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TOPSHOTS Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray along the Ayarkon River in the city of Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv during the ritual of "Tashlich" on October 2, 2014. Tashlich is a ritual during which believers cast their sins into the water and the fish, and it is performed one day before the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, is a 25-hour period of fasting and intense reflection and prayers where the central theme is atonement that begins tomorrow after sunset. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZJACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

What does it mean to be a Jew? The question of Jewish identity is an ancient one, harking back to when baby Moses was found in the bulrushes and raised by a non-Jewish mother in Pharoah's Egypt.

Who has the right to call themselves a Jew has been disputed over generations, and the contentious issue has raised its head in the ongoing antics of Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford and his infamous brother, Rob. Just when you thought the Fordscapades could get no more surprising, Doug Ford is claiming that his wife, Karla – whose maternal grandparents are recorded as Russian Greek Orthodox on Ancestry.com – is Jewish.

Mr. Ford's claim followed a debate last Sunday during which a lesser-known candidate, Ari Goldkind, called Rob Ford out for his documented anti-Semitic slurs. Brother Doug's response – a list of "the Jews he knows" (his dentist, his lawyer, his accountant) – elicited laughter and booing from the assembly. Now, in what appears to be political jockeying, at best, and offensive lying, at worst, Mr. Ford stated first that "my wife is Jewish," and later, retreating slightly, that she "comes from Jewish heritage."

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In response to the information that Karla Ford's grandparents had in fact been documented as Christians, Mr. Ford claimed their Judaism had been hidden because of anti-Semitism.

I spoke to Rabbi Ed Elkin of the First Narayever, a traditional-egalitarian synagogue in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. In what he emphasized was a general comment and not an impugnation of the Fords, he said, "It is indeed noteworthy that there are times and places when people feel that it is in their interest to deny or hide their Jewish identity, and other times and places when people find it advantageous to embrace that identity.

"Over the course of Jewish history, the former has been more common than the latter. All kinds of factors enter into people's decision-making about their identity, and it's not always about faith or theology."

While there is so far no evidence that Karla Ford's family hid its Judaism in the face of anti-Semitism, it is theoretically possible.

It is, for example, what my father's family did in the years after the Holocaust. His parents arrived in Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1941. They saw a sign on a club that read "no dogs or Jews allowed," and decided to hide their Judaism to protect their children (a decision I wrestle with in my new memoir).

It is also a surprisingly common story.

Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright discovered that her parents were Jewish only when she was being vetted to become part of the Bill Clinton administration.

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During the Spanish Inquisition, great numbers of Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism. A certain percentage of them continued to practice in secret, though, and their descendants spread throughout Central America and eventually the southern United States.

There are well-known cases of non-Jewish families sheltering Jewish children during the Shoah, thereby saving them from the gas chambers. The same goes for the children of the Kindertransport trains (a subject I addressed in my novel, Far to Go). Some of these children grew up unaware of their true identity, discovering it only later.

What these hidden Jews often have in common, notes Barbara Kessel, the author of Suddenly Jewish, is a sense that something is amiss, and, conversely, an inexplicable affinity toward Judaism despite sometimes having no official knowledge of it. This instant recognition was something I too felt when I discovered our family secret. I wanted to be able to call myself a Jew, but Judaism is matrilineal, and my Judaism was on my father's side.

(Incidentally, this wasn't always the case. In biblical times Judaism was patrilineal: any child sired by Abraham, who had multiple wives and concubines, was an Israelite. The change came in the rabbinic period, and its impetus was the need to be certain of parenthood. Fatherhood is questionable, whereas maternity is obvious and indisputable.)

Nowadays, having a Jewish mother is the de facto hallmark of Judaism, and potential converts to the faith must go through a intense, year-long process.

Rabbi Elkin said, "My own initial take – not based on an in-depth evaluation of the situation – is that, if someone of Karla Ford's background approached me, I would require them to convert. Blood line means something, but not everything, and at some point the fact that a person was raised as a Christian does have to be factored in."

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In other words, should Karla Ford want to take up her so-called Judaism, the requirements would be the same as for someone with no Jewish background at all.

The rigorous prerequisites for conversion can be understood as a way to buffer against the shifting demography of North American Jewry. According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Centre, "The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising."

Jews who claim no religion are less connected to Jewish institutions, and, more likely to intermarry. And both groups are less likely than their counterparts to bring up their children as Jews.

However Judaism is defined, Doug Ford wants you to know he is on board, declaring only his "utmost respect for the Jewish community."

Toronto writer Alison Pick is the author of the Booker Prize-nominated novel, Far to Go (2010) and, most recently, Between Gods: A Memoir.

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