Half Jewish, Half Italian and Half American

By Suzanne Koven

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A few years ago, when he was about four, my youngest son announced that he was “half Jewish, half Italian and half American.” Like Yogi Berra’s similarly unmathematical observation about baseball–that “90 percent of the game is half mental”–his announcement made sense, in its own way. At a very young age my son identified his heritage as a blend, but not as a blurring, of three distinct heritages.

I grew up in Brooklyn, my husband in Northern New Jersey. Though only two rivers and the island of Manhattan separated our childhoods, we lived in two different universes. His grandparents spoke southern Italian dialect, drank anisette and listened to Caruso. My grandparents spoke Yiddish-flavored English, drank Manischewitz and loved Uncle Milty. He went to Catholic school and called his teachers “Sister.” I went to Hebrew school three afternoons a week and called my teachers “g’veret.” Both his parents and mine balanced, as second and third generation immigrant families often do, the strong desire to assimilate and the equally strong desire not to. On Thanksgiving we both ate turkey; his followed ravioli, mine followed chopped liver with Tam Tam crackers.

As teenagers my husband stopped going to church and I stopped going to shul (synagogue). By the time we met, in college, we had drifted far enough from our religions of origin that we saw them as no obstacle to our falling in love and building a life together. I, for one, envisioned a wonderful hodgepodge composed of our united nostalgia; both Hanukkah and Christmas, both pastrami and pasta e fagioli. We decided we would be married by a justice of the peace, thus offending no one. Surprisingly, the people we risked offending most were my devoutly Catholic in-laws to be. They wanted us to be married by . . . a rabbi! Though they knew that my parents, my lapsed Catholic fiancé and I would not be comfortable with a priest, my in-laws still wanted God to be present at the wedding. So, we were married by a rabbi who proclaimed, after my husband broke the ceremonial glass, “mazel tov!–and buona fortuna!” Both sets of parents beamed.

Thus began a journey through married life and childrearing that has required some conscious decision-making that our parents and grandparents, nestled in their all-Jewish and all-Italian neighborhoods, never faced. Just as my in-laws had objected to the blandness of a justice of the peace, we came to realize that noncommittal gestures would not satisfy us, or communicate our identities to our children. We have chosen not to have a Christmas tree in our house (though we love visiting my in-laws’ gaily decorated home at Christmas time), our children go to Hebrew school and will be b’nai mitzvot (Bar or Bat Mitzvahs), and I am active in my synagogue. We have had an easier path than many interfaith couples in that my husband identifies much more strongly with his Italian roots than with his Catholic roots. You can’t be both Catholic and Jewish but you can be both Jewish and Italian-American. Our children are Jews who travel to Italy, hear Italian language on satellite television and eat Italian food (which, for someone who grew up on kreplach and tzimmes, is not an altogether negative development).

In fact, the difference in our backgrounds has more often been occasion for bridges than for barriers between our families. His parents bought us a seder plate made of Venetian glass. My parents gave us a mezuzah carved of Italian marble.

Often happy stories of interfaith marriages involve one partner converting to the other’s religion, or both deciding to practice neither. My husband and I have been very lucky to be able to fully embrace our own traditions while embracing each other. And we are very, very lucky to have children who are half Jewish, half Italian and half American. In raising them, it seems we have followed some other words of wisdom from Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road–take it!”





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About Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is suzannekovenmd.com.