Que(e)rying the Matrilineal Principle

I remember clearly the day that my religious studies teacher, Rabbi Meyerovitch, explained to us — a group of seventh-grade girls at the private Jewish elementary school I attended in Vancouver, British Columbia — the rabbinic law that determined who got to be “born Jewish.”

He was about as direct as one might expect a grizzled, sixty-something Orthodox man to be about such matters, but he tried his best. A child follows the religion of the mother, he explained, because — and here he coughed — “well … you can always be sure of who the mother is.”
We looked at him blankly.
He continued: “But …you can’t always be sure of the father.”

It took me a few minutes, but I caught on eventually. At the time, the rabbinic logic made perfect sense to my 12-year-old mind: if any poor shmuck pointed out by the mother could conceivably be the father, then of course the baby should follow the religion of the “knowable” parent, the parent to whose body it was irrefutably, undeniably tethered. Fatherhood as a concept was murky, shifting. But motherhood? You could count on that. You could see it with the naked eye.

I was drawn, I suspect, to what I now know is called the “matrilineal principle” of Jewish identity for reasons beyond its putative logic. It was, in effect, the equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card for Conservative Jewish girls like me, girls who weren’t entirely convinced that they would grow up to marry nice Jewish boys, preferably lawyers or doctors. While I had no definite plans to marry outside the fold of Judaism, I knew my adolescent self well enough to sense that I might one day entertain the possibility. And it was comforting to know that even if, one day, I married a goy, I would still be able to provide my parents with the ultimate prize: Jewish grandchildren. It seemed like one of the few instances in which — religiously, at least — I had the upper hand over my brother.

Twenty five years later, things have played out in ways I never quite imagined. I am married, yes, but not to a nice Jewish boy. My spouse is nice, yes, but is a (mostly) lapsed Catholic, and is most definitely not a boy. (For what it’s worth, Rachel is a doctor, although, as we like to joke, not the kind of doctor who can take out your appendix.)

And then there are our children: two boys, age seven and four. Two boys with two mommies, one Jewish and one Catholic.

When I met her, Rachel adamantly did not want to have children — let alone be pregnant. That was fine with me: at the age of 22, children were on the far periphery of my vision. I had plenty of time, I thought, to figure out the baby thing. If I decided children were a priority, I could try to convince Rachel to come along for the adventure, or, heartbreakingly, go it alone. Either way, the children would be Jewish.

Those assumptions were challenged when, several years later, Rachel’s youngest sister, at the time living in Tanzania, sent around an email message announcing that she was “up the duff.” Rachel, to my shock, immediately got broody. All of a sudden, motherhood and pregnancy — potentially her pregnancy — had moved from the periphery to the center, and we began a complex and protracted discussion of exactly what all of this might entail.

We had one crucial variable covered: a willing sperm donor that we’d picked out, just in case, years before. Rob was that perfect and rare commodity: a healthy, smart, handsome and sweet gay man who liked kids but had no interest in raising his own. We struck gold with Rob. The fact that he wasn’t Jewish was, from my perspective, just a minor blip — as long as I was the one getting pregnant. The matrilineal principle would render the babies automatically Jewish — no harm, no foul.

But when Rachel began to ponder the possibility of getting pregnant herself, I found myself struggling. In part, for a variety of personal, financial, and career-related reasons, I didn’t feel ready to be a parent, period. But — standing at the crossroads of interfaith and same-sex — I was confused and torn about what it might mean for me to be the Jewish, non-biological mother of children borne by my Gentile spouse, with the help of our Gentile donor. Would the kids be Jewish? According to whom? Did it really matter, and why?

Further, why was it that biology and a single ancient rabbinical law held so much sway over my perspective? No other Jewish laws did. I had no problem flaunting, say, rabbinic proscriptions against women engaging in sexual acts with other women. I didn’t keep kosher, didn’t keep the Sabbath, had undoubtedly worn linen-wool blends. I didn’t even believe in God. And yet, here I was, clinging to a fairly arbitrary principle that seemed to go against the rest of my politics. Why, for example, was it acceptable — or even possible — to transmit identity to offspring through one gender but not the other? And the whole idea of the inherent “knowability” of the (biological) mother made little sense in the context of queer parenting, where family is as much if not more about chosen — and earned — kinship ties than biology. Plus, the matrilineal principle is at heart sexist, based on a premise that women are not to be trusted. “That baby,” the rabbis thought, “well, it could be anyone’s.”

And yet, there I was, holding on to the idea that the only way that my kids could be Jewish, short of Rachel converting, would be for me to give birth to them. (Rachel, by the way, had no intention of converting, and refused the notion of converting a baby. “Nobody’s dunking my kid in water and washing away its goyishe mother,” she said. I could hardly argue.)

I should note that, in two-mom households where one partner gives birth, it’s common for non-biological mothers to worry that they will not have the same bond to the baby as the partner who carried and gave birth and perhaps breast-fed — they fret that they won’t have their partner’s physiological and genetic ties to the kids, and that that will make them, somehow, less equal as parents.

It may well be that my fears around our children’s religious status were related to these issues, but the more I pondered it, the more I realized that something else was at play: my unexamined beliefs about Judaism itself as an essential, biological, even racial, identity. If Jewishness is inherent, that is, then one’s birth, as opposed to one’s actions, determine identity. So, my twisted logic went, it didn’t matter whether I drove on Saturdays or ate BLTs or married a woman. I was still Jewish. I might be a bad Jew, or at least a very non-observant Jew, but I was essentially Jewish. And I wanted to pass that essence on to my children.

To be fair, I did have one powerful reason to think of Judaism as a genetic identity: my family history of breast cancer, undeniably mapped out in our DNA from generation to generation. We suspect that my maternal great-grandmother may have died of breast cancer. We know for certain that my maternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer in her late forties. My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 37, and with breast cancer a decade later. By the time she was diagnosed yet again — a recurrence of breast cancer, now metastasized — genetic research had identified the mutation in the BRCA gene that was responsible for both my mother’s and grandmother’s cancer. They also confirmed that one in 45 Ashkenazi Jews carries the mutation, as opposed to one in 800 to 1000 people in the general population. My own doctors were following me closely: I had a one in two chance of inheriting the potentially deadly mutation. I tended to imagine my ovaries, my breasts, as pairs of ticking time bombs. For me, being Jewish and being genetically at risk were inextricably linked.

To further complicate my confusion, my mother’s latest battle with cancer overlapped with Rachel’s and my ongoing baby discussions. If children had once been on the periphery of my vision, my mother’s failing health made my desire for a child — more specifically, my desire to be pregnant — visceral. I wanted my parents, but my mother in particular, to meet my children, her grandchildren. I wanted her to accept them wholeheartedly. I wanted to make her happy.

By this point, nearly a decade into my relationship with Rachel, my parents had embraced their queer, Catholic daughter-inlaw as one of the family. And yet I harbored the suspicion that they might not be fully prepared to accept as their own — and as Jewish — grandchildren borne by my Gentile girlfriend. I talked about it with my mother only once, fairly early on, when Rachel was still quite intent on getting pregnant. The conversation was awkward. “And this would be your child, too?” asked my mother.
“Yes,” I said. “I would legally adopt it.”
“And we would be the grandparents?”
“Yes,” I said, firmly. “Just as you would be the grandparents of any child I adopted.” My tone, I hoped, conveyed the unspoken you’d better get used to it appended to the end of the sentence. We didn’t say much more. 

You’d better get used to it. It was potent advice. And I came to realize that I needed to take it myself. I needed to get used to the idea that, for better or for worse, I was in charge of the ethics of what it meant for me to be, at once, a Jew, queer, a spouse, a mother, a daughter. I had to give up all my “get out of jail free” cards: my deference to ancient and arbitrary rules, my conflation of genetics with “identity.” I needed to step up, create my own rules, and take responsibility for my particular brands of religion, culture, family. If I wanted to convince my parents that my children were their grandchildren, I needed to believe it myself.

Our older son was born three days after what would have been my mother’s sixtieth birthday, six months after she finally succumbed to her 20-year, on-again-off-again, battle with cancer. He is named for her, and not a single day goes by that I do not ache at the fact that she has never met him, or his younger brother. Before our second son was conceived, I finally got up the nerve to get tested for the BRCA mutations. As it turns out, I am not a carrier: that particular link in the genetic chain connecting me to my maternal ancestors has been, happily, broken. With that break, however, seems to have come more room for the possibility of creating my own way forward.

As for motherhood, it turns out that it’s not necessarily easily visible. The kinship ties of our little family, at least, are rarely immediately clear to strangers. The biological details of our sons’ conceptions and births have never been secret, but Rachel and I divulge them carefully, to distinguish between those who ask about them out of supportive curiosity and those who ask out of the discomfort of not knowing and the need to inscribe some (hetero)normative idea of family onto ours.

The children are Jewish, and Rachel and I are raising them in a Jewish household. Our traditions continue to develop and evolve, and include plenty of room for celebrations with my extended Jewish family and my Gentile in-laws — not to mention with Rob and his family. Sometimes we fall back on the comfort of the traditions I grew up with: lighting the candles and saying the blessing over wine and challah every Friday night. Sometimes we break with tradition to figure out ways of celebrating that make sense to us: making “Esther” and “Vashti” flags to wave as we tell the story of Purim, including “Kos Miriam” on our Seder plate as a reminder of Jewish women’s contributions to the Exodus and Jewish life.

The boys are Jewish not because of who gave birth to them, but because of what Rachel and I have decided feels right to us as partners and as co-parents. When they’re older, they may choose other paths, and we will do our best to support them. Occasionally, the responsibility and the sheer work involved in creating our own path forward feel overwhelming, but it’s necessary work if we want our children to make informed, responsible decisions about their lives, rather than simply deferring to unexamined authority. Until the kids are old enough to make their own decisions, a new brand of matrilineality reigns at our house, and it is this: we’re the moms, so we get to decide. 

Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer, editor and blogger, and coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Her essays, poetry and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. She blogs at www.mamanongrata.com.