Embracing What It Means to Be Jewish, and…
By Claire McMahon Fishman
As a child, I was a meticulous rule-follower. My parents still tease me about how I refused to even let them read me bedtime stories where the characters misbehaved.
So, I was understandably horrified when I found out that I wasn’t “technically” Jewish. With an Irish Catholic mother, under traditional Jewish law, I had no claim to membership in the community I loved. I later learned that in my Reform temple’s view, my Jewish father made me just as Jewish as all the other kids in my religious school class. Still, I continued to feel that my status as a Jew was on shaky ground. Determined to prove that I was a good Jew, I became active in my temple’s educational programs, tore through the temple library and even founded a Jewish Student Union at my high school.
Unbeknown to me at the time, I was echoing the logic contained within the Reconstructionist and Reform movements’ resolutions on the status of Jews by patrilineal descent. Passed in 1968 and 1983, respectively, these resolutions have allowed generations of Jews like me to participate more fully and securely in Jewish life. Without these positions, my parents would have had no options to join a Jewish community. However, a close reading reveals that they don’t quite offer patrilineal Jews the same status as other Jews. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist resolutions stipulate that parents must raise their child exclusively in a Jewish religious community.
While I doubt my parents pored over either statement, they received similar messaging about how to raise their children. On a bookshelf in our living room sat The Guide to Interfaith Jewish Life, published in 2001 by InterfaithFamily, an organization I deeply admire for its advocacy. The book’s editors aim to “gently encourage [families] to make Jewish choices” and notes that from the organization’s “perspective it is best if parents choose one religion for their children.” My parents certainly worked hard to follow these instructions. While we did celebrate Christmas and Easter, my parents were always careful to remind us that we were simply “helping Mom celebrate her holiday.” The message my parents sent was clear: Despite my mother’s Catholicism, I and my younger sister were Jews, and we were only, purely Jews.
As I finished high school, I finally began to feel secure in my status as a Jew, but the “only” part started to make me uneasy. My maternal grandfather died during the end of my senior year of high school, and as the family gathered to mourn I was struck by how foreign so much of what was happening – from the wake to the funeral mass – felt to me: how the very rituals that brought so much solace to my grandmother and mother meant so very little to me.
I realized how much my mother had given up in choosing to raise her children as Jews. Particularly if they’re women, non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages are so often demonized as threats to the very existence of American Jewry, shiksas luring Jewish men away from the fold. But far from stealing my father from his community, my mother led him back to it by impressing upon him the importance of raising their children as Jews. When I’ve asked her about this, she always offers the same explanation: she wanted her kids to be raised in a religion, and since my father never felt comfortable with Christianity, Judaism was the obvious choice. She tells the story breezily, as if describing a compromise about what color to paint my nursery. I’ve often wondered whether it was truly as easy as she makes it out to be. Instead of trying to replicate herself in me, she intentionally made me different, less like her.
It is immensely unfair to be asked to erase your culture, your religion, to throw your energy into giving your children a heritage you don’t share. Every inch of me wishes I could reverse this trade. It makes my heart ache that I cannot fully understand how my mother sees the world. When she thinks of Jesus, even now as a “cultural Catholic,” she associates him with feelings of comfort, protection and holiness. When I see a crucifix, I feel only a slight discomfort.
I was taught in religious school that one of the most important responsibilities we have as Jews is the obligation to honor our parents. How can I truly honor my mother if I am also striving to make myself so different from her? I can say I respect her, but if so many of the practices that shape her are strange to me – if she sometimes is a stranger to me – my claim to follow the commandment seems hollow.
Rejecting my mother’s heritage feels incongruous not just with Judaism’s moral code, but with the very reasons that have made me so committed to being Jewish. As a child, I fell in love with being a Jew so fiercely because it gave me a way to understand my place in millennia of human history. When I light Shabbat candles or recite a prayer over a meal, I feel like I am re-enacting the actions and words of countless generations before me. The importance Judaism places on understanding our history, our memory, makes it difficult for me to reject half of my own past. I cannot believe that doing so would make me the kind of Jew or person whom I want to and have been taught to be.
Acknowledging that my mother’s heritage affects who I am isn’t a decision; it’s just an acceptance of the truth. I am certainly not Irish Catholic, but it feels wrong now to say that I’m just Jewish. My mother’s identity has affected me in innumerable ways, big and small – from how I approach discussions of chosenness to how I have learned to explain Jewish practice in a way my Catholic grandmother can understand. My experience as a Jew has been undeniably different from that of my peers with two Jewish parents, but being different isn’t the same as being lesser. I am fully Jewish, but I am Jewish and my Irish Catholic mother’s child. I am – I want to be – of both my father and my mother.
I haven’t figured out yet what exactly it would look like to belong fully to both my parents’ cultures. While I desperately want to be “Jewish and,” I’m not sure what exactly to put after the “and.” This uncertainty exhausts and scares me. Jews like me – Jews who want to be both – we’re supposed to represent the downfall of the Jewish community, the end of Judaism. I’ve been told that I am mistaken, misguided. Admitting that I am not sure who I am feels like proving their point.
Still, there is also something beautiful in this uncertainty, this continual cycle of re-examination. I can choose what being both means to me, to discover and define it for myself. When you mix two things together, they can combine in unexpected ways, creating something all its own. Uncertainty, unsettledness, isn’t something that I have to try to escape. Perhaps I will never know how to finish the phrase “Jewish and,” but I can give myself permission to revel in the possibilities the “and” brings.
At my parents’ wedding, they stood under a huppah sewed by my maternal grandmother. While she had originally been apprehensive about the marriage, if she was going to make the huppah, she was going to make sure everything was just right. Calling her local rabbi, she took copious notes to make sure that everything about it would be in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. She also embroidered onto the huppah a pattern from one of her only family heirlooms: a tablecloth her own grandparents had sent her from Germany. When I became a bat mitzvah, she gave me a challah cover embroidered in the same pattern. When I place the cover over my challah on Friday evenings, I’m reminded of the generations before me who also prepared their tables to look their best for the Sabbath bride. I also see my grandmother’s love and the love her grandparents had for her. These ties to all my traditions are woven together into the cover’s fabric so tightly they couldn’t be picked apart if I tried.
Claire McMahon Fishman is a 2019 graduate of Brown University. She is currently a participant in Avodah in Washington, D.C. Claire’s personal writing can be found at http://bit.ly/gnashingblog. A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, an initiative of Reconstructing Judaism.