Maya Gottfried’s “Untitled” is excerpted from Half/Life: Jew-Ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, by Laurel Snyder, Soft Skull Press, 2006.
I don’t remember how old I was. Maybe 10. And I was sitting beside my grandmother in the red brick house that belonged to my uncle and aunt in Queens, N.Y. It had become a tradition for members of my father’s side of the family to gather there for Passover Seders. My aunt had all of the qualities of a stellar hostess, and seemed to enjoy preparing the house and cooking for us all, but also–she was the only one willing to do so.
The elephant in the room was that my uncle had suffered from a debilitating mental illness for years and she, my aunt, was the one who had taken care of him. My father tended to approach conversations with my uncle precariously, fearful of prompting an aggressive response. I remember one time sitting across a corner from my uncle at the Seder table, as a teenager, and bringing up a paper I had written for school on President Nixon’s psychological make-up. It included an analysis of how early traumas may have affected the President’s personality and actions in later years. My uncle grew stern, rapidly shifting into a state of anger and frustration I had never seen before, saying that he, Nixon, “was a very, very bad man.” He grew extremely agitated, made me nervous.
I tried to segue the outburst into a lively Seder table debate but it was to no avail. His irritation had reached a tableau that seemed to last for long painful minutes. My father explained later that Nixon was one of the focal points of my uncle’s earlier psychosis, and that I had condemned myself by inadvertently broaching a topic that fueled the depths of his confusion and anger. In all honesty, I didn’t mind the conversation so much, and still feel as if perhaps it allowed him a moment to vent his frustrations. None of us knew that a few years later I’d be diagnosed with the same illness.
At this particular Passover, my grandmother mentioned that soon I would have a Bat Mitzvah. It sounded so lush and promising to me. I’m sure she believed it was true when she said it. Certainly a rite of passage, a line to cross between childhood and adulthood, was something we were entitled to as members of the human race. I was so enraptured by the idea of ceremony when I was young that when my parents told me that they were getting divorced I wondered if there would be a service, and of course, what I would wear. For my Bat Mitzvah celebration I pictured a huge room of round tables with white table cloths, robust flowers and golden light, and a thick crowd of people I barely knew dressed up in suits and fancy clothes.
It was a fantasy that stayed with me for a while, though I never got my Bat Mitzvah. I expected that when it was time to begin studying Hebrew my parents would organize my lessons and perhaps there would be a van full of other young Jewish girls and boys that I would ride in to go study whatever it was that you learned in order to pass into proper Jewish adulthood. Those plans were never made and I quietly let the opportunity pass as if it had always existed simply as a dream, completely disconnected from any kind of true reality. I attended all of my cousins’ Bar Mitzvahs and enjoyed dressing up to celebrate their arrivals into adulthood. I don’t so much remember the parties, but I do remember sitting silently in the synagogue while my cousins spoke in Hebrew, and being chastised for taking a photograph with a flash.
But growing up half-Jewish, to me, was the best of both worlds. I enjoyed claiming the pair of religions as my identity not only because it gained me entrée into two very rich spiritual communities, but because it allowed me to defy stereotypes. Anyone who pinned me as a typical “goy” was instantly deflected by my possession of three Jewish grandparents. Anyone who made a disparaging generalization about the Jewish population in my presence was quickly reminded of my roots. I enjoyed existing as a walking barometer of religious intolerance. Although the majority of my biological make-up was composed of Jewish genes, I had a decidedly gentile appearance. The pinnacle of my service as a human spiritual litmus test came when I was sitting in the room of a young man I was dating in college, who had lived in Germany for a number of years. With me were two friends, both 100 percent genetically Jewish. The subject of Judaism came up and I mentioned that I was half-Jewish. Joe, my boyfriend, freaked out. “You are not Jewish.” I assured him that I was, and mentioned that I thought he knew that. I was certain I had told him. He was astounded.
For all of my enthusiasm about being half-Jewish, a little piece of poison in the depths of my conscience reminded me that I did not truly understand the meanings behind my claimed dual religious identities. I knew that although I had the genetic pedigree of a half-breed, I didn’t truly have knowledge of the meanings of either faith. This filament of self-doubt grew and finally erupted in unison with my first manic episode. Following a very disruptive and disturbing few months-long crash course in mental illness, I returned to identifying as a half and halfsy.
My guilt for claiming two faiths without having knowledge of their roots, however, stayed with me. One particular Passover a Jewish friend of mine, whom I was working with, brought up her plans for the holiday. I mentioned that I hadn’t been invited to any Seders that year. She insisted that I should have a place to go and continued to arrange for me to attend a dinner at a friend’s home, a Rebbetzin, or Rabbi’s wife. I was nervous and excited. What better way to learn about a faith than to honor a high holy day at the home of one of the religion’s leaders. I rushed out of my apartment in Brooklyn immersed in a state of fear and concentrated anticipation. As I reached the deli on the corner I realized I had misplaced the address of the Rebbetzin. I searched frantically through my bag but it was to no avail.
What little I knew about the Jewish faith reminded me that the Rabbi and Rebbetzin would probably not answer the phone if I tried to call. I resigned myself to returning home. I was disappointed and only slightly relieved, the way that you are assuaged when a job interview is postponed, when you’re eager to be hired for the position.
On the heels of a hefty apology to the Rebbetzin, I was invited to attend another Passover dinner, a few nights following. I had no idea that Passover continued for more than two nights. Already, I thought, I was learning more about the Jewish religion. I felt as if I were finally following a path I had laid for myself years before.
I don’t know what possessed me to wear a sleeveless dress to the Passover meal. I believe it was the only nice dress I owned that was clean. It was brown linen and had belonged to my grandmother. I called the friend who had arranged for the dinner and asked if she thought it was OK for me to wear it. She assured me that it was. Upon arrival at the Rebbetzin’s, however, I was asked to don a shawl when it was time for the meal to be served. I had arrived early. This gave me time to chat with the Rebbetzin before the other guests arrived and I was grateful.
We sat facing each other on a couch in the couple’s living room. It was a large apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. Since I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was not in the habit of venturing too far from home, it had been no small feat for me to travel there. But like any trip that requires effort, it granted me more of a sense of accomplishment upon arrival at my destination. I felt a huge sense of warmth towards the Rebbetzin as we discussed my life and family. She smiled and asked me questions. “My mother is Christian and my father is Jewish,” I told her. “You’re not Jewish,” she said, without a glimmer of kindness. “Well, I’m half-Jewish,” I responded, eager to regain her affection. “You’re not Jewish,” She stated again, bluntly.
A number of young people arrived and I followed them as we conducted what I understood to be a ritual cleansing in the kitchen. At certain moments during the night someone or other would coach me on what I was supposed to be doing or saying. I kept imagining what I would write in the email I planned to send to a friend following the event; trying to remember the details so I could describe them properly; the wording of the phrases that took me aback and the intricacies of the stories those sitting around me were recounting for the Rabbi. Finally it was over. I descended the stairs with the rest of the guests, instead of taking the elevator, out of respect to their religion. I no longer felt half-Jewish. I felt like nothing. I chatted with one of the women in the group as we walked down Broadway and then stopped to go into a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee. I asked her if she wanted to come. “I can’t,” she said “Kosher…” I turned and went in. When I described the evening’s events to the woman who had organized my invitation she replied, “I didn’t know your mother wasn’t Jewish.”
That night launched a basic re-evaluation of my religious identity. Although more than half of my family were Jewish, I no longer felt accepted within that community. Reassurance from my father that I was indeed a halfsy did little to comfort me. I felt as though I had been perpetuating a lie about my identity, and I didn’t want to be a liar. Suddenly I was no longer the best of both worlds. Suddenly I was nothing.
I very badly wanted to have a religious identity and the next logical move was to investigate the other side of my spiritual family tree. Following a short lived interest in an exploration of Wicca, I began to take a serious approach to Christianity. When you express a desire to become Christian, you are generally told by leaders in the church that the next step is to be baptized. And before you do this you are asked to read the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. No problem.
I read the gospels. What I took away from them, besides Jesus’ teachings, was that Christ offered Judaism, refined. That was my interpretation. Great. Jesus was Jewish. I signed on.
I felt good about getting baptized. I supported Christianity at its core, even if I disagreed with some of the more popular interpretations, and it granted me the spiritual structure that I craved through a religion. There was a part of me that was frightened about being deemed a “crazy Christian” by friends and acquaintances, but it was a chance I was willing to take.
A handful of friends and my mother attended my baptism. My father declined but I didn’t take offense. The great part was, as far as I saw it, I wasn’t turning my back on either one of my parents’ faiths. I was embracing both. I knew that my father couldn’t understand that at the time, but it felt right to me, and that meant a lot.
A few months ago I was at dinner with my father in a bright restaurant on New York City’s upper east side. He quietly asked me to cover up the cross I was wearing around my neck. He still insists that my descent from three Jewish grandparents grants me at least partial membership in the religion at large. And oddly, it feels good on some level that he wants me to stay within his faith. I wish he could understand and respect my decision even if he doesn’t agree with it. But I can allow him his feelings.
In a way, I’m glad that someone Jewish, someone so important to both my uncertainty and my heritage, wants me on their side.