Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
Published July 19, 2007. Republished April 18, 2014
Most American seven-year-olds go to Hebrew School or CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) for their religious education. When I was seven years old, I went to both.
My religious quest began after noticing that while some kids at school celebrated Hanukkah, and some kids celebrated Christmas, my family celebrated both holidays. Upon asking my mother, "What are we?" she replied that she was Jewish, my dad was Catholic, and I was free to choose to be whatever I wanted to be.
"Free to choose?" I didn't know enough about either religion to choose. And I couldn't look to my parents for much guidance, as neither of them was very religious. Admittedly a rather precocious seven-year-old, I decided to attend both Hebrew School and CCD classes, and to then choose my religion at the end of the year.
That year I was one stressed-out seven-year-old. I felt a great deal of pressure from both sets of my grandparents, who were vying for my religious vote. And I had quite a busy schedule: Hebrew School on Wednesdays and Saturdays, CCD on Tuesdays and Sundays, piano lessons on Thursdays. Some of my friends, whose parents were forcing them to get a religious education, wondered why I bothered to go to even one religious school, never mind two. Why was religion so important to me when it wasn't very important to my parents? The reason was probably precisely because my parents had such weak religious identities, I wanted a stronger one. Many of my best friends strongly identified with one religious group or another, but I was lost in between--belonging to both groups and to neither of them, all at the same time.
Though this feeling of simultaneously belonging and not belonging will always stay with me on some level, after attending both religious schools that year I began to identify more with the Jewish religion. Though both religious schools were incredibly accepting of me and even encouraged me to share my cross-cultural perspective, I felt more comfortable at Hebrew School, more attracted to Jewish beliefs, and more interested in its language and culture. Also, at the tender age of seven, I was a bit overwhelmed by the prominence of the death of Christ in Christianity and was much more drawn to the emphasis in Judaism on life ('chaim!).
Many people, including many Jews, are surprised that I chose to identify with Judaism when Christianity is more mainstream and acceptable in American culture. Why would I choose to identify with an historically persecuted people? How could I resist the allure of the holly jolly Christmas season and trade it in for Hanukkah? Perhaps it is because Judaism is not mainstream and is a little bit different that I wanted to identify with it.
But, ultimately, I don't believe that I chose Judaism--rather, it chose me. When I began my quest for religious identity, I wasn't looking to conform to an existing belief structure, Instead I was looking to find a belief structure that most closely matched the one I already had inside. And though I made the decision to discontinue the CCD class and continue with my Jewish education at the end of second grade, my search for a religious identity did not end there. Year after year, through a Bat Mitzvah, confirmation class and pursuit of a minor in Judaic Studies in college, I have reevaluated and questioned my beliefs. So far, Judaism has confirmed my own personal beliefs as much as I have confirmed my belief in Judaism.
I am not saying that growing up with an interfaith background and choosing my religion was easy. Though I happened to be very fortunate that my parents and most of my family were open-minded and supportive of my decision, I was unable to practice as many of the rituals of Judaism as I would have liked, because my fairly secular family was not interested. I also know that some of my family members and friends who weren't Jewish were somewhat alienated and offended by my decision not to identify with Christianity. On the flip side, I have encountered rabbis and other members of the Jewish community who cast doubt on my Jewish identity and condemn my parents' marriage. In still other unfortunate instances, people mistake me for a Christian because of my last name and reveal anti-Semitic sentiments they would otherwise keep to themselves if they realized I was Jewish.
Ultimately, however, I wouldn't trade the experience of growing up half Jewish and half Christian and being given the opportunity to choose which one to identify with. It was because of this opportunity that I have never taken my heritage and beliefs for granted, nor ever blindly followed them. My dual religious identity has given me a unique perspective on both religions that many do not have. And, having chosen Judaism, I feel that my religion is that much more my own. For me, being "half and half" has not prevented me from feeling whole.