Passing Down Identity

By Achat Mishelanu


When I think of my religious experiences as a child, I remember Christmas trees, menorahs, Easter bunnies, and latkes. I remember the warmth and excitement of holidays, regardless of which faith they were. My family never talked much about religion, and it was never much of a concern for me. I took my mixed background as just another aspect of the combination of my Italian Catholic mother and my Israeli Jewish father. It was not until I arrived at college that I realized I knew next to nothing about what being Israeli or Jewish meant. I had spent a considerable amount of time in Italy with my mother and her family, and had even studied Italian in school. But beyond “shalom” (hello/peace), I knew no Hebrew and couldn’t tell you the difference between Passover and Yom Kippur. My father was so concerned with making sure that my sister and I were afforded the opportunities of being complete Americans that he tended to ignore his own heritage. At college, meeting people from all different backgrounds who had a very strong sense of family history and tradition made me want to examine my own Jewish identity a little more closely. My lack of knowledge started to feel like a missing part of myself.

I decided it was time to learn. I started to study on my own, began attending Hillel, and signed up for a birthright israel trip, a program that takes Jewish young adults to Israel for ten days. I began to press my father for more details about our family’s history, and when I went to Israel I finally asked my grandfather, whom I only see every few years, what happened when he left Poland. He told me how he stood on a box in Poland after the war ended, speaking to other Jews about why it was important to go to Israel. My father had always told me that his family was never religious, but as I listened to my grandfather tell me about his journey, I realized that Judaism was at the very center of my family’s history. Could I, as one of the few descendents on my father’s side, just let it go? My grandfather lost his sister and his home because he was Jewish; he traveled across a continent to help build the Jewish homeland. Learning about his experiences, and being surrounded by an active and welcoming Jewish community at school, made me feel even more connected to the religion. I had started out thinking it would be important to my grandfather for me to explore Judaism; in the process, it became important to me.

In high school, my Jewish boyfriend once told me that, while he didn’t consider himself religious, he wanted to raise his kids with Jewish customs. At the time, it confused me. But looking back on it now, I understand where he was coming from. While I think my parents made a good decision allowing my sister and me to figure out religion on our own, I can see the intrinsic value of bringing children up with a sense of religious identity or at least knowledge. At college, I’m sometimes jealous of my peers who went to Hebrew school for years. But at the same time, I consider myself lucky because I came to understand this value on my own. I was never forced into learning or being anything; I made the decision myself and developed a greater understanding of myself in the process.

I could never say that I would only marry a Jewish person. I’m a big believer in love knowing no boundaries. But having experienced a warm reception by my high school boyfriend’s Jewish parents back home in New York, I can certainly see the benefits. I had a wonderful relationship with them and was treated as practically part of the family. It meant a lot to them for their son to be dating an even somewhat Jewish girl, and their support of the relationship meant a lot to me. It was a drastic difference from dating a Greek Orthodox boy, whose mother wanted nothing more than for her son to marry a Greek girl, and wasn’t exactly pleased with the half-Italian, half-Israeli, mostly Jewish me. Marrying someone really is marrying their family as well–while I don’t necessarily need to be welcomed with open arms, it certainly does feel nice.

Regardless of whom I marry, I want my kids to know about their heritage. They’ll learn about both Italian and Jewish culture. I’m going to raise them knowing about Jewish beliefs, holidays, Israel, and the history of the Jewish people. What they choose to do with that knowledge will be up to them, but it’s important to me that they learn. I truly believe that interfaith and intercultural families get the best of both worlds, but it’s important that children are raised with a sense of tradition and history. Had I not developed a desire to explore my roots, I never would have learned about my grandfather’s experiences and what Israel and Judaism has meant to my family. Now that I’ve discovered this part of myself, I can’t imagine not passing it down to my children.

About Achat Mishelanu

Achat Mishelanu is a pseudonym for a first-generation American from an interfaith family in New York.