Growing up in an interfaith family was overwhelmingly positive, though my sister and I joke that we’re genetically programmed for guilt. But, for an intellectual kid, it was also complex. My father is Catholic. My mother was born Jewish. According to traditional Jewish law, I’m Jewish. But, I belong to both. My kids belong to both. Somewhere along the line, I decided it’s really only a matter of how you make the chicken soup–with matzah balls, or tomatoes.
My experience wasn’t unlike a tale of two cities, or rather two homes–a microcosm of two cultures that, for me, were inseparable. My father’s parents lived on Long Island, in a small spotless home that smelled of bleach. It was an Italian paradise: Pavarotti on the stereo, a Madonna and head of Christ in almost every room, a portrait of the pope in the kitchen. Grandma cooked ravioli, struffoli (small pieces of fried dough), braciole (stuffed, rolled meat), and cookies. Everything painstakingly made by hand and Catholic.
My great aunt and uncle, Esther and Carl, lived in a rambling farmhouse in Connecticut. The house was warm and smelled of jellyroll, stuffed cabbage, and dill. There were plastic covers on the good couches, drawers stuffed with candy, a certificate of Hadassah (Women’s Zionist Organization of America) membership and the flag of Israel. Always there would be a little treat popped into your mouth and a squeeze of your cheeks. Jewish.
But, in both homes, there was nourishment. My grandmother and great aunt had their ways, their opinions, but they could cook like nobody’s business. They filled you. They hugged you. They fixed you up and made sure of everything. A grandchild was a sublime little being even in moments of youthful imperfection.
When I entered my freshman year at Catholic high school, I experienced my first spiritual conflict. My Uncle Carl, who made the best summer barbecues, had recently passed away. On the first day of Catholic school, the religion teacher informed us that Jews do not go to heaven. Very bad timing. I was horrified. I raised my hand to remind everyone that, “Anybody can go to heaven, as long as they’re good.” No. Heaven is only for Christians, I was told.
I was stunned. The teacher seemed shallow and ignorant. The resulting damage I blame on my math teacher, Sister Olive. The thought of Sister, who could make a teenage boy buckle and cry with a few well-honed insults, going to heaven and not my Uncle Carl, who raised baby chicks and chuckled at our every move and smelled like after-shave, was mind-boggling. Small wonder my chicken soup theology didn’t go over well, not to mention my take on the pearly gates.
After my freshman year, I went to a private Quaker school, where I could contemplate my inner light (God’s presence within a person) during Silent Meeting (Quaker practice of silent worship) on Fridays. My two best friends from middle school were already attending this private school. I did not tell my parents about the “heaven incident” at the Catholic school. I told them I wanted to look at the school where my two best friends had already spent their freshman year. They told me it was outrageously expensive for them and that I would need to get a job to contribute to the tuition there, or I could stay at the Catholic school. I took the entrance exam and was accepted. Then, I took on some housekeeping jobs. I started my sophomore year at the new school. I liked it very much. Nobody else who went there had housekeeping jobs, but I didn’t care.
I didn’t have any formal Jewish religious education. The culture of it was as ingrained in me as that from the Catholic side of my heritage. I accepted them both as normative–for me, that is. Why wouldn’t I have? Even though my parents were raising us Catholic, my mother’s family was Jewish. We were close to both sides of my family. I think the impact of that may not have been obvious to my parents. Did they expect me to write off half my family because of their religious views? Or, was I supposed to assume there was no intrinsic value to any of the Jewish religious practices my family observed?
After 10 years of Catholic religious instruction, 18 years of Mass every weekend, and my own Confirmation, you’d think I’d have had the Jewish pretty well trained out of me. The truth, I suspect now, is that it may not have occurred to my parents that I would notice or care, that it would matter, or that I would question the faith they chose for me. It might have been the kind of kid I was. Horrors. Was I a religious relativist even as a child? I don’t think so–not really. I just accepted as true the beliefs held by both sides of my family. Nobody told me how difficult it was for a mind to accept opposite truths. I didn’t do it on purpose. I did it because it was natural and obvious. It wasn’t an act of reason. It was an act of faith–no leap required.
When I told my mother I was writing this essay, she seemed surprised. She asked what I knew about interfaith families. I was floored. I told her that I was born into and grew up in an interfaith family; she was Jewish and my father was Catholic. My mother replied that she had converted to Catholicism because she felt it would be better to have one religion at home and not two. I have to admit, I always thought of her as Jewish because her family was Jewish, even though she converted when she married my father. She told me she never thought of our family as an interfaith family, because they raised us as Catholics.
I tried to keep my sense of humor when I asked her about the rest of the family, all my Jewish aunts and uncles and cousins. How were we not an interfaith family? When your uncle makes potato latkes (pancakes) for an appetizer on Christmas Eve, you are in an interfaith situation. And yes, the traditional Italian Catholic seafood dinner followed the latkes.
My mother hosted our annual Passover this year (a practice she began several years ago after moving away from Catholicism) and led the seder, which was peppered with moments of hilarity as she tossed out finger puppets representing the plagues of Egypt. My son found the hidden afikoman, the special matzah (unleavened bread eaten during Passover). He brought it to his grandfather and asked for five dollars. Grandpa, now a lapsed Catholic and retired from organized religion, said, “I only have a 10 dollar bill, I guess you’ll have to take it,” to the grinning face of his grandson.
Yes, one takes what one can get. And one is the richer for it.