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Pride, Prejudice and Much More: Reflections on Growing Up in Interfaith Families

A review of Half/Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes. Edited by Laurel Snyder. Brooklyn, N.Y. Soft Skull Press, 2006. 185 pp.

An anthology is a "mixed bag." Contributors have different stories, each with a unique message and told in a new voice. But a compilation of stories with a common theme tends to have a cumulative effect as well. Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes succeeds on both fronts. Though the essays are diverse in style, tone and content, they are all thought-provoking, powerfully told and authentic. The collection is free of clichés and stereotypes, and readers come away with a cumulatively deeper understanding of--and appreciation for--the distinctiveness and richness of an interfaith upbringing.

While some contributors focus primarily on the effects of having grown up a "halfie," others weave that fact into the overall fabric of their stories. An example of the latter is "My Father's Hebrew Name," by Dena Seidel. The author tells a remarkable (and sometimes shocking) tale of having been born into a family of extreme dysfunction and chaos. Although Seidel's life was no doubt influenced by her parents' different religions, it was probably shaped more by their mental and social instability, a situation that forced her into foster care as a child.

Some stories tell of lives "mixed up" (or at least complicated) by having been products of "mixed marriages." Emma Snyder writes in "Stone Steps," that before her parents married, they decided she would be "brought up Jewish," even though, at the time, both were indifferent about religion. However, when they divorced, Snyder's father and mother each became deeply involved with their own respective religions, making their daughter feel she was no longer "Jewish in the absence of real religion" but "Jewish in the middle of two religions." As a pre-teen, Snyder chose to attend church with her mother and also Christian Sunday school classes. About a year after making that decision, she was diagnosed with having obsessive compulsive disorder, which she ascribes to a deep-seated feeling that whatever she did was wrong. Whether this chronic disorder was rooted in genetics or in her culturally competitive upbringing is moot. What is significant is that she writes about it within the context of her dual religious background and gives readers an opportunity to ponder the effects parental conflicts may have on their children.

Not all the authors reflect upon such complexities. In A Child's Christmas in New York, Katherine Weber describes her earliest Christmas memory--the purchase of a Christmas tree with her father when she was five years old. After the desired tree had been found, she remembers that an argument ensued between her father and the man selling the trees. She couldn't understand anything either man said, just that angry, unfamiliar words and expressions were being exchanged by both. As it happened, her father and the tree man were engaged in the ancient art of bargaining--in Yiddish.

In Maya Gottfried's untitled essay, she describes how her pride in being "half Jewish" was transformed into a feeling of hollowness by remarks made by a rebbetzin, a rabbi's wife. One particular Passover, Gottfried attended a seder held by a rabbi and his wife, neither of whom she actually knew, but who opened their home to Jews who had nowhere else to go for the occasion. The rebbetzin initially treated Gottfried warmly, and questioned her about her family. When Gottfried revealed that her mother was Christian, the rebbetzin became cold and distant and declared "without a glimmer of affection," that Gottfried wasn't Jewish. When Gottfried countered that she was "half-Jewish," the rebbitzin repeated, almost accusingly, "You're not Jewish." That experienced effected a profound change in Gottfried. Instead of feeling "half-Jewish," she felt like nothing at all. Eager to have a religious identity, she ultimately explored the other side of her spiritual heritage and was baptized into Christianity. Half/Life is wholly engrossing and enlightening, supportive for children of interfaith parents and enlightening for the rest of us.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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