Im Jewish Jewish Jewish

By Teresa McMahon

January 12, 2009


When I picked up my daughter at her non-sectarian pre-school last week, I found Claire polling each parent and teacher she passed with, “I’m Jewish. What are you?” As we walked along the sidewalk toward the public parking lot, she started chanting, “I’m Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. . . ” I immediately redirected her mantra by asking about her art project.

Normally, my desire to redirect is motivated by fear of mind-numbing monotony. When Claire finds a word or phrase she wants to repeat, she can be unrelenting. During one car ride, I counted three hundred “I love you’s” before I finally begged her stop. This time, however, something else crept into my desire to redirect her chatter. Claire was broadcasting her Jewishness to strangers, and I am increasingly aware that this might make her a target of hate.

Back when my husband Barry and I were considering getting engaged, we knew religion would pose challenges for us. I was raised Catholic and he was raised Jewish. I wasn’t too concerned about this difference. To me, we all pray to the same God, just in different ways. I wanted to unite our two traditions in a way that would forge one strong family. While I did not feel that either Barry or I had to convert, I firmly believed that our future children needed to be raised with one specific religious identity. It was my idea to raise the children as Jews.

The decision was logical and easy for me to make. I found religion fascinating and comforting, while Barry found it fraught with problems. He never would have been comfortable in a Catholic church, while I was drawn to the traditions and beliefs of Judaism. I wanted my children to have a solid moral base from which to question and make choices, to have faith in something greater than themselves, and to belong to a community that believed in making the world a better place.

As we planned our wedding, we read The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians by Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen. The first chapter of the handbook provides a succinct overview of Jewish-Christian history. Barry and I both knew about the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Still, seeing the totality of the patterns of anti-Semitism that have played out for over 2,000 years was an eye-opener for both of us. I gained a better understanding of why organized religion makes Barry apprehensive and why Catholic churches made him so uncomfortable.

Reading this book and others also provided me with my first real understanding of why the Jewish community would feel so threatened by our marriage. Was I unknowingly helping to destroy American Jewry by marrying Barry? The historical overview reinforced my desire for our children to be raised as Jews–for my own personal reasons, but also to help prove that interfaith marriages could serve to strengthen the Jewish community.

Barry and I realized that our generation had not witnessed horrific anti-Semitism first-hand, but that if historical cycles continued as they had in the past, we would experience increasing anti-Semitism in our lifetimes. Nevertheless, I am an optimist. I believed that the Holocaust enabled the world to see how ignorant and evil anti-Semitism is and that surely what we learned from that experience would prevent such manifestations of hate from happening again. I was relieved that our children would live in such a tolerant time.

We had Claire in 1997, and Emily arrived in 1999. My imagination ran wild during the first months after the birth of each of my daughters. Like many new mothers, I began to see the world in terms of how many ways it could hurt my precious babies. Table edges suddenly seemed sharper, stairs more dangerous, and I became nervous about flying. I would sit in temple and look at the people of my congregation, wondering what would have happened to us if we had existed during a Russian pogrom or in Nazi Germany. I asked myself how it was possible for people to hate to the point of participating in genocide. How would I have responded to such violence? Would I have “protected” my daughters with Christianity? Would I have denounced Judaism? Would I have hidden, or would I have fought? What choices would I really have had? I was thankful that I could raise my girls as Jews without the horrors that faced the mothers in those times and places.

By the fall of 2001, however, new fears began to occupy my mind. I sat in services and looked at those around me. I wondered what I would do if a terrorist targeted our temple with a bomb or entered with a gun. Immediately after September 11, I consciously considered various exits and how I would protect both girls if anything were to happen.

The entrance to our Jewish Community Center is now kept locked, and you have to check with security to get in. The news carries headlines that speak not only of the war on terrorism and its direct ties to the Israeli/Palestinian situation, but also of increased anti-Semitic actions and rhetoric in South America, increased vandalism against Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in France, and other anti-Semitic activities across Europe. Another news release reports that National Public Radio received hostile e-mails for producing a Yiddish radio series. The range of my feelings includes fear, anger, confusion, hurt, and disbelief. Is the anti-Semitic cycle starting up again? Did it ever end?

A cover of a news magazine had photos of a Palestinian girl and the Israeli girl she had killed when she detonated herself. My daughter saw the photos and asked why the girls were on the cover. I hesitated and responded that they were involved in something that is of great interest to a lot of people right now. How do I explain to a five year old about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict specifically, not to mention that some people might hate her just because of how she chooses to identify herself.

I am made all the more keenly aware of how alive and active anti-Semitism is after reading a recent George Will column titled “‘Final Solution,’ Phase 2.” [Washington Post, May 1, 2002, or] Will points out that while “many people say that the Arabs and their European echoes would be mollified if Israel would change its behavior, people who say that do not understand the centrality of anti-Semitism in the current crisis. . . Anti-Semitism is not directed against the behavior of the Jews but against the existence of the Jews.” Will goes on to note that, “If the percentage of the world’s population that was Jewish in the era of the Roman Empire were Jewish today, there would be 200 million Jews. There are 13 million.”

Make that 13 million and two. I remain committed to raising our daughters as Jews because I believe the Jewish culture and religion is amazing and beautiful. I will do everything in my power to protect my girls. But, I will also do everything in my power to raise strong women who live in a world where they are safe enough to proclaim proudly and publicly, “I’m Jewish, Jewish, Jewish!”


About Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.