Sara Cukerbaum is a graduate of New York University. She lives in Buenos Aires.
Yeehaa! Oh --And Shalom
My childhood was surrounded by all things Texas, the land of cowboys and football. Neither of my parents was originally from Texas. My mom was raised Lutheran in Oklahoma and my father, Jewish in Ohio. They met in Austin at the University of Texas and later settled down in Dallas, where they raised my brother and me.
My mother converted to Judaism before my parents were married and there formed our Jewish unit. I grew up wise to the ways of both Santa Claus and Chanukah Harry. Chanukah was always at home, followed by a Christmas extravaganza at my grandparents. Celebrating Christian holidays with my mother's family raised some tricky questions. My parents' response to these questions was very direct: "You are Jewish. We are Jewish. You are not Christian."
I still needed more convincing. In a place like Texas where you can't drive a mile without passing a church and there are only three Reform temples in a city of 1.2 million people, it is clear. Jews are the minority. I took note of these details and became aware at a very young age of my family's minority status. So I took matters into my own hands. I decided my mother's conversion held little weight. I would be half Jewish and half Christian.
This desire to be Christian began one night in a pair of cotton flannel pajamas. I was 9 years old and I was invited to a slumber party at the house of one of the most popular girls in school. Hoorah! Unfortunately, this joyous occasion turned south when the discussion of religion came up. One of the girls started talking about her church group and all the other girls perked up with excitement. When it was my turn, I had to explain that I was Jewish. Looks of confusion faced me. They didn't know what this meant and neither did I. Lucky for me, one little smarty pants decided to clue everyone in. She looked at me with pity as she said, "Oh she doesn't accept Jesus Christ as her savior and she's going to hell. I mean that's what my dad said." For the next several months, I felt like a total misfit. Once word of this "Jewish" business spread, little Jewish Texans everywhere would be forced into hiding. Wait a minute, there is a loophole. I take it back! I'm only half Jewish. I had a good side, the Christian side.
Even at the age of 9, I knew I was lying to myself but the fear of slumber party exclusion made me scared to reveal the truth. I remember being aware of the fact that I was betraying my family, while still attending temple with a smile on my face.
Luckily, my desire to be half Christian faded over time and eventually I discovered my own appreciation for the Jewish faith. Finding this peace was, however prefaced by severe hostility towards Christianity, and religion in general for that matter. Childhood criticism leaves a sticky taste in your mouth. I'm not going to hell. You are all very confused and the source of this confusion is Christianity. Of course with time, I gained exposure and began to realize that the majority seemed to disagree with my little 9-year-old friend.
While the picture I have painted seems bleak, high school was fine. I had great friends, mostly Christian, and we laughed about our differences. They had clever nicknames for me such as "bagel" and I joined the team, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." No one knew I wasn't fully content, but I was aware something was still missing.
So I turned to NYU, land of young Jewish people. Finally I would be invited back to those coveted slumber parties! Then problem number two arose--the "I am not the same kind of Jew as you" problem. East Coast Judaism is a different ballgame. My Jewish identity was tied to the South and to my family. None of this mattered in the world of East Coast Jews, where traditions were different. The first time I went to a Hanukkah party and let slip the word latke, which I pronounced "lot-key," I was laughed out of the dining room.
Words like Ashkenazi and Sephardic meant nothing to me. Jewish summer camps and Yiddish slang constantly popped up in conversations. I had bubkis. Many of my Jewish friends could not explain my ignorance. They refused to believe my lack of pop-Jewish knowledge could be only attributed to the South. Once I explained that my mother had converted, several people made comments, inferring this ignorance was the product of a "mixed" marriage. Wait a second, this sounds familiar. Oh right, I'm back where I began. I'm stuck somewhere in the middle.
Luckily, I did not rebel and start wearing WWJD bracelets or publicly denounce my Judaism. Instead, I fought back with words. My NYU educated self, friend of many cool young Jews, had picked up some new lingo and ideas. I could finally articulate my thoughts on my mother's conversion and our family's participation in Christian holidays. Take that!
I told them that growing up surrounded by two families of differing beliefs provoked thought and acceptance. Instead of summing up any religion by its clichés or text, I saw tradition, faith and passion. I finally understand that religion is not about blood but choices. And my mother made this choice. Judaism was the example my parents put forward to guide my brother and me. What are technicalities when it comes to beliefs and spirituality?
Recently I crossed a young Jewish threshold. I traveled to Israel on a Birthright sponsored trip for young adults. Throughout the trip, we participated in programs that challenged us to think about Judaism and our role as young Jewish adults. One program asked us to define Judaism. For example, does being Jewish mean keeping all of the Jewish traditions or does it mean something else? One question that held particular interest to me asked whether or not we thought marrying a Jewish person was extremely important. I stood in the "Strongly Disagree" corner. While being raised surrounded by families of different faiths posed questions and even conflict, these were valuable questions to consider.
Many believe religion plays a significant role in a person's moral make-up. While I don't completely disagree, I think a person's character does not need to be defined by one god or one text. In fact, my character was defined by several gods. When asked today, I tell people I am Jewish. And I can say that with full confidence, having had exposure to challenging ideas. I'm older now and I know who I am yet I still identify with Christianity and its traditions. From where I am standing, this makes me a better Jew and a more understanding person.