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December 13, 2010
In the Jewish faith there is a concept known as the Tree of Life. It is a great big tree with many roots and strong branches. It is always in bloom. The Tree of Life represents all Jewish people, and just like any other family tree, you could trace your lineage back to the very first person you came from. It's a remarkable concept, to be linked in a way to all of the people of your faith. But for a long time, I didn't find comfort in the tree. When I looked at the impressive sculpture in the middle of my temple, I didn't see myself anywhere — not in the branches, not on the flowers, not even on the twigs that had fallen to the ground. Because I was only half-Jewish, and I did not belong.
I never thought of my background as a deficiency. I have two parents who love me very much and have given me all of the support in the world. That's more than what a lot of people have, and I have always been grateful. It never occurred to me that their interfaith marriage was anything more than just that: a Christian person and a Jewish person being married. Love is love. Commitment is commitment. Religion wasn't even part of the equation. In my mind, there was mom, dad, and I, all of us loved, all of us whole. But I learned quickly that this was not the way that many people viewed it. They saw a Christian mom and a Jewish dad, and I, I was neither. I was half and half, and for some reason, the two halves could not be added and I could not be whole anymore.
I was first notified that I was only half Jewish at Sunday school, sometime before I was ten. I remember we were talking about how people become Jewish, about Abraham and Sarah and about how we are all their children. I remember the teacher saying something about Rebekkah and Leah and Rachel, and how important women are in the Jewish faith, and that's why Judaism is passed down through our mothers. And I was so innocent, and I was so curious, and I raised my hand and I said, "That can't be right though, because I'm Jewish even though my mom's not." And the teacher just looked at me. I was confused. She was obviously uncomfortable, but I didn't know why. That's when she said, smiling, but with a little bit of sadness in her voice, "To strict Jewish people, that would mean that you wouldn't be Jewish. Here at this temple, we don't believe that. Here, you can still be half Jewish."
It was as if someone had told me that my name wasn't Sophie. Here I was, still in grade school, still trying to figure out what my favorite color was, and someone tells me that I'm only "half." I was embarrassed. I was angry. I was lost. Everyone in my class knew my secret, a secret I learned right along with them. In a matter of three sentences, I had gone from being just like everyone else to being like no one else. I stood out in a way no little girl ever wants to stand out. I can still see all of their eyes on me, trying to figure me out. I imagine them splitting me in half in order to see the Christian side and the Jewish side. Would they cut me vertically, right between my eyes? Or would they do it horizontally, across the belly button? Either way, I could feel myself beginning to bleed.
This was hard, but the hardest part was how it affected my view of my mom. At the time, I don't think I told her about that incident and how angry it made me, but I showed her over the years. I showed her by asking her why she never converted, and if she would consider it. I showed her when I asked my dad why he didn't marry someone who was Jewish. I showed her every time I didn't tell someone that she was Christian, when I pretended that I was Jewish on both sides, when I pretended she didn't have an identity. I did these hurtful things because I was trying to make myself feel better. I knocked her down to build myself up, which is really upsetting to me now, especially since my mom has always been there for me, building my confidence, making me stronger, helping me grow. Still, I thought at the time that the only way to make myself feel whole was to make someone else feel broken.
The comments that I started to get after that day in Sunday school have never ceased. It has become a sort of joke among my Jewish friends, that I'm the half-Jew in a group of "true Jews." I laugh it off or don't say anything at all in order to pretend that it doesn't faze me, to pretend that I'm strong enough to take it. And it's not just my Jewish friends. My Christian friends, too, have always taken a special interest in this duality. It's as if I'm the bearded lady at the carnival. I'm so weird that they want to know more. They ask me questions like, "Do you believe in Jesus, or just God?" and "Do you do only celebrate six of the twelve days of Christmas?" I try to tell them that it's not like that, that yes, I have both Jewish and Christian family members, but I was raised Jewish. I've gone to temple my whole life, I have a Hebrew name, I had a bat mitzvah, and I've been confirmed in the Jewish faith. "I'M A JEW!" I've wanted to yell at the top of my lungs so many times. "I'M JEWISH AND I'M WHOLE!"
But the thing is, even if I screamed this, and even if everyone who has ever questioned me heard my words, it wouldn't matter, because the only person who needs to believe these words is me. I can't wait for someone else's permission to add my halves together and make me complete. The only way that I will ever truly be whole is by ignoring all of those voices and listening to my own. My voice says that those other opinions and rules don't even apply to me. My voice says that they don't matter. Anything — whether it be a person (even a teacher) or a belief (even within my own faith) — that makes me feel less than loved and fulfilled is something that I will not accept. Similarly, anything that undermines my amazing family members based on something as inconsequential as religion will not be part of my life. I will simply cast such things aside; allow them to float away like leaves in the wind.
It has taken me most of my life to get to where I am now, to be strong and mature enough to determine who I am without relying solely on others. And I'm proud of how far I've come. But I still struggle. I struggle with how much I will allow others to contribute and how much I need to figure out on my own. I wonder how much of myself originates from my parents and my peers, and how much of myself is fundamentally me. I grapple with who I was in my past and who I intend to be in my future. I often can't decide what to take with me and what to leave behind.
What I do know is this: I can make up my own mind and create my own rules. I am not a slave to those around me, even those in a position of authority. I am not required to believe in everything Judaism says, even if I consider myself a Jew. I can be 100 percent Jewish and still have a 100 percent Christian mother. Judaism is about much more than percentages, anyway. It is about treating other people with respect, bettering the world around me, and working hard to achieve my dreams. I believe that if I genuinely try to exemplify these values throughout my life, God won't pay much attention to numbers.
I now firmly believe that I should be a part of the Tree of Life. It is my right. After all, my roots are firmly planted. My father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and everyone before them are there. They are embedded in that soil, and I have grown from them just as much as any other Jewish person has grown from their ancestors. I am not half a branch, or half a flower. I am the whole tree. I am whole.