“They said we know your aunt, we know your relatives,” recalled Tobe, now a practicing psychiatrist in the Philadelphia area. “In hindsight, playing Monday morning quarterback, they were Jewish boys.”
And they knew something about Tobe that he didn’t know about himself.
Tobe, who was raised in the Anglican Church, has recently joined the ranks of thousands of Americans, including such notables as US Sen. John Kerry, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and General Wesley Clark, who did not discover their Jewish roots until adulthood, whose heritage was intentionally withheld from them by their own family.
Tobe said that he had not even heard the word “Jew” until he was 19 years old, when his mother told him, in a fit of anger, that his father’s father, Louis Tobe, was Jewish.
At the time, “finding out that my father’s father was Jewish meant nothing to me,” he said.
Tobe was later told by his family that his paternal grandmother, Ella, had been a Protestant from England, and that when his grandfather married her, it caused “enormous tension in the family.” Tobe thought that was the explanation for his own father’s frequent disparaging remarks about Jews.
But Ella’s supposed identity turned out to be a lie as well.
After his father’s death about eight years ago, Tobe decided to research his family’s background. He found that even though his grandmother, Ella, was buried in a Protestant cemetery in Pittsburgh, she had been born Ella Wise to a Jewish mother from Poland, and a Jewish father from Russia.
“This is not exactly a non-Jewish background,” said Tobe.
Tobe now suspects that because his grandmother wished to provide opportunities to her children, that might not have been open to them if they were Jewish, she created the English-Protestant narrative and abandoned her own Jewish identity.
Tobe says that now, after discovering his true heritage, he is “dealing with an awakening of empathy,” and the historical persecution of the Jews has taken on personal significance.
For example, though he had heard of the atrocities of the Holocaust before, “it suddenly means something to me. I knew that there were pogroms in Russia, but it was different when I knew that it was my family that was being [abused].”
Although information regarding people who are discovering hidden Jewish roots is mostly anecdotal, the phenomenon is more common than one might think. Web sites such as Jewishgen.com frequently feature threads of individuals trying to trace previously unknown Jewish ancestry, and there have been scores of articles written on the subject of the so-called crypto-Jews in New Mexico, whose ancestors are believed to have converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, but who curiously maintain many Jewish customs and practices to this day.
The phenomenon has even seeped into popular culture, as a character on the daytime drama “The Young and the Restless” came out as a Jew in 2007 after having hid his true background for over 20 years.
The reasons for the denial of Jewish identity differ from family to family, but are commonly the result of one of two aims: protection, as was the case of the forefathers of the crypto-Jews, or those who were trying to survive the Holocaust; or opportunity, as seems to be the case in Tobe’s own family.
Either way, the discovery of hidden Jewish roots, finding out that you did not come from where you thought you did, can be both unnerving as well as exhilarating.
“I am overwhelmed,” said Tobe, “and want to know more about the realistic history of my family. I’d like to find someone who knew my family. I don’t want to be disconnected.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)