The secrets that couldn’t be known about beheaded journalist Steven Sotloff during his captivity were revealed in detail Wednesday: The 31-year-old was Jewish, had dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and apparently maintained his Jewish ritual life while being held by ISIS.
The Forward, a major U.S. news organization covering Jewish issues, said it was among the media and Jewish organizations that honored the request by Sotloff’s family not to reveal his Jewish background and connections. According to The Forward, Sotloff was the grandson of Holocaust survivors, his mother was a synagogue preschool teacher in South Miami and he had written for Israeli publications.
News of his death uncorked the emotion around the topic of his faith.
“We can now say that Steven Joel Sotloff was Jewish,” read the first line of The Forward’s editorial Wednesday.
“Apologies in advance for this horrid thought, but I’m surprised that ISIS didn’t behead the guy with the Jewish name first,” Julia Ioffe, an editor at The New Republic, tweeted to her 38,000 followers.
It was unclear if Sotloff’s captors knew he was Jewish or about his dual citizenship. The Guardian reported Wednesday that “authorities” – unclear from which nation – had “gone to extraordinary lengths to expunge any reference from the Internet to his time spent” in Israel.
Sotloff had freelanced for many publications including Time, Foreign Policy and The Jerusalem Report before vanishing in Syria in August 2013. He wasn’t seen again until a video last month that showed another American journalist, James Foley, being beheaded.
A few details about Sotloff’s faith and his feelings about Israel began to come out Wednesday in the Israeli media.
Yedioth Ahronoth quoted someone who was held captive with Sotloff as saying “he successfully managed to hide the fact he was Jewish from his captors, managing to fast for Yom Kippur by feigning sickness..He told them he was sick and doesn’t want to eat, even though we were served eggs that day,” the unnamed friend told the news site.
“He used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem. He would see in which direction (his Muslim captors) were praying and then adjust the angle,” the person said.
Traditionally Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem; Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca.
The Times of Israel quoted a friend and former college classmate as saying Sotloff didn’t have a simple view of the nation where he’d moved in 2008.
“Like most of us, he came here and he became very critical of the government,” Hillary Lynne Glaser, a former classmate at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzilya, told the Times.
Sotloff hid his faith long before being kidnapped, Oren Kessler, an Israeli-American journalist who had corresponded with the slain reporter, told The Times. He would tell people in North Africa or the Middle East he had been raised Muslim but was secular, Kessler said. Sometimes he’d say his name – which to many Jewish ears sounds clearly Jewish – was Chechen, Kessler said.
In Yemen, Kessler said, Sotloff once allowed locals to give him a “quickie conversion,” a 10-minute ceremony meant to return him to his purported Islamic roots.
Early Wednesday, Israel communicated for the first time of its connection to Sotloff, through a spokesman, Paul Hirschson: “Cleared for publication: Steven Satloff was #Israel citizen RIP”