My Sense of Being an Outsider Changed One Day in September

By Teresa McMahon


I remember standing behind my preschooler as she brushed her teeth one evening. Our eyes met in the mirror and she said, “Mama, I’m sad that you’re different from Emily, Daddy and me.” My heart sank.

“What do you mean,” I managed to ask calmly. “Well, we all have brown eyes and yours are blue. Don’t you wish you had brown eyes too, Mama?” My heart lightened.

I had thought Claire was going to ask me about my being the only Catholic in our interfaith household. Discussing eye color was easy compared to trying to discuss religious difference with a four-year-old. I explained that I really liked my blue eyes as well as her brown ones, and assured her that difference within a family was okay.

My daughter’s question reminded me of a conversation I had had with my mother prior to my wedding. My mom was concerned that I would feel like an outsider in my own home if I married a Jewish man and raised Jewish children. She felt my difference might cause sadness. She asked if I had considered converting. I think my mom was trying to make sure I had thought through all the possible challenges of my decision to remain Catholic.

At that time, I had thought through the challenges as best I could. Barry, my soon-to-be husband, and I had attended an interfaith couples discussion group and read extensively on the subject. We had discussed and agreed upon likely scenarios for birth rituals, raising children, and holidays; and we had agreed that the interfaith aspects of our household would have to be open to reinterpretation as our lives changed.

I assured my mother that I understood her concerns. I argued that having a different religion or a different last name (yes, I was keeping my maiden name, which was another source of concern for my mother) did not mean I had to feel like an outsider in my own family. I explained to her that I was proud of my identity. At thirty-one, I had a strong sense of who I was and what I wanted.

Even though I was no longer attending Mass regularly, I knew I wanted to raise a family that participated together in a religious community. It was my idea to raise any future children Jewish. I am definitely more spiritual than Barry. In addition, I was comfortable in synagogues while he was decidedly uncomfortable in churches. So, if I wanted Barry to be a full participant in our children’s religious upbringing, it only made sense to raise them Jewish. Plus, I liked that my children would learn a second language and be encouraged to question as they learned. It didn’t hurt that Judaism was the foundation for Christianity. If I felt like an outsider at services, I could handle that. I would experience what it felt like to be different, to be the minority. Wasn’t that what Jews experience all too often?

And so, Barry and I got married. We had children. We joined a Reform temple. And. . . I felt like an outsider. But, my mother was only half right. I didn’t feel like an outsider in my family, I felt like an outsider in my adopted religious congregation.

Language was one factor that created distance for me. Even though most of the prayers are translated into English in our Reform services, there are still sections that are recited in Hebrew. I stand silent at those times. I also tend to keep quiet when salutations are exchanged, choosing to smile and bob my head in response, rather than risk an inappropriate phrase for the occasion. But, I am learning. For example, I’ve learned that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, does not elicit a hearty “Happy New Year!” but rather a warm L’Shana Tova. However, neither this phrase nor Shabbat Shalom–a standard Friday night greeting–roll off my tongue easily quite yet.

I’m familiar with dozens of Hebrew words now, but I’m also conscious of not wanting to teach my girls any incorrect pronunciation. Barry gently corrects me when I stumble with the Hebrew names and phrases in the stories we read to the girls.

Even prayers in English can remind me that I’m not necessarily one of the “chosen people.” With a name like “McMahon,” I’m pretty sure none of my ancestors were brought out of bondage from Egypt.

Ah, my name; perhaps my mom was right about that, too. There is nothing remotely Jewish about “Teresa” or “McMahon.” Whenever I call the temple to sign up for a class or inquire about High Holiday tickets, I always feel the need to add that I’m the wife of Barry Fishman. I feel like I’m a member only as his guest–which in some ways is true, since I haven’t converted. I would not be a member if I were not married to Barry.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel welcome at my temple, which has a number of interfaith families. I even like how much more aware of praying I am, since so much of what we do in a service is new enough to require my full attention. Still, I feel like an in-law rather than one of the family: never completely at ease; always afraid of committing a faux pas. After several years, I wasn’t sure that even conversion, if I were to chose it, would make me feel more like an “insider.” I didn’t share a cultural history, personal or ancestral, with members.

Then I shared, with the rest of the world, the tragic events of September 11, 2001. For the first time in my life, I turned to religion not on a joyous occasion, but to comfort my grief. I considered going to Mass, but I had not attended a Catholic church in the area since we’d joined the temple as a family. I would not have felt connected to any local Catholic congregation, even though I would have found solace in the ritual of the service. To be honest, I wanted to be with my family. And indeed, I found great comfort that our family experienced the services together. I also found comfort in Hebrew prayers that had become more familiar than I’d recognized, in the rabbi’s sermon, and in realizing that my connection with the congregation had strengthened over the years without my even noticing it. In fact, I finally felt like a true member of the community–even though I still do not see conversion in my future.

In our discussions before we were married, Barry and I had even considered death. I must confess that this was the life-cycle event about which we were most confused. We wondered if our funerals should honor the departed’s religious rituals or the need of the bereaved to be comforted. Would Barry be comforted by a Mass? Would I be comforted by Hebrew prayers? I now have my answer.


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.