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How My Italian-American Catholic Mother Strengthened My Jewish Identity: Lessons in Intermarriage

Interfaith marriage has always been a salient topic for my family. My mother, an Italian Catholic, grew up in lower Manhattan’s Italian immigrant community. My father, an Eastern European Jew, grew up in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. Needless to say, the holiday seasons used to be a very confusing time for me. I have memories as a child of my Italian grandmother, visiting for Christmas, helping make latkes for Hanukkah. She would mix in dabs of oregano and garlic with the potato pieces, insisting on frying everything in olive oil. When friends used to ask me if I was Jewish, I would answer “half-Jewish, half-Italian.”

I often asked my mother why she decided to raise her children Jewish, and how exactly I could be Italian and Jewish at the same time. She explained to me her rationale: “Judaism is a culture and a religion. Italian is a culture, so you can be Jewish and Italian. To be raised Catholic and Jewish, however, is more difficult.” I was converted to Judaism in a mikvah (ritual bath) when I was young, had a Bar Mitzvah, was active in my temple’s youth group, and traveled to Israel with my college Hillel. But I’ve also maintained a strong pride in being Italian–eating traditional Italian food, listening to Italian music, participating in Catholic holidays with extended relatives, and carrying on my mother’s Italian traditions and style. For both my parents, their culture and family history, an identity with relatives and old traditions, were the most important things to pass on to their children. As a result, while my sisters and I have been raised Jewish and my religion is Judaism, my cultural identity is both Jewish and Italian.

When I was young, this juxtaposition confused me. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to consider it a source of strength. I’ve learned valuable lessons from both my Jewish and my Italian relatives. Being exposed to such different traditions and religions has given me a great deal of religious tolerance. Growing up in an interfaith family has made me very curious about other religions and how people use faith, family and culture as sources of identity. Most importantly, I’ve learned how related the values taught in seemingly different religions actually are. Both my sets of relatives share similar stories of immigration, hard work and love of family.

For me, Judaism is a sort of anchor. I am not religious in a traditional sense, but my Jewish identity is an essential part of who I am. I gain strength from the memory of a Jewish past and find pride in the cultural and historical perspective Judaism offers me. The stories of Moses, Eastern European Jewry, and the founding of Israel are important parts of this identity.

It seems silly to pre-determine criteria for who we marry. The future is uncertain and paths in life continually change. As William Shakespeare said: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Although my future wife does not have to be Jewish, my Judaism is an integral part of who I am. True love would require that she, at the very least, will be able to appreciate and understand how important my Judaism and my Italian culture are.

When I was very young, I often challenged my Judaism. Interestingly, it was my Italian mother who often discussed with me the importance of Jewish identity. Although she isn’t Jewish, her appreciation for what Judaism means, and her understanding of how it affected who my father is, strengthened my own sense of Jewish identity. I hope my wife would also be able to understand how my Jewish memory and love for the history and culture of the Jewish people color who I am and shape my life perspectives. In this regard, marrying someone who is Jewish would certainly help. But if my wife is willing to listen, learn and understand (as my mother did), that is all I would need.

It is important for my children to at least have the opportunity to experience many of the Jewish milestones I gained so much from. I’d like my children to have a Bar Mitzvah, to have the chance to go to Jewish summer camp and participate in Jewish youth groups, and to travel to Israel with their peers. Marrying a woman with an appreciation for these experiences is important to me. Most likely such a woman would be Jewish, but if not, it isn’t a problem.

The high rate of interfaith marriage is a recurrent alarm call in the American Jewish community. Some statistics show that as many as 50% of Jewish marriages are interfaith. This statistic is often closely followed by rhetoric about the need to reduce intermarriage levels and encourage Jewish-only coupling. While this may be important, the emphasis may be misplaced. To avoid assimilation, American Jews must emphasize pride in being Jewish in a modern context. Focusing on creating families with a strong sense of Jewish identity and culture is what is important. If a spouse is not Jewish but is willing to embrace this, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Editor’s Note: The rate of interfaith marriages has increased since the writing of this article. It is now 70%.

Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser wrote for 18Doors while an undergraduate at Harvard. Working in the first Obama presidential campaign, he organized an impromptu Passover seder on the campaign trail that then-candidate Obama attended; working in the administration as David Axelrod’s assistant, he helped organize the first official White House Seders. He later graduated from Harvard Law School and served as a Massachusetts State Senator for a district in the Springfield, MA area.


Author: Eric Lesser