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When Madeleine Albright ‘became’ Jewish

A great American, a great immigrant, a great Jew.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 2016. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

(RNS) — When Jews heard yesterday of the death of Madeleine K. Albright, the career diplomat and the first woman to serve as secretary of state, a small bell went off in their brains. Or, in their souls.

Secretary Albright was born in Czechoslovakia, fled with her family to Great Britain and finally rose to success in her adopted country, the United States. Her story is an immigrant success story.

It was not until she became secretary of state that she learned something that she had long suspected.

Her family was Jewish. During World War II, out of fear for the family’s safety, her parents converted to Roman Catholicism. They raised their children as Catholics and never told them of their Jewish heritage.

Twenty-six family members, including three grandparents, had perished in the Holocaust.

That was how Albright became a member of one of the fastest-growing denominations in American Judaism: Jews by surprise.

Consider those people who, in recent years, discovered that they were Jewish, or sort of Jewish, or “Jewish adjacent”:

  • Tom Stoppard, the English playwright. He had been born Tomáš Sträussle, in Czechoslovakia. In 1993, he happened to have lunch with Czech relatives. At that lunch, Stoppard learned that his parents had been Jewish and that all four grandparents, his great-grandparents and three maternal aunts had died in the camps. Decades later, already in his 80s, he would write his devastating play “Leopoldstadt” about a Jewish family in Vienna.
  • Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, New York senator and presidential candidate, turned out to have a Jewish step-grandfather.
  • John Kerry, former secretary of state, discovered that his grandparents were Jewish. (What is up with former secretaries of state and the “I have discovered my Jewish roots” thing? Not to mention Henry Kissinger, who never had to discover those roots.)
  • The Lemba, a South African tribe that has been proven to have Jewish roots.
  • The Pashtuns of Afghanistan might be descended from one of the 10 lost tribes — as Hillel Halkin documents 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 fled from the Inquisition and who are, even now, returning to Jewish customs and identity.
  • Nathan Englander’s short story, “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” which appeared in his book “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” — in which a Manhattan WASP, riding in the back of a cab, finds himself seized by a sudden Jewish identity.
  • My friend, Robin. She is a “cradle Episcopalian” from a very old family — she can trace her ancestry back to William Tyndale, a figure of the Protestant Reformation who influenced the translation that became the King James Bible. That is as old as it gets in the Western world. And yet, last summer, she told me over lunch that she had recently discovered that her grandfather was an Austrian Jew who hid his identity.

And yes, Madeleine Albright.

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

A tear is forming in the corner of my eye as I think about my friend, one of American Jewry’s greatest sociologists and demographers, the late Gary Tobin. Gary died far too young in 2009.

One of Gary’s greatest achievements was his outreach to Jews of color — his absolute commitment to the diversity of the Jewish people. He was an early and vociferous critic of anti-Israel attitudes on the college campus. 

Gary knew that there were many ways of “counting” Jews in the United States. Gary said: Look beyond the official numbers — to the many Americans who have some Jewish family background and who might be “potentially” Jewish. The 2020 Pew study states that 3.4 million non-Jews have a Jewish parent — “of Jewish background” — many of whom are Christians or other religions (Wiccans, Unitarians, “spiritual”).

We would need to add children and grandchildren — and now, great-grandchildren — of Jews who had “escaped” their Judaism as a life-saving technique during the Holocaust.

Bottom line: 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 back. There are many people who might — I emphasize might — come to consider Judaism a religion.

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

A final story. Forty years ago, I became the assistant rabbi of a congregation in Miami. Mr. Figuera, an elderly Black Cuban man, would come to worship services. He decided that he wanted to convert to Judaism. He studied diligently, and I am proud to say that our members reached out to him, even giving him rides to synagogue.

Months later, he became very ill. When I visited him in the hospital, I asked him the question that I had never gotten around to asking.

“Mr. Figuera, why have you wanted to convert to Judaism?”

His eyes glistened 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 into the cellar and light candles.

“And that, for some reason, right around Easter, they would not 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 beyond estimate.)

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Figuera died. A young couple in the congregation offered to bury him in their family burial site. In all my years in the rabbinate, I have never experienced an act of chesed, or loving kindness, as deep and as powerful as that one gesture.

And so it was, on a hot, humid August day in Miami, that we buried him there, all of us taking a turn at the shovel, all of us sweating through our clothes.

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

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

Decades ago, the Jewish people welcomed Madeleine Albright “home.” To be clear: Her reclamation of her buried Jewish identity was hardly the greatest feature of her long, distinguished career.

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

Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook. He has collected political and economic power for himself — co-opting or crushing potential competition — while pushing to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance through parts of the former Soviet Union. Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason.

Today, all Americans mourn Secretary Albright.

We American Jews do so, as well — remembering that she was, even belatedly, one of us.

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