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Yes, I'm Jewish!

June 5, 2009

I think the words I hate the most are, "You don't look Jewish" and, "Your name doesn't sound Jewish." As recently as a couple of years ago when I was trying to get services for my adopted daughter from Jewish organizations, professionals said these things to me. When I answered that I was Jewish, they kept challenging me. I had to explain that my mother was Jewish but that I was named after my dad's mother.

When I would go into Jewish organizational offices, they would again look at me because I am extremely fair skinned with red hair and blue eyes. Most people assume that I'm Irish. As far as I know, I do not have any ancestors who came from Ireland! For many years, having my Jewishness questioned made me very angry, because my mother was a Holocaust survivor and I didn't think I should have to justify my Jewish heritage to anyone. Yet, I often have to say "Yes, I'm Jewish."

lioness walking
Sometimes it takes courage to assert Jewish identity.

I grew up in a large family with 13 children. My mom lit candles on Friday night and recited some Jewish prayers but for the most part, she didn't practice her faith except in private. We did not belong to a synagogue and we were encouraged to go to the Catholic Church because my father was Catholic. Yet, we were never baptized because my Mom wanted to leave that up to us as we grew older.

My mother lost most of her family in Germany; only she and her brother survived. When they came to this country, they changed their last name and didn't talk about their past. I know that her last name wasn't real because no one else that I have ever met shares that last name. It makes a perfect identity test question at banks because no one would ever guess it.

I have African-American friends who talk about how slavery in this country stole their heritage, their last names and their religion. I feel the same way about what Hitler did to my family. I know next to nothing about my mom's side of the family. I met my uncle and cousin only once. I have tried doing research on the computer to see if I can learn more but without knowing her real last name, it is impossible. My mother taught me that being Jewish was not something that you shared with people.

It was the same message of secrecy she gave us about many things when I was growing up. I had a brother who had Down's Syndrome and was placed in an institution at a very young age. My parents told us that he died at birth and I didn't find out for sure that he was alive until shortly before I got a phone call saying that he had been murdered. I have epilepsy and my mother taught me this was also something that you kept hidden because if people found out, they wouldn't give you a job and wouldn't be your friend. I think my Mom felt so strongly about keeping our Jewish heritage a secret because she was afraid that the same thing would happen in this country that happened in Germany.

Both my mother and her brother died of complications from alcoholism. They never got over the guilt of being survivors and had nightmares all of their lives. I frequently had to go into her room because she would wake up screaming. This was the only time that she would talk about some of the things that happened to her. Because of my disability, I was around her more than my brothers and sisters and so I came to know more of the family secrets that she would only share when she was drunk.

The rest of the family has chosen to identify with the Christian part of our background. For many reasons, I have decided to identify with my Jewish background. The first and most important is that I believe that I have an obligation as a Jew to continue my mother's line. I don't want Hitler to win in destroying my mother's entire family. For the same reason, I have chosen to raise my children as Jews and they are raising their children as Jews. Each generation is becoming more religious and more knowledgeable about their culture and heritage.

I think another reason that I have chosen to identify as a Jew is that I have always been the rebel in the family. I came out early as a lesbian and was very active in the LGBT liberation movement long before it was an accepted thing to do. I was also active in the anti-war movement and traveled the country to participate in various demonstrations.

My earliest demonstration was a strike against mandatory religion classes in my Catholic girl's school in 1967. There were six of us who were not Catholic but who were attended the school because we had disabilities and the classes were much smaller than in the neighborhood public school. This was pre-IDEA and other laws which protected people with disabilities so there were no programs for those of us who needed extra help and our parents had to find other ways to have our needs met. There were 50 students in my graduating class at the Catholic school and the neighboring public high school had 2,000 or 3,000 in a class. Anyway, the group of us decided that it was wrong for the school to impose their beliefs on us. Every day for a week, we walked out of the school during religion class and had a picnic on the lawn of the school. Coincidentally, this was during the Six Day War.

Eventually, we non-Catholic students won the right to take a special class with a Jesuit priest on comparative religion. This class fascinated me. I learned a lot about many different faiths and decided that the most important thing was to believe that there is something outside of ourselves to which we can turn. I came away believing we would be judged by how we live our lives, not by which religion we chose.

As I have matured, I have become more interested in learning more about my Jewish heritage and culture and joined Or Chadash. I have taken several classes there and have also taken some on the internet. I consider myself Reform--I practice some of the parts of my faith but am not involved in any organized group on an ongoing basis. Sometimes I wish that I could be more involved but it is difficult because my disability does not allow me to drive. I read as much as I can, watch movies and am constantly doing research and engaging in dialogue on the internet.

I remember once someone told me that I should realize that I lived in a Christian country and not protest the will of the majority. I never understood this because we live in a country which has always prided itself in everyone having a voice. That's why I've always insisted on creating a space for myself as a Jew. I taught for 33 years and advocated for the separation of church and state, including refusing to participate in Christmas assemblies as long as they had that name.

The more I learn about my heritage, the more I want to learn. Today I love being Jewish and can say with pride, "Yes, I'm Jewish. I'm Jewish, by God."

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."
Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson was born in 1950 in Chicago, surviving a twin sister who died at birth. She was raised with 10 brothers and two sisters. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor from Germany who met her father when he liberated her camp. She retired in 2006 from a 33 year teaching career in the Chicago Public Schools.

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