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Growing Up Jewish with an Irish-Catholic Father

When I was five or six I asked my parents who Jesus was, having heard the name from the little girls up the block. I was told, as I remember it, that Jesus was a great teacher who lived a long time ago, and that Daddy thought that Jesus was the son of God, and Mommy thought that he was just a wise man. It satisfied me entirely at the time--in fact,  it still does.

What surprises many people with whom I've discussed my family is that I was raised with a strong Jewish identity and a father who was a practicing Catholic. Many people believe that it may be possible to raise a Jewish child in an interfaith family if the non-Jewish parent has no real religious identity. If, however, someone in the house is actually a believer in some other religion, many think that the child will grow up so fundamentally confused that she will never turn out "really" Jewish.

So, for the record, my father has been a Catholic all his life, and one in active communion with the Church for as long as I can remember. Nor was this hidden from me. I grew up with icons pinned to the corkboard and rosary beads on my father's dresser. I was taken to Mass as a child, and I still attend with family on holidays and special occasions. We even had, I must report, a Christmas tree for several years, and I hunted Easter eggs with my cousins a number of times.

I was raised Jewish, though, with no ifs or ands. I was raised in a Jewish home, with a mezuzah at the door and Hebrew books on the bookshelves. I was brought up knowing that I was a Jew, because my mother was Jewish and because I was being taught to live a Jewish life. Judaism was an integral part of my childhood, sometimes loved, sometimes boring, but constant. My Jewish identity, while perhaps no greater than that of many women with two Jewish parents, is surely no less.

It was not always easy. To this day, I can't look at a copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret without shuddering. That book, a much-loved young adult novel by Judy Blume about religious identity and puberty, caused me trouble well before I knew that puberty was anything except a word in the dictionary. I got at least three copies as gifts. People told me that it was about a girl "like you"--from a family with one Jewish parent. Well, Margaret was nothing like I was at the age of seven or eight, when I read the book.

By then, I was picking up on what my role was supposed to be. My only model in fiction was Blume's character, and she had no religious upbringing or religious identity. This didn't reflect my life, but it reflected what people believed and still believe about children like me. The official line that I got from religious school teachers and Jewish day camp counselors was that my having a non-Jewish parent "didn't matter," since I was undeniably Jewish. But since the primary focus of a Reform religious school education in the 1980s was to inoculate its pupils against assimilation--represented by Christmas trees and intermarriage, both of which were factors in my life--it was sometimes hard to work out just what I was being told.

It's possible for a Jew to marry a gentile and raise Jewish children who are entirely comfortable with having gentile relatives. I do not believe that I have to renounce my father's heritage in order to be a Jew. I am Irish-American and proud of it. I was raised in the movement for Soviet and post-Soviet Jews, to which my father has given more than twenty years of devoted activism. I believe that his sense of responsibility to the oppressed is at least partly due to his Catholic education. I got that from him.

I was also taught that Jews are suppposed to stand with the oppressed and do justice. It would be easy enough for me to say that I am an activist for human rights today because of my Jewish heritage or my feminist principles. It would be easy to talk about Emma Goldman and Abraham Joshua Heschel and the concept of tzedek (righteous person). And that's all true, I do derive much of my sense of myself as an activist and a Jewish woman from those sources and others like them.

But there are other things that contribute to who I am, things that are Catholic and Celtic and intrinsically part of me. My Irish Catholic dad in a borrowed tallis (prayer shawl), making up a song in honor of having been arrested with a bunch of rabbis in front of the Soviet Consulate. My father's mother, who stands all of five foot two and has never backed down from confronting anyone mistreating an animal or a child. She gives it to them straight until they back down or she calls the cops. Irish history, literature, culture and music, all of which I claim as my own.

And I believe that what I take from my Irish heritage makes me a better Jew.

Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. 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.
Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners.
Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.

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