Who She Was

By Samuel G. Freedman


When I was growing up, my mother told me little of her own childhood and coming-of-age. And because I was as uncurious as she was reluctant, the silence never struck me as odd. One the few details she ever offered was that she had spent one of the happiest evenings of her life attending Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

Had I been more alert, I would have paid closer attention, for my mother had made a doubly startling disclosure. She was not Roman Catholic. She was not even observant as a Jew. For her and my father, the word religion was spoken only when buffered by the modifiers materialistic and sectarian.

Only now, thirty years since my mother died, do I understand why she exuded such nostalgia for that Mass. She had gone to it on Christmas Eve of 1946 with the man whom she had intended to marry, an Italian Catholic by the name of Charlie Greco.

Charlie had come back from the Pacific a few months earlier with decorations for his service in the war against fascism; my mother was still working her defense-industry job at an engineering company that had manufactured parts for tanks and planes and hung up a blue star for every employee in the military. My mother had grown up knowing the rules against “marrying out,” as the phrase went, and having heard about other parents who reacted to straying children by declaring them dead and convening the mourning ritual of shiva. One of Charlie’s relatives had married a Jewish woman whose father would do no more than leave birthday presents for the grandchildren on the front steps.

Still, my mother had always fancied herself a rebel against both religion and my grandmother. My mother was the sort of teenager who ate shrimp at a Chinese restaurant on the fast day of Yom Kippur and dismissively tossed all her high-school graduation awards at my grandmother with the words, “Here, take them home.” As for Charlie, he had grown up with a mother deeply involved in left-wing politics and the garment-workers’ union, a couple of deeply Jewish endeavors, and she had always encouraged him to befriend the Jewish kids in his East Harlem neighborhood because they were the ones “going somewhere.”

Besides, in the aftermath of World War II, the old barriers were falling. The whole idea of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” was very much a product of the war, as the historian Deborah Dash Moore has written, and the revelation of the Holocaust made America’s homegrown anti-Semitism morally untenable. So as the quotas against Jews (and sometimes Catholics, as well) in exclusive neighborhoods, elite social clubs, and Ivy League universities were crumbling, so were the self-imposed tribal constraints against interfaith love and marriage. To wed across lines of religion and ethnicity was to make one’s own household a miniature version of the melting pot.

In the case of my mother and Charlie, though, their desires for each other and for a polyglot identity as Americans collided with my grandmother’s crushing experience of ancient hatreds. Both her parents and all five of her siblings were exterminated in the death camp at Treblinka, and her grief did not differentiate between Nazis and Germans and all gentiles–the goyim, as she invariably put it, using the Yiddish slur. If my mother and Charlie got married, she vowed, she would kill herself. As broken as she already was, that was no idle threat, and my mother and Charlie broke up.

Sometimes I wonder why my mother, the proud maverick, buckled this once. Sometimes I wonder why she simply didn’t ask Charlie to convert. He was not an especially religious Catholic, and he was so comfortable already with his many Jewish friends. It is not hard to imagine that, for the chance to marry my mother, he might have said yes. Maybe it was my mother who, at that moment in 1947, at least, did not think being Jewish was worth enough to ask Charlie to adopt it. Or maybe she was more conflicted than she ever let on about marrying out.

Narcissistically, I should be glad they parted, because otherwise I would not be here, typing these words. My mother went on to marry my father, an irreligious Jew, and to become a fervent Zionist. Still, I know she appreciated that two of my closest friends, Jimmy Lyons and Tim Mulligan, were Catholics. Jimmy was a gifted athlete always with a girlfriend, and sometimes my mother would say in a dreamy kind of way, “Jimmy Lyons really knows how to treat a girl.” I realize now that she was seeing in him a version of Charlie.

If my mother’s wish was indeed for love across boundaries, then she largely got it, albeit posthumously. My brother and sister both married gentiles; so did my father when he remarried. Nonbelievers all, they had the same official from the Ethical Culture Society perform all the ceremonies. I, married to a Jew and active in a synagogue, am the apostate. Which just goes to show that there is more than one way to rebel.

As for Charlie, shortly after things fell apart with my mother, he met another Jewish woman, named Selma Rubenstein. On the surface, she was far more the obedient daughter than my mother ever had been, and yet she was the one willing to defy her parents and elope. Charlie died in 1987. When I interviewed Selma for my book, she told me that, in deference to his dying request, he was buried with both a crucifix and a yarmulke.


About Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a columnist for The New York Times. You can visit him on the Web at www.samuelfreedman.com. To order his book from Amazon.com, click here.