Eternally Faithful

My father and mother met at college. They never thought about dating each other because they were forbidden to do so. Not explicitly, but it was just understood that a Jewish boy from Brooklyn (whose parents were Russian Immigrants and clung to their religion as the only constant in their lives) would never date a Roman Catholic girl from Queens (whose parent were Irish Immigrants and extremely devoted Roman Catholics).

It wasn’t so much that being from Brooklyn and Queens was a barrier (though believe it or not, there are cultural differences) but the Jew and Catholic elements definitely did.

As in all good romantic stories, true love won out, and they got married and went to Iowa for graduate school (where apparently, in 1963 they were the only Catholic and Jew in the state, and where cultural differences with New York were absolutely clear). They eloped, and cautiously told their parents afterward. Both sets of parents took the news poorly. My father’s family had him declared dead in his temple. His parents sat Shiva, and covered all the mirrors. They said they would never speak to him again.

My mother’s family said “Never Darken This Door Again” (direct quote).

Nearly seven years later, my father called both sets of parents. He wasn’t sure what the outcome would be, but he said, “We had a baby girl today, Sarah Elizabeth.”

My father’s parent’s reaction was (after the first reaction which was “What, no boy?”)

“Mazel Tov” and they said they would make the trek up to Geneseo from Brooklyn.

Being New Yorkers from “the city” they didn’t realize that Geneseo, being 20 miles south of Rochester and 50 miles East of Buffalo, was pretty far from Brooklyn, despite being in the same State. They showed up eventually. When they came they brought a mezuzah, and chicken fricassee with kasha (my grandmother’s specialty. Years after her death the thought of that dish STILL makes me gag). My mother’s mother said “Well, if God sees fit to bless this curious union, who am I to stay away?” Having been to Canada several times, my mother’s parents knew how far it was to Geneseo, and made it a few days later. My grandmother made lace curtains. Apparently no Irish woman worth her salt can live in a house without lace curtains. My mother tried to pawn them off on me when I bought my first house. Nice try mom!

And so began the tense and tenuous relationship between my parents, their parents and me.

My parents tried to equally weight both religions. It was difficult to do in a town with fifteen churches and two temples, one being Mormon and the other Jehovah’s witness.

The closest Jewish Temple was about a half and hour away. Plus the only other Jewish kids in town were “half” like me. There were four other families where the father was Jewish and the mother was not, and two families where the mother was Jewish and the father was not. All of us saw each other during “Jewish Holidays” in a feeble attempt to expose us to Judaism in a town where is was viewed along the same lines as Satanism.

We all suffered the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism, which led all of us to defend ourselves by saying “We’re only HALF Jewish!” The reply to this was often “Then we’ll only burn up HALF your Jew ass!” We felt we could never speak up in class. If we did well in school we were taunted, “All you Jews think you’re so smart! That’s why you all end up doctors and lawyers!” I know it seems odd now, but at the time that was really insulting. If we didn’t do well in school it was because “You Jews have weird brains.”

My family was less than a safe haven. When we made the LONG treks to my mother’s family during Thanksgiving and Christmas I was often taunted by my cousins. Everyone got presents, but all my cousins got “extra” presents from their godparents. I never did, since I didn’t have a godparent. When I questioned this, my cousins would say “You don’t have a god parent because you aren’t ALL Catholic, and your father is a Jew so you are going to Hell.” When I bring this up now to my cousins all of whom are over 30 now, I get blank stares. “We NEVER said that!” Of course, that’s the Irish Catholic part of the family “Ignore it and it will go away, or at least pretend it never happened.” Well, at least that’s MY Irish Catholic family. A lot of alcoholics too, but SHHH! Don’t notice!

Ironically the only school my parents could think of to send me to get away from the virulent anti-semitism was an All-Girls Catholic High School. The other “half Jew” families did the same thing. So, there we were. Except, lo and behold, a large percentage of the school population was Jewish too! It was a shock. Of course a large majority of the school was also Irish Catholic, which was also surprising to me, as the town I was living in had a VERY small Catholic population, and very few people mentioned they were Catholic. The Protestant and Baptist Churches had a corner share on the market there.

It was very diffcult having an Interfaith family. Fraught with shame and ignorance. I always felt, on some level, I was an outcast, an outsider and “different” from everyone else. I was “othered” no where more than in my own family. Yes, my grandparents were now on speaking terms with my parents, but it was fractured, and the damage was hardly reparable. We rarely saw family members, and often were not invited to family events. After more of the ‘you are going hell” types of comments, we stopped going to relatives for the Holidays. My parents established “family’ within their community of academics. To this day my parents friends and their children are more my family than people I am actually related to by blood.

When I finally went to college, I began to embrace both sides of my religious and cultural heritage. In some ways I feel it actually gives me something in common with MORE people, as I have an understanding of two different religions and cultural backgrounds.

I feel it makes me more sensitive, because I know how cruel words and actions can be.

Time may not always heal all wounds, but in general it will bring up many more issues that will often distract people from old ones. My parents suffered greatly from their families because they had married outside their faith. This summer they will celebrate their 43


Anniversary. Many of my mother’s Catholic cousins who married the “right” people are now divorced. Several of my cousins have married interracially, and one of my cousins can not marry the father of her child because he has another wife somewhere else, which he finally told her once he went to prison for attempted murder.

My mother’s brother, after the death of their mother, finally “came out”, at the age of nearly 70, and introduced us to his life partner of more than 30 years.

I guess the point is, start shaking that family tree, and you never know who is going to fall out. It probably isn’t who or what you expect.

I suppose it is not surprising that I married a man with distain for religion, and where I had religious overload growing up, he never had exposure to any kind of religion. We aren’t really sure where to go from here now that we have children, but we’ll figure it out eventually. At the very least we are teaching tolerance for all people, that part we definitely have figured out.

In the meantime, my children are learning all about the holidays through “Rankin-Bass” productions, books, friends, preschool and TMC groups.

For example, one day a close friend and her two children came over for a playdate. She was wearing a cross with tiny diamonds. My then four-year-old said “Wow! Can I see your necklace? I just LOVE your sparkly airplane!”

In the end, it’s all about perception, and love of each other. I hope my daughter will always be able to see the sparkles. Even when she eventually learns it is not an airplane.



2 Responses to “Eternally Faithful”

  1. Mistie Halphen Says:

    Is it alright if I use your site for a source in my essay? Thx!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: