First it was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Next it was Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander of NATO during the
war in Kosovo. Now it’s Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry whose
Jewish roots are being reported.

Kerry? The Massachusetts senator, the quintessential WASP-y
looking politician with an Irish-sounding name?

Yup.

Two of Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish, it turns out.

Kerry, who is a practicing Catholic, said he has known for
15 years that his paternal grandmother was Jewish, but had unsuccessfully
searched for news of his paternal grandfather’s roots.

However, a genealogist hired by the Boston Globe found that
Kerry’s grandfather was born to a Jewish family in a small town in the Czech
Republic.

“This is incredible stuff,” Kerry told the Globe. “I think
it is more than interesting. It is a revelation.”

The records show that his grandfather, Frederick Kerry, was
born as Fritz Kohn. He changed his name to Kerry in 1902, immigrated to the
United States in 1905 — and committed suicide in a Boston hotel in 1921.

Frederick Kerry’s story highlights the Jewish experience of
earlier generations, said Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna.

“What we are realizing is how significant was the trend
toward conversion and abandonment of Judaism, for the sake of upward mobility,
in an earlier era of America,” said Sarna, the Braun professor of American
Jewish history at the school in Waltham, Mass. “Given the quite significant
anti-Semitism of the early 20th century and the evident obstacles that stood in
the path to success, people simply changed their names and sloughed off their
Judaism.”

But that path wasn’t always successful, Sarna said.

Kerry’s grandfather’s suicide apparently stemmed from
financial troubles. But one could wonder if, by changing his name and identity,
the man had cut himself off from any sense of community, Sarna said.

The Kerry story also might hold lessons for the present and
future makeup of American Jewry, Sarna added. According to current statistics,
millions of Americans like Kerry may have Jewish roots but don’t consider
themselves Jewish.

“The question is if that is going to be seen a century from
now as a harbinger of where American Judaism is going,” Sarna asked.

Of course, several people contact the American Jewish
Historical Society every year asking for help in their search for Jewish roots.

The e-mails usually run along the lines of, “My name is
Kelly Smith, but my grandmother’s name was Sara Goldstein,” said Michael
Feldberg, the executive director of the historical society, which is based in
New York.

Kerry said he had asked cousins and searched on the Internet,
but had found only bits of information on his family history.

The news does not appear to have major political
ramifications.

There was an initial hubbub when Albright, secretary of
state in the Clinton administration, learned in 1997 that three of her four
grandparents were Jewish. The next time she was in Prague, Albright visited the
Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of her paternal grandparents are inscribed on
a wall among thousands of Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust.

There was little political fallout from her discovery —
though when she dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process many Arab
commentators called her a Zionist and said she had a pro-Israel bias.

Observers say the revelation about Kerry is unlikely to
affect the 2004 presidential race.

“There’s no question there’s a lot of pride in a Jewish
candidate and pride in family Jewish connections, but the American Jewish
community is fairly mature in its political behavior,” said Ira Forman, the
executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

As far as non-Jews go, “had it come out in 1953 instead of
2003, it would have been fatal to his presidential ambitions,” Feldberg said,
but not in today’s world.

Kerry’s revelation adds another Jewish flavor to the 2004
race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(D-Conn.), who declared last month that he will seek the nomination, is an
observant Jew.

Another contender, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, is
married to a Jewish woman and is raising his children as Jews.

And Clark, who told the Forward recently that he is
descended from “generations of rabbis,” is also weighing a 2004 Democratic
presidential bid.

“I wonder what this means for his Saturdays?” Jano Cabrera,
a spokesman for Lieberman’s campaign, joked about Kerry. “Regardless, at this
rate, we should have a minyan at the debates.”  


JTA correspondent Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.