Growing up in an interfaith family shouldn’t be a barrier to Judaism

(This opinion piece originally appeared in the J-weekly on May 20, 2016)


I’m looking forward to the “Growing Up Interfaith” conference. It’s still a bit uncomfortable to reveal that I am a so-called patrilineal Jew, but maybe it’s time for more of us to come out. I’m turning 50 this year, and it took about 40 years for me to comfortably identify as Jewish. I know what it means to wander the desert for 40 years.

First came the half-and-half identity: half-Jewish on my father’s side, half-ex-Catholic on my mother’s side. But this, I was told by my peers, meant I was really nothing, because Judaism holds that the mother must be Jewish. (I was also repeatedly told that Hitler would have killed me anyway, an interesting, but not unheard of, way to be included.) My parents were fine with nothing because they had both decided to reject religion in light of the fact that “there is no God,” and “religion is the root cause of all wars” — and probably some other factors. My grandparents on both sides wished their son and daughter had married in, not out — causing another type of war.

But I wasn’t OK with nothing. I wanted to be something. I was a spiritual soul. I reached out again and again. My greatest sorrow and stumbling block to joining a church or synagogue service was that I didn’t know what to do in those services.

One time, my mother agreed to let me accompany a classmate to religious school. It happened to be near Rosh Hashanah, and the teacher was comparing the Jewish New Year to the Christian one. “The difference is,” he said, “the Christians have a party and get drunk on New Year’s Eve. We Jews fast and ask forgiveness for our mistakes.” It made me feel like if I chose Judaism, it would be tantamount to denigrating my Christian heritage. I never wanted to disparage my mother’s cultural gifts that way. I didn’t want to be a football between two religions, the same way children of divorce don’t want to be a football between their two parents. I didn’t go back to the religious school.

Each time I made a tentative step toward Judaism, I was told by various Israelis, rabbis and Jewish teachers that I wasn’t Jewish.

I sat before them, asking to be validated and accepted as a Jew-in-training. Why didn’t those rabbis and teachers explain the semantics to me? Offer conversion? Discuss halachah? Explain my options? I’ll never know. Each time, I walked away feeling rejected.

My mother taught me that churches could be sanctuaries of peace and beauty — though she never brought me to a church service, she sometimes brought me to sit in empty churches when no one was there — and that Christmas could be the same. My Jewish grandmother taught me that Israel was a place of profound hope for the Jewish people, and she nurtured my Jewish soul with her food, her Yiddish expressions and her humor. I could have gone either way, but I fell in love with the Hebrew language, the land of Israel/Palestine, and I even lived in Israel for a while.

I joined first one synagogue and then another. And still I would go to the rabbis and teachers with the speech about “Am I Jewish?” Then, finally, on my 35th birthday, I gave myself permission to start practicing Judaism as a religion. Soon afterward, my husband and I decided to raise our newborn children Jewish. After 35 years on this earth, I decided that I was a Jew, and that was that. Even if you still think I’m not really Jewish, I do.

Please don’t let my story scare you away from marrying a non-Jewish person that you love. Don’t let it stop you from giving your children your blessing if they marry a non-Jew. Instead, embrace patrilineal Jews and anyone who comes to you asking, “Can I join your tribe?” Find out what to do in a synagogue, and make sure your children know what to do. If your children ask for a spiritual education, please give it to them. It will save them from wandering in the desert for too many years.

“Growing Up Interfaith,” sponsored by Building Jewish Bridges took place at Temple Sinai in Oakland on May 22, 2016

Zoë Francesca is co-owner of MAPS For Life, a mobile activity program service for the elderly. She is a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland and lives in the Berkeley area.