"The Jews don’t mess around with their holidays," my mom told me when I was about 5. "Hanukkah--eight days. Passover--eight days. Yes sir, Jewish celebrations are serious business."
In my child’s mind, I mistook her tone of pride for one of disdain, and thought to myself, "Wow, I’m glad I’m not Jewish."
Of course, I was Jewish. I just didn’t know it.
In fact, in an amazing mish-mash which I would only begin to understand years later, I was the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. Religiously, my parents had decided that I was Jewish. But my heritage was half Jewish and half Christian. To top it all off, my parents didn't give me much information about either religion. My quest to figure out who the heck I was ignited a life-long passion for exploring the dynamics of interfaith marriages.
|"... the rabbi led a short service. I experienced a pang of panic when people began responding to him aloud in a strange language."
I officially embarked upon this Search for Myself when I was about 12. By that time, I understood that I was Jewish. One day in my seventh grade science class, I heard David and Ben talking about being Jewish and I volunteered, "I’m Jewish too."
"No you’re not," said David. "Your dad's a Christian. My mom told me."
I felt as if I had been slapped right out of the inner circle. That evening I asked my mom about it and she said, "Well, dad's an engineer, so he doesn't really go for mystical explanations of things. He believes about Jesus what the Jews do, basically that Jesus was just a man. Jesus wasn't divine or anything." I didn’t know why it mattered that Jesus wasn't very handsome, but in any case I knew what I would tell David the next day.
I marched right up to him and smugly announced, "My dad believes in Jesus, just like the Jews do." David’s enraged reaction taught me a lesson in semantics.
It also taught me a puzzling conundrum: Just because I thought I was Jewish didn't mean other people would agree. I decided that somehow, in order to try to bring the concept from the realm of the vague to the concrete, I had to quantify my background. The answer came to me from a ninth grade biology assignment in which we were to chart our family trees. "The roots of your tree are the foundation for who you are," Mr. Privette proclaimed.
Anxious to discover my foundation, I asked my grandparents where they came from. My dad's mother proudly pulled out a sheaf of papers on which were written mysterious names like "Heman Bangs" and "Rufus Elias." There were also dates, going all the way back to 1759. "You're descended from Fletcher Christian," my grandmother told me. "The guy who led the mutiny on the Bounty against Captain Bligh. Marlon Brando played Fletcher Christian in the movie!" Wow!
When I asked my mom's parents where they came from, the response was puzzlingly different. My grandmother looked as if she had been punched and my grandfather started to cry. My mom rushed into the living room and asked what on earth was going on. "I asked grandma and grandpa where they were from," I replied. My mother's eyes widened and she motioned for me to follow her out of the room. When we were alone she hissed, "Don't ever do that again."
As I grew older, in a flurry of teenage angst and self-righteousness, I decided that it didn't matter what anyone else thought: If I said I was Jewish, then I was! By the time I got to college, I was searching for a way to solidify my Jewish identity. Walking along the UC Davis quad my first week as a freshman, I spotted a gorgeous guy with curly black hair and big brown eyes. He was sitting at a table with a big sign on it that said "Hillel." Ah hah! This was the way to go.
That Friday evening at the Hillel House, we sat down to dinner and the rabbi led a short service. I experienced a pang of panic when people began responding to him aloud in a strange language. I spotted the program lying across my plate and quickly opened it up. There, to my utter relief, were English letters. However, they didn’t form any words I was familiar with. There were too many ch's and y's. Still, I was able to soundlessly move my lips in what I figured was a pretty good approximation of the correct positions. My eyes skipped ahead to the end and I was thrilled to see the word, "Amen." Perfect! I knew how to pronounce that thanks to one of my favorite childhood shows, the one where Thelma had a crazy crush on the Reverend. "A," as in A, B, C. Basic kindergarten stuff. And then "men," as in the half of the human race that made no sense to me. Amen. No problem.
As the group progressed closer and closer to that final word, I suppressed a triumphant grin. Then, as I loudly said, "Amen," the rest of the group proclaimed, "Ah-mane."
I ducked my head, hoping that no one had heard me mangle the pronunciation of what seemed to be one of the most important Hebrew words ever. At the same time, I knew that that was highly unlikely. I had proclaimed "Amen" loud enough for them to hear me in China. Speaking of China, my final hope at preserving my dignity lay in the remote possibility that someone had brought chow mein for dinner. Perhaps I had misunderstood, and the entire table had just simultaneously proclaimed their anticipation for the tasty dish. But as my furtive glances bounced from matzo ball soup to knishes to kugel, this theory was not confirmed.
Although UC Davis did not end up being the place where I met a hot Israeli exchange student and we lived happily ever after, it did end up being the place that introduced me to the field of psychology. Psychology has given me a method with which to explore matters I have always pondered including, of course, interfaith marriage. And if in that work I discover a little more about myself, then the girl I still remember nods in satisfaction.