Updated: Aug 25, 2020
by the Simanim Institute
The descendants of many Jews around the world encounter difficulties when they approach the Jewish establishment and try to prove their Jewish roots. According to Halakha (Jewish law), only a person born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish. In other words, Jewishness passes from one generation to the next only through matrilineal descent. Even if hundreds of years have passed, if the grandmother from long ago was Jewish, all her descendants through her daughters and their daughters will be Jewish.
Prior to the modern era, the problem of proving Jewishness did not exist. Jewish communities were small and close-knit, and everyone knew everyone. The reality of a Jew who was unknown to the community was almost non-existent. In the modern era of fluid societies and global Jewish dispersion, and especially after the Second World War, some Jews drifted away from Judaism and married members of other nations, creating a situation in which a great many Jews today are unknown to the local Jewish communities.
The number of these Jews who are Halakhically Jewish, even though they are not recognized as such, has been estimated in the millions. In 1492, when the King of Spain forced any Jew who wanted to remain in Spain to convert to Christianity, some Jews moved to nearby Portugal, and after four years there, the King of Portugal issued a similar decree.
Halakha, however does not recognize forced conversion, such that all the matrilineal descendants of the Jewish women from that era are Jews. This adds to the large number of Jews who are not recognized as such. These Jews are quite vast in number compared to the Jewish demographic, which is currently estimated at 14.8 million worldwide. Now, many of these hidden Jews would like to be recognized as Jews.
In addition, many people would like to uncover their Jewish past, whether when they want to get married to another Jew – whom Jewish tradition forbids them to marry until after they convert to Judaism – or for other reasons, such as a desire to return to their Jewish roots or in order to be eligible to immigrate to Israel (under current Israeli law, Jewish citizens of any other country can immigrate to Israel if they can prove their Jewishness). These individuals have difficulty proving their Jewishness to the Jewish authorities, which operate in accordance with Halakha, which, as noted, recognizes a person as Jewish only if acceptable proof can be provided that either the person’s mother or maternal grandmother was Jewish.
The acceptable proofs are usually difficult to obtain and sometimes young people find themselves conducting an in-depth and impressive ancestry search in the archives of various countries, in an attempt to trace their Jewish roots.
This difficulty is especially prevalent in Israel, where the official bodies authorized to recognize marriage are the religious institutions, which do not recognize the Jewishness of persons who lack proof of their Jewish roots.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, millions of Jews left the FSU. Nearly a million Jews immigrated to Israel, while many others moved to Germany, North America and other European countries.
To this day these Soviet émigrés are having difficulty proving their Jewishness because for decades there were no organized Jewish communities throughout most of the Soviet Union. Thus each person has to discover his Jewish roots individually. Families that kept the relevant documents do not face this difficulty. Anyone who has no papers attesting to Jewish ancestry, however, is faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
For more information contact the Simanim Institute.