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
I assume that starting an interfaith relationship is more complicated than being born into one. I never had to make the decision to follow a particular religion--my parents chose Judaism for me.
The first time I was ever aware that being brought up by an interfaith couple was anything other than ordinary was during my Bar Mitzvah preparation. We tailored the service so that relatives from my father's side of the family could participate as well. Uncle Jonesy held the Torah. Grandma opened the Ark. Dad told a short story on the non-denominational topic of "understanding." Far from cheapening the day, these ceremonial inclusions allowed everyone to be involved and feel welcome.
Each Thanksgiving weekend, my father and I drive down the interstate to Walter Backofen's Christmas tree farm. After Dad and Mr. Backofen gab about some obscure New Hampshire economic issue, we scan the lot, browsing through the Douglas Firs and Scotch Pines and Blue Spruces until we find the one short enough to fit in our living room and shapely enough to appease our aesthetically critical eye. Having it decorated and lit by Thanksgiving weekend lends a more festive air to our house and strengthens the tree's association to the time of year rather than any particular holiday. Later that month we light the menorah and open Hanukkah presents from beneath the tree. This translates to how my parents and I approach Judaism in general. We invite non-Jewish friends over for Passover seder. We don't keep kosher or do services at home other than during Hanukkah or Passover.
Still, I identify strongly with my faith. During my first year at college I was very involved with Hillel. My freshman fall was the first time that I ever attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in their entirety. I initially felt a stronger need to belong, to identify with people, than I had before. A large percentage of the Jewish students at my school are from the New York City area, and are generally more devout than I had been at home, so I had to work to keep up. This grew tiresome quickly, however. By spring, I had found my niche, and instead of attending Shabbat, or Sabbath, services, I would cook the weekly Friday night Hillel dinner, regularly feeding about eighty people of various faiths whatever vegetarian fare met my fancy (pasta, usually).
Every year my parents and I drive to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to spend Christmas with Grandma and Pop-op and my father's brothers' and sisters' families. Moravian stars, red and green Christmas lights, Christmas music on the stereo, and a tree in the corner (Pop-op raises and sells them). This might bother me if my Dad's family were very religious, but they're not. Nobody goes to church with any regularity; Christmas is much more of a reunion than a celebration of Jesus' birth, and that's how everyone genuinely seems to want it--it hasn't been changed as a consolation to the Jewish branch of the Fischel family.
Being raised in an interfaith family has gotten me interested in how different Jews grow up. Even fifty years after the Holocaust, there remains a certain stereotype of what being Jewish means (albeit a much more good-natured classification!)--such as the images of the Jewish American Princess or the Jewish Mother. Growing up as the Jew with the Christmas tree, as a Jew in western New Hampshire, both buck the normal pigeon-holing.
Last year, I drove down to Virginia Military Institute to do research on a paper for my Black Studies class. While grazing through material at VMI's archives, I came across the story of Moses Ezekiel. He holds the distinction not only of being one of the few Jews to attend VMI in the nineteenth century, but of being one of the only Jews to fight for the Confederacy. Upon graduating, Ezekiel moved to Italy and became a sculptor of some acclaim. I also learned a lot from the film Europa, Europa, which was a true story of a German Jew who had to hide his identity in order to survive during World War II. In an issue of George Magazine, I read about a Jewish family in Alabama that faced discrimination and abuse from Christian radicals after questioning the inclusion of church in state. I am both bound by and thankful for these Jews who have led different lives, chosen different paths, or fought the battles for the fringe Jews, who thrive, like my family, outside the mainstream, even if it doesn't seem so different from the norm.