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Groucho Marx was once denied membership to a country club because he was Jewish. He was said to have replied, “My daughter's only half Jewish. Can she go into the pool up to her waist?” Like Groucho's daughter, I, too, grew up half Jewish, but I've often wondered what that really means. Does half of my body believe Christ to be the savior while my other half denies it? Is Judaism something in my blood or is it my faith? Is it part of my cultural heritage? Can you really be half of a faith or does faith imply that you must choose?
Whenever we've gotten together with my mother's side of the family, my immediate family could not help feeling out of place. Though they were my relatives they didn't quite feel like family. When my mother put her famous brownies next to other families' food, my father would roll his eyes. He'd point to the green Jello mold with its pieces of fruit, nuts, and celery suspended in it and whisper, “Only goyim put celery and nuts in Jello.” We would laugh at the little things like these that set us apart from my other relatives.
I never quite identified with the Catholic side of my family, but I never felt fully accepted as a Jew either. Our family switched temples when I was young because we were tired of the way they treated my mother and our family. My mother had converted before she married my father, which technically makes her and all her children Jewish. But somehow we never quite felt that way. Even my Jewish friends considered me “less” Jewish because my mom had converted. Growing up, I sometimes felt that I didn't belong anywhere, that neither part of my heritage would ever totally accept me.
I learned to deal with this anxiety by looking to my mother's example. Although she went to Catholic school for most her life, in many ways my mother is more Jewish than my father. In fact, much of what I learned about the Jewish religion I learned from her. In addition, she makes great latkes and matzah ball soup and she'd put most Jewish mothers to shame with her ability to guilt-trip. But sometimes I'd ask her what it was like growing up Catholic and why she chose to convert. “It's the same God,” she'd reply. “In fact, it's all really the same religion except for a few minor details.”
Sometimes my mother would tell me horror stories about the nuns at her grade school and how the same ruler was used to measure the length of your skirt as well as to slap you on the hand if you misbehaved. When my father read the news headlines about the recent scandals and lawsuits in the Catholic Church, he'd turn to my mother and say, “You got out of that church just in time.” He liked to joke with her about this or ask her to tell stories about the evil nun from grade school. But I sometimes feel it is more than joking--that this is his way of assuaging his guilt for the sacrifices she made with conversion. Yet my mother never gave me the impression that she was giving something up. If there was something missed from the Catholic religion she'd find a way to integrate it into Judaism.
My mother made sure that all her children grew up knowing the magic of Christmas. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is more than just the celebration of the birth of Christ. There is something magical about Christmas that has nothing to do with Jesus. I think that Jews are a bit envious of Christmas; perhaps we feel that we can't participate in it. But I think that we recognize that there is something magical about this time of year. My father jokes that all the best Christmas carols were written by Jews, such as “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (which starts with the line “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”), and even the music to “O Holy Night.” Perhaps without being bound by the religion of Christmas we are left with an even stronger appreciation of its magic.
And that magic was what my mother refused to give up. My father, who very much enjoyed looking at Christmas lights and listening to Christmas music (as long as it stopped short of “Silent Night”), refused to have Christmas in his house. But my mother wouldn't deny her kids Santa. So Santa came every year. Then one year my mother put up white Christmas lights outside our house. “They're Hanukkah lights,” she would protest. “Hanukkah is the celebration of light, why can't we put up Hanukkah lights?”
I remember my mother begging my father to let us have a tree. Even my paternal grandfather, a Brooklyn Jew, insisted, “Let the kids have a tree.” He was the one who bought us our first tree--much to my father's chagrin. It was small, no taller than five feet. And when my father came home from work that day my mom and grandfather insisted, “It's a Hanukkah bush!” My mother searched the stores for a six-pointed Star of David that would go atop the Hanukkah bush. But apparently there wasn't a big market for Jewish tree decorations. So instead we settled for a regular star. And each year my mother got a little more daring and the tree got a little bit bigger.
Another tradition that my mother integrated into our religious upbringing was Easter. Again, it had no real religious meaning for us. It meant that the Easter Bunny arrived to give us candy, and if it fell during Passover we'd have to wait to eat it since most of the candy wasn't Kosher for Passover. We'd dye seder eggs too. “There's an egg on the seder plate, why can't we dye seder eggs?” my mother would say when my dad gave her questioning looks. The Easter Bunny and Santa were like the leprechauns my mother insisted came on Saint Patrick's Day that dyed our breakfast oatmeal green and left us treats and stickers. What my mother found lacking in Judaism was a bit of magic and she found a way to bring that to us during childhood.
Over time I have come to accept both sides of my heritage. Being half Jewish--having parents of two different faiths--doesn't mean you necessarily have to choose between them. Our society tries to put us into categories, to try and make us one way or another. But I think that it's kind of like that Jello mold that the Catholic side of my family always makes and my father can never understand. Jello can be enjoyed on its own, but the nuts and fruit and vegetables can provide variety, a little extra spice and crunch to a familiar dish. The mix creates a new dish, with parts of both, but enjoyed in its own right.