What do you mean there is no such thing as half Jewish?
This was my question when I saw Alyssa Pinsker’s article in The Forward on February 8th. My first thought, as I started reading it, was but I’m half Jewish!
I can relate to so many things that Pinsker described. I too grew up saying “nothing” when people asked me what religion I was. I attended public school in Toronto, right across the street from the Catholic school; and I’d hazard a guess that no one ever asked any of them what religion they were!
On my father’s side, I am sure. His father was a Baptist Minister. But my mother’s? I had been told by my father that she was Jewish.
So, I understood that I was half Baptist, half Jewish.
I know what you are going to say, because it’s the same thing that everyone says. That if my mother was Jewish, then I am Jewish. That’s that.
My mother was physically and emotionally abusive throughout my childhood. And she lied about basically everything. She may have told my Father that she was Jewish, but she told other people that she was a Hungarian Princess. So, as an adult, I intentionally rejected anything and everything that had to do with her.
And besides, my issue has always been the “if.”
Not only was I not raised Jewish, but as I child I didn’t even know that my mother was (or may have been) Jewish. She never said anything to me about it. Nor did I know that ‘being’ Jewish was ‘passed on’ by the mother. I found all of this out as a young adult.
So, for the sake of this being my story, told from my perspective, based on my life experience, let’s approach this from the premise that I am indeed half Jewish.
My mother’s living relatives in Holland maintain they are (that she was) Catholic.
But I was never baptized Catholic. In fact, the story that I heard from my father, who had heard it from my mother, is that she and her sister were placed in a Convent as young girls in Holland during the war; to protect them from the Germans. So that no one would know that they were Jewish. My maternal half-brother (who was 17 years older than I) was adamant that our mother didn’t have him circumcised because she didn’t want anyone to know that he was Jewish. (TMI?)
Unfortunately for me, my mother was a pathological liar. She divorced my father when I was a baby; and was secretive and abusive my entire life. Her standard answer to anything I asked, if she didn’t lie about it, was “none of your business.” Not once did she ever discuss anything about her life with me. Nothing truthful, anyway. Nor with anyone else, as far as I could tell.
Secrets, Lies and Denial
One Christmas, (because, of course we celebrated Christmas,) when I was about 8 years old, we ate frozen fish and chips for dinner. The yellow-boxed no name kind, that always tasted a little freezer burned.
However, when my mom received a call from her sister in Holland that evening, she told a story of the most glorious Christmas Dinner! With roasts of turkey, beef, and pork, and all the fixings. That we had thirty people over. The lies continued during their entire conversation, each more elaborate than the next. My 8-year-old-self wondered where I was during this wonderful dinner, and why I hadn’t had any turkey.
Why wouldn’t she have said it was just the two of us? When she hung up the phone and walked back into the living room, I was still sitting on the couch with my plate. I very innocently I asked, “Why did you lie?”
She ran toward me and slapped me hard across my face. She pointed her finger in front of my nose and hissed as she spoke, “Watch your goddam mouth, you stupid little brat!”
At the time I couldn’t understand. As an adult I know enough to accept that she was mentally ill. But as a child, her abuse was regular and frightening, and I had no way to make sense of it.
It was these lies and constant abuse while I was growing up, that as an adult, meant I wanted nothing to do with anything that had anything to do with my mother. Including whether she may or not have been Jewish. Why should I care?
I wasn’t raised Jewish. I wasn’t raised as anything. Except with lies, it seemed. Now, my parents and brother are dead. And I am married, with three little kids. So, again, why should I care?
I care because of my children. It would be nice to be able to give them clear truthful answers in terms of their heritage, so they don’t have to deal with the same unanswered questions that I do.
A few years ago, I decided to look into what it means to be Jewish. It’s always been in the back of my mind, that seed having been planted so long ago. And because, quite frankly, I didn’t know anything about being Jewish. I didn’t even understand what keeping kosher meant until recently.
All I had were stories from my Dad, my brother, and my mother’s family, and none of them meshed. Hence my desire to spit in a cup. Having no one to turn to, I turned to a DNA test. And thanks to 23 and Me, I know that 56% of my ancestry is Askenazi.
I no longer have to wonder the ‘if.’ I have the DNA to prove it. 56 percent. Undeniably Jewish.
According to google, my people have made “many important contributions to philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music and science.” And that the Askenazi Jews originate from the Jews who settled along the Rhine River in Western Germany and in Northern France.
Do I book my Birthright trip now? Of course not! I’m too old!
Will my children be able to experience Birthright when they are old enough? I hope so.
Finally, I have some answers. I still have a lot of questions, but at least I have some answers for my children. For my part, I would have to say yes, there is such a thing as half Jewish. I am half Jewish.
Well, according to my DNA, I am actually a little more than half!