The Half Jewish Question

As the lights on my Christmas tree twinkle in my living room and I hang the red and green decorations around my house, I sometimes wonder about the other direction we could have taken. What my life would be like if the decorations were blue and white and silver and we celebrated for eight days instead of one.

My sisters and brother and I are the products of a mixed marriage. A religious mix. Our father, bless his soul there up in heaven, was a divorced Jewish man from Brooklyn and our mother, the second in line in a staunch Irish Catholic family of seven kids from Long Island.

These two people from completely different worlds found each other in 1960 and got married shortly there after. As I heard it, my mother’s family was none too happy about their Catholic daughter getting hitched to a man of a different faith. Throw the divorced thing in there and my prim and proper grandmother must have had a cow.

The thing was though, you couldn’t not like my father. He was a charming and engaging man. A salesman, a joke teller, a man with a wealth of knowledge. He won over everyone he met and that eventually included my mother’s parents. But even though he won them over personally, their belief in the fact that their daughter should not marry out of her faith was stronger. They didn’t tell her she couldn’t marry my dad, but they forbade anyone in the family to attend the nuptials – a small ceremony in a city hall. However, one of my mother’s sisters did attend and stood up as a witness to their union. That was it. One sister of six siblings overrode the parents’ decision.

Growing up, I never knew any of this. We were raised as Catholics, albeit not very good ones. We celebrated the “big” holidays like Christmas and Easter. My mom was the one who took us to church on occasional Sundays for a while — us kicking and screaming for the most part. My dad stayed home, did the New York Times Sunday Crossword puzzle and waited for us to return.

Over the years, we all did some Sunday School, we made our First Communions and my oldest sister eventually made her Confirmation. And then, as I remember it, one day my mom told me I didn’t have to go to church anymore if I didn’t want to. She didn’t sign me up for Confirmation class and I didn’t mind. I jumped for joy. No Sunday School? Whoo!

In hindsight, I think my mom just didn’t want to do the religious thing by herself anymore.

We were never privy to any conversations my parents may have had about religion. I knew my mom was Catholic and that she wanted to go to church. And my dad was Jewish. He had his bar mitzvah, and that was about it. I knew that because I saw a picture of him in a funny hat — the yarmulke. He never went to Temple, never did anything remotely Jewish except for saying a few phrases that may have been passed down to him by family.

My father loved bacon and a pork dinner was his favorite. My dad’s only sibling was a brother who lived about 20 minutes away. He and his family — three daughters, my cousins — were practicing Jews. When they came to our house at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was confusing. They were sure we were supposed to be Jewish. We were sure we were not.

Every year on July 4th, we would venture out to Long Island to see my dad’s family, a huge gathering of first, second, third and fourth cousins, great aunts and uncles and people I had never met before. One thing I knew for sure. These people were my family and they treated me as such. They embraced us, the Catholic family from Connecticut amid the huge Jewish clan from all over. They teased my mother about being the shiksa (a Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman). But never once did I feel like an outsider.

My great aunts and uncles were rolly poly women and happy men who sat around and watched their enormous extended family have fun that day. The arms of the family tree were wide open and touching us all, regardless of what religion we were.

We swam and they watched. We dove and they told us how beautiful we were. We did gymnastics on the great lawn and they were in awe. We played volleyball, softball, we ate fried chicken and drank cans of cream soda, grape and orange soda and root beer from garbage cans filled with ice. We watched a wonderful display of fireworks put on by my dad’s cousins whose parents were hosting the event.

Us kids loved that trek out to Long Island. We’d see our distant cousins and exchange addresses and begin writing letters to each other. They were a part of us as we were of them. How could we not be? We all had the same last name.

My mother was sometimes a reluctant participant for the July 4th party on Long Island. She said it was the drive out there, which could take forever on the Long Island Expressway. Maybe two hours, but that was a long time if you didn’t really want to go in the first place. Once she got there, I know she had a good time. She must have. It was hard not to with all those people welcoming you with open arms.

And we saw her family a lot. We celebrated Christmas and Easter with them on occasion, sometimes on Long Island and sometimes in New Jersey. I loved seeing my cousins. They are all about the same age so we had the same interests. Plus, it was fun to tease them about the way they talked. They said we had accents! My mom was happy to be a part of her family. There was never any ill will, never a thought about any non-Catholic member of the family. In fact, with my dad’s white beard, big belly and twinkling blue eyes, he resembled Santa Claus and was never opposed to playing that role for his young nieces. There was laughter and presents and fun and an abundance of Christmas cheer. And a nice ham on the table. That made my pork-loving Jewish dad very happy.

In our house growing up, Christmas was about the presents, not the story of the birth of Jesus. Although for me, I always wanted to know more, about the Three Wise Men and their trek across the desert and how they followed that shining star.

It wasn’t until much later in my life that I made my confirmation and became a true Catholic. Christmas became much more for me. I learned about Advent, what the candles mean and why the church changes its colors during this time. Yes, we love to read The Night Before Christmas, but the Story of the Birth of Jesus gets more interest from our kids.

We take our kids to church every Sunday and we are involved in their religious lives. We say grace at meal time, and the kids say a prayer before they get on the bus. My five-year old looks to the sky and sees stars as people who have died. She calls them by name since we have lost two dear friends recently. She sees her grandfathers are up there, too. My nine-year old can recite prayers that I haven’t even learned yet. He is a sponge for all things religious and historical. He listens and he knows. He was excited when he heard  that he could obtain a religious badge for his Boy Scout uniform last night. He wanted me to call our Pastor ASAP!

My kids have a totally different religious life than I did growing up. There won’t be a time when we give them a choice not to go to Sunday School or church. It will be what it is. We are Catholics and we celebrate that.

On occasions however, I do still wonder what it would be like to embrace my Jewish heritage. To celebrate Hanukkah, Rosh Shoshana and other high holy days. To fill my house with potato latkes and dreidels instead of Christmas cookies and carols.

I know by the true religious sense of the word, I am not Jewish. My mother would have to have converted to Judaism for me to be Jewish. Or I would. But I am very happy to be Catholic and am glad that I can foster it with my children. And myself.

But I do always wonder.

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