But You’re Not Really Jewish, Right?

  
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Photograph of Helen Rose by Lizzy Sullivan

“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.

“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?

This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.

Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?

Helen and Adrian

Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park

The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.

I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.

“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.

The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”

Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.

I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.

The Unintended Consequences of Blintzes for Blitzen

  

My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewish—but keep celebrating Christmas—my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a Tu Bishvat celebration. On the drive there, she kept proclaiming, “It’s the New Year for Christmas trees! I love Christmas trees!” Once we parked the car, we earnestly encouraged our daughter not to mention Christmas trees while at the event, which would involve planting a small bit of greenery (which turned out to be parsley for the seder plate). She didn’t quite understand why people wouldn’t want to hear about Christmas trees (they’re pretty, and come with presents: What could be wrong with that?), but she trusted us and didn’t mention the possibly offensive greenery.

I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what “religion” is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays: Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).

Emily's family

Emily and her family celebrating Hanukkah

But in her life, these two holidays are part of what’s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day. That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.

As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I share—but feel ambivalent about—our older daughter’s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I don’t really want her to want to sit on Santa’s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. I’d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that we’d raise our children in the  Jewish tradition, but I don’t think I understood how children’s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldn’t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.

For now, I’m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this “more the merrier” perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santa’s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.

Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.

Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.