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I'm a Jew Just Like You

Reprinted with the permission of Reform Judaism magazine, published by the Union for Reform Judaism. Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue. Also see her mother Beverly Asaro's essay Lasagna and Hamantaschen.

When it comes to labeling, Jews take the cake. We've invented a term for nearly every Jewish lifestyle. While I knew from an early age that I bore the ''Reform'' label, I wouldn't learn of my ''interfaith'' label until I was an adult working full-time in the Jewish communal world.

As a child, nothing struck me as strange about having a non-Jewish parent. It was the norm; many of my friends came from mixed households. That's what happens in the condensed suburbs of New Jersey: People from different backgrounds inevitably cross paths and, in some cases, decide to raise families together.

In my case the cross-pollination occurred between a Sicilian mother, raised Catholic in Lodi, and a mélange-of-Eastern-European-descent father, raised Jewish in Fair Lawn. They met at the nearby college where they both held teaching positions.

Joelle Berman

 

During her own college years, my mother's devotion to Catholicism dissipated, despite an unwavering faith in God. Her biggest obstacle to raising her future children in a particular faith was not the religion itself, but her distrust of all organized religion. Conveniently, my father's twin brother is a rabbi, and for an entire year he and my father worked to dispel her fear, answering her searching questions until she felt comfortable enough to raise us as Jews. Soon enough she was hosting my baby-naming ceremony and driving my brother David and me to Hebrew school.

And so I grew up--becoming a bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue, discovering my Jewish identity at Reform overnight camp and spending many fun weekends at Reform youth group events. Never was I labeled as an ''interfaith kid." Having a non-Jewish mother was merely a genealogical footnote.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started working in the larger Jewish communal world and was almost instantly labeled and made to feel inferior for having a non-Jewish mother. According to some of these Jews, my father was among those ''finishing Hitler's work'' by marrying outside the faith and pushing the Jewish people closer to extinction. Entire organizations and large sums of money were being devoted to studying the impact families like mine were having on Jewish continuity. The message was clear: Despite our Jewish upbringing, patrilineal children like me needed to suck it up and convert if we wanted to be considered legitimate outside the Reform world.

These detractors remain oblivious to how an interfaith family with both parents committed to raising Jewish children works. My parents figured it out early in their marriage. They concocted a careful, deliberate recipe sure to yield children with strong Jewish identities: A heaping serving of holiday observances sweetened by the recitation of blessings every Friday night at Shabbat dinner, a good measure of Hebrew school, bar/bat mitzvah and a generous pinch of participation in informal Jewish activities--especially URJ Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Mass., where I made lifelong friendships.

Nowadays, the Jewish elements of my identity are as deeply ingrained as the Sicilian identity which my mother worked to infuse throughout my childhood. At our third-grade ''Around the World Food Fair,'' I wore my great-grandmother's dress from Sicily and my mother helped me serve homemade ravioli. David and I couldn't just watch The Godfather--afterward, my mother would expound on the history of the Sicilian mob, which formed, we learned, as a result of the persecution and hardship Sicilian immigrants faced when they arrived in this country. I also followed my mother's example in scoffing at waitresses who would say ''ca-la-mar-i'' instead of the dialectally correct ''co-la-mad.''

Still, I was a Jew, even as we ate a special meal with my mother's side of the family every year during the Feast of St. Joseph. I was a Jew, even as I hung ornaments from the Christmas tree in our living room. I was a Jew, a proud Jew at that, when both sides of my family--grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins--stood at my side as I ceremonially signed my bat mitzvah certificate at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

I see now that this is ultimately my parents' biggest success--that I know exactly who I am: An American Jew of Sicilian heritage. And so, after wrestling with the interfaith label for the past several years, I now realize it means nothing to me except that I had a somewhat unique upbringing for an American Jewish girl.

That said, as someone who's worn the interfaith label, let me offer some observations. One: Accept the reality of interfaith families. Whether you like it or not, the next generation of Jews will count many non-Jews as their parents and many not-typically-Jewish ethnicities as part of their identity. Two: Welcome interfaith families. For every interfaith family that's weathered the storm of feeling unwelcome and disadvantaged, there are plenty who get lost in the flood. There's no chance for Jewish continuity unless we open the tent to them all.

And last: Remember the adult children of intermarriage. Give us a stake in the incredibly rich and resilient tradition that is also our Jewish future.

Check back tomorrow for Joelle's mother's take on being Catholic and raising Jewish children.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Joelle Asaro Berman

Joelle Asaro Berman was the editor-in-chief of JVibe, a magazine for Jewish teens. She now works for the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

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