April 15, 2009
When I was growing up in Baltimore County, my mother often complained that when she told other Jews she was in an interfaith relationship, they would always assume she was the non-Jewish partner. It makes sense, I suppose, as she had kept her maiden name (Weinstein) and studies indicate that Jewish men marry non-Jews more often than do Jewish women.
It's funny, then, that I've often felt that my father had a more stereotypically "Jewish" upbringing than my mother. My mother hails from the Midwest, born of a small to medium-sized family that is largely out of touch with its "old country" roots. My father, on the other hand, was born in the Bronx to immigrants. His mother worked in the garment district while my mother's mother worked at a mall. He grew up near Jewish children--similar to how my mother grew up near Christian children--but Daddy's strong, ethnic background, his "Italian roots," made him a bit of "the other" in America in the same way that his Jewish neighbors were.
|Rachel with her Nana in 1989.
My paternal grandparents were born in the 1900s and had my father when they were in their 40s and 50s. My maternal grandparents were younger, born in the 1930s. I always felt like the "off generation" when I was around my Italian American relatives--I was younger than everyone else, and I had no first cousins on my side to grow up with, much less share a religious heritage with. But my nana always tried to make me feel included. She would greet me at the door with pennies and candies, make chicken cutlets (my favorite) as part of her three-course Italian dinners and ask me all about my life. She and my mother got on well, as do my maternal grandmother and my father. None of the grandparents as far as I was aware, expressed qualms about my parents' interfaith marriage. Nana never said anything negative about my Jewish upbringing, either; she was not one to stir up trouble.
In fact, she was often the one to quell it. Her side of the family is very big and very opinionated. Some cousins had bitter relations or long-standing feuds. My nana, acting more or less as "the matriarch" over all of us, would have none of that. Through cheerfulness and unconditional love, she brought people together. I do not think that one cousin would even consider glaring at another in her presence. Looking back now, I think of what a great interfaith counselor she might have made (or perhaps an ambassador to the United Nations!)
I miss her so much now that she is gone. It has been 10 years since her passing, but I was a teenager then, and I feel that I did not appreciate her enough, nor was she around for a large portion of my life. I was very lucky, however, because she was healthy and she lived so long--she died at age 88. Even as Alzheimer's Disease began to affect her more and more severely, she remained what we in the family dubbed as "cheerfully confused." My mother's grandmother, who had Alzheimer's around the same time, was not nearly as fortunate.
The only time when Nana abandoned a little bit of her cheer was shortly after my grandfather died. She used to tell my parents, sounding frank and resigned, "I wish that God would take me; I have nothing left to live for." It was a harrowing statement in the face of all that she did live through--sailing to America through a sea of German U-boats, two World Wars, the Great Depression … all of that history, the Italian-American (and, in many ways, the Jewish-American) experience of the 20th century. I wish I had thought to ask her more about it when she was alive.
But even in death, we feel Nana looking out for us. A few years after she passed away, my father had a dream where she appeared to him and said, "Michael, you need to cut down the big tree in your backyard because it is dangerous." My dad hired a consultant who examined the tree and asserted there was a sizeable possibility it might one day crash into our dining room. Although we are not an overly superstitious family, we accepted that Nana was somehow able to reach out to us.
Shortly before she died, my grandmother said something to me I will never forget. We were sitting in the lobby of the synagogue on the morning of my sister's bat mitzvah and she affirmed, "We may believe in different things, but it's still the same God."
At the time, my connection to Judaism consisted of my mother dragging me to High Holiday services twice a year, so her words did not have much of an impact on me. But now, looking back through my ongoing attempts to re-connect to that heritage, I realize how important Nana's words were. She gave me a strong foundation of love and acceptance, and the ability and obligation to see the similarities between people rather than the differences.
I hope I can carry on her legacy if and when I have my own grandchildren.